Briefing

Why are mass shootings rare in other countries despite high levels of gun ownership?

Firearm laws are very different in Finland, Switzerland, and Australia

There is no question the United States has a ton of guns — more than anywhere else in the world by far. There are an estimated 352 million guns in private circulation in the U.S., according to data collected by The Trace, and some other studies cited by the outlet suggest the number is even higher. 

It comes as no surprise, then, that the U.S. leads the world in mass shootings. There have already been over 180 of these incidents in 2023 alone, The New York Times reports. Many mass shootings occur in schools; since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, more than 352,000 students have experienced gun violence in the classroom, according to The Washington Post

While the United States leads the world in number of firearms, it's hardly the only country where gun ownership is high. Yet in most other countries, mass shootings are rare, if not unheard of, mainly due to gun laws being significantly stricter than they are in the U.S. Between 2009 and 2015, there were just 19 mass shootings in all of Europe, research shows. School shootings are even rarer, and World Population Review reports that every country besides the U.S. has had less than 10 of them in 2023. These are five nations that have high numbers of firearms but little trouble with shootings.

Finland

There are an estimated 1.5 million licensed firearms in Finland, the country's interior ministry reports, in a nation of just 5.6 million. This high rate of gun ownership is due to an activity widely seen in Finland (and many other nations): hunting. Finns "have hunted and fished for food for thousands of years," Slate reports, and "hunting remains a popular weekend, or even after-work, activity." Finland's large area provides ample space for the hunting industry to flourish. 

Despite this, Finland has had less than five documented cases of mass shootings. This is because, like most of the Nordic countries, Finland has highly regulated gun control laws. Following a school shooting in 2007, Finnish Parliament raised the minimum age to purchase a gun from 15 to 18, and the prospective buyer must fill out a detailed application to receive a handling license. The interior ministry has also implemented "changes to the provisions on the storage of firearms, component parts of firearms, and cartridges," as well as additional legislation to ensure guns remain safely locked away when not in use. 

Switzerland

Like Finland, hunting is a part of life in Switzerland, which may be why the Alpine country has approximately 2 million privately owned guns, Insider reports, in a country of just 8.7 million people. Despite this staggeringly high rate of gun ownership, though, there has not been a mass shooting in Switzerland in more than 20 years. 

Insider notes that the U.S.' National Rifle Association often points to Switzerland as an example of gun laws not being necessary, because they claim the Swiss have limited legislation on firearms. But this is simply not true. Firearms in Switzerland are highly controlled and regulated, according to the official Swiss Confederacy portal. Semi-automatic rifles with large magazines are banned, and people who want to purchase handguns or smaller magazine semi-automatic rifles must undergo a permitting process and send their weapon's information to the government. 

Canada

Canada's vast northern lands make it another ample country for hunting, which contributes to the 7.1 million firearms in private hands, according to the Canadian government, in a nation of 39 million people. This statistic lies in a similar range with comparable Western nations, the government notes, except the United States. 

The country has had a few recent mass shootings, including one in 2020. Despite this, instances of mass violence remain very rare, Reuters reports. This is because Canada has some of the harshest regulations against assault rifles in the world, and the nation's public safety arm notes Canada "has prohibited over 1,500 models of assault-style firearms and certain components of some newly prohibited firearms." Many of these weapons became newly prohibited following the 2020 mass shooting, and there are also limits in the Canadian criminal code placing restrictions on the number of rounds in rifles, handguns and shotguns. 

New Zealand

New Zealand also has a lot of guns — 1.5 million in a country of just 5.1 million people — but unlike the United States, New Zealand took legislative action after a tragedy. 

Following a 2019 mass shooting in Christchurch that killed 51 people, then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern implemented a series of sweeping reforms to the country's already strict gun laws. Ardern announced these reforms just one week after the shooting, Time reports, and the new laws were pushed through parliament almost immediately. The laws included creating a firearms registry and placing a complete ban on AR-15s and other assault rifles. New Zealand also created a gun buyback program to try and get weapons off the streets. By the end of the program, Kiwis had turned in more than 50,000 guns, NPR reports, greatly slashing the number of firearms on the streets of New Zealand. 

Australia

Like their neighbors to the southeast, Australia also has a high rate of gun ownership, and the University of Syndey notes there are about 3.5 million registered firearms in the nation of 26.4 million. However, the university also reports that the "proportion of Australian households with a firearm has fallen by 75% in recent decades."

This drop was similarly spurned by just a single tragedy: the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania. Thirty-five people died in the worst mass shooting in Australian history, and the country's conservative government enacted similar new restrictions on guns. This includes a national gun registry, and Time notes that firearm license applications must prove the prospective owner has "a 'genuine need' to own weapons." The Aussies also implemented a gun buyback program after Port Arthur, and Vox reports the country confiscated 650,000 weapons. There have been almost no mass shootings in Australia since then. 

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