It’s a commonplace that the U.S. is far more violent than Western Europe be-cause Americans have easy access to guns. It’s also false. To see why, visit Switzerland. Traveling around by car or rain, you see shooting ranges everywhere. If there’s a Schuetzenfest (shooting festival) in town, you’ll find rifles slung on hat racks in restaurants, and you’ll see men and women of all ages walking, biking and taking the tram with rifles over their shoulders, to and from the range. They stroll right past the police station and no one bats an eye.

Switzerland has more firepower per person than any other country in the world, yet it is one of the safest places to be. The Swiss Federal Police Office reports that in

[997 there were 87 intentional homicides and 102 attempted homicides in the entire country. Of these 189 murders and attempts, 91 involved firearms. With its population of seven million (including 1.2 million foreigners), Switzerland had a homicide rate of 1.2 per 100,000. There were 2,498 robberies and attempted robberies, of which 546 involved firearms, resulting in a robbery rate of 36 per 100,000. Almost half of these crimes were committed by non-resident foreigners, whom locals call “criminal tourists.” In 1993, not a single armed robbery was reported in Geneva. By contrast, Britain, which has strict gun control laws, had a homicide rate in 1994 of 1.4 per 100,000 population, and a robbery rate of 116 per 100,000.

In the wake of the Littleton, Colo., school massacre, Congress is rushing to.

pass new gun-control measures; the House next week will take up proposed legislation that has already passed the Senate. But there have been no school massacres in Switzerland, where guns and kids mix freely. At shooting matches, bicycles aplenty are parked outside. Inside the firing shelter, competitors pay 12-year-olds to keep score. Sixteen-year-olds shoot rifles with men and women of all ages. A tourist brochure in Zurich recommends September’s Knabenschiessen (boy’s shooting contest): “The oldest Zurich tradition ... consists of a shooting contest at the Albisguetli (range) for 12 to 16 year-old boys and girls and a colorful three-day fun-fair.”

While many shoot for sport, all males age 20 to 42 are required to keep rifles or pistols at home. Gun shops abound. Yet firearms are rarely used in crime. In America, firearms take on a sinister reputation from the nightly news and violent movies.

But in Switzerland, firearms symbolize a wholesome, community activity. And since its founding in 1291, Switzerland has depended on an armed populace for its defense. William Tell used a crossbow not only to shoot the apple from his son’s head, but also to kill the tyrant Gessler. For centuries, the cantonal republic defeated the powerful armies of the European monarchs. “The Swiss are well armed and enjoy great freedom,” Machiavelli wrote in 1532.

The Swiss militia model inspired the rebellious American colonists. John Adams praised the democratic Swiss cantons, where every man was entitled to vote on.laws and to bear arms. Patrick Henry lauded the Swiss for maintaining their independence without “a mighty and splendid President” or a standing army. The Swiss influence is clear in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be in-fringed.”

There may have been various reasons why the Nazis did not invade Switzerland, but one of those reasons is that every Swiss man had a rifle at home. For this we have no better record than the Nazi invasion plans, which stated that, because of Swiss shooting skills, Switzerland would be difficult to conquer and pacify. European countries occupied by the Nazis had strict gun controls before the war, and the registration lists facilitated confiscation of firearms.

Traditionally, the Swiss cantons have had few firearm regulations, and the first federal firearms law was recently enacted. Certain firearm purchases require a permit, but others do not. On retirement, every soldier may keep his rifle or pistol. And any Swiss citizen can purchase surplus military assault rifles.

Why is well-armed Switzerland so free from crime? The bottom line is one of attitude. Populations with a strong sense of civic virtue do not experience sensational massacres or high crime rates. To the contrary, armed citizens deter crime. America’s lawful “gun culture” is as peaceful as the Swiss. Sadly, some of America’s sub-cultures are not.