Swiss Army knife? A federal judge recently ruled that assault rifles, banned in California since 1989, are like “Swiss Army knives,” ubiquitous and useful. This triggered my memory of a neatly dressed young Swiss cradling his Sturmgewehr as he boarded a passenger plane.

I was disconcerted, but Swiss passengers paid no mind; they knew he had to keep his rifle always at hand, including at home and when traveling. Swiss defense, based almost entirely on reservists, needs to be prepared. Switzerland really practices the “well ordered militia” enshrined in our Second Amendment.

Actually, neutral Switzerland dissuaded German invasion in World War II by (a) letting German troop trains transit to and from Italy (to kill Americans) and (b) mining all bridges and tunnels to keep (a) vulnerable: Invade us and we instantly destroy your Italian line of communication. Geography more than gallantry protected Swiss neutrality.

Also part of a militia system, Israeli soldiers often carried their Uzis while hitchhiking. My 1961 archeological dig overlooking the Dead Sea at Ein Gedi was accompanied by Israeli soldiers with Uzis. (Israel has replaced most Uzis with AR-16s, cheaper and longer-range.)

Well, with so many assault weapons floating around, why don’t Switzerland and Israel have American-style lone-wolf mass shootings? The simplest explanation is that Americans are more homicidal. More charitably, America has a long violent culture that died out in most of Europe but remains strong in Latin America.

But the main reason is structural, namely that Swiss and Israeli militia members are under careful control and discipline. The army owns the weapons, not the individuals to whom they are issued. Gun crime is minute because armed robbers can’t run far.

James Madison in the Federalist No. 46 promoted an American militia system that would block any takeover tendencies of a standing federal army. Military power would be diffuse and close to the people. A retired general’s recent utterances make one wonder if America is entirely immune to coups.

Militias fizzled because states wouldn’t adequately fund them. That eventually required massive federal support to bring state militias up to federal standards in training, equipment and discipline. The National Guard can be awfully handy but on January 6 was ordered much too late to block the Capitol Hill attack.

A persistent weakness of American federalism is that many states don’t want to fund much of anything and shortchange public health, education, infrastructure, energy networks and civil and voting rights: “Don’t tell us what to do! We do things our way!” Keeping state taxes low gives America wildly varying standards.

The California assault-rifle ruling comes when gun deaths are soaring and many states are allowing the unregistered carry of handguns. Now more people will use guns over spilled drinks and road rage. Soon fear of gunplay could hurt commerce at popular tourist sites, such as Nashville’s roaring Lower Broadway. Increased gun violence could persuade downtown businesses to urge states to reinstate some rules.

The recent California case aims to cover the entire nation. It will be overturned by the Ninth Federal District Court, which covers the entire West Coast and is famous (or infamous) for liberal rulings. Then it will be appealed to the Supreme Court which, in Heller (2008), affirmed a general right to keep guns for home defense. Next question: How about guns outside the home? Fear the Court’s decision.

Deaths from man-made causes are big and rising in America. Highway fatalities went up during the pandemic even as road traffic declined, which some took as a chance to speed. Drug and alcohol deaths are up. Each of them annually exceeds what we lost in 10 years of Vietnam. Many drugs contain risky admixtures of fentanyl. Add to that the roughly 40,000 U.S. gun deaths annually — 15,000 homicides and 25,000 suicides.

COVID deaths may be natural but could have been cut in half by social distancing and wearing masks, minimal measures that many oppose. The hopeful decline in infections is attributable to vaccinations and to those previously infected who now have some immunity. The deaths of 600,000 have already eliminated some of the most vulnerable. Those without immunity, however, are as vulnerable as the much larger pool was a year ago.

American lifespans are in decline, something unexpected among advanced countries. Actually, the impact is split. Those who avoid drugs, guns and infectious diseases may continue to enjoy ever-longer lives while those who do not avoid them tend to die younger.

Can anything be done to reverse this invidious split? Given American devotion to freedom and hostility to rules, probably not. Trying to curb gun violence and substance abuse provoke cries of infringement on individual liberty. Millions need bribes (lottery tickets and beers) to get vaccinated. The result is a divided and weakened America less able to resume world leadership precisely when it is needed.