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Gun ownership in the firing line: guns have been a part of Swiss culture for centuries. And despite a recent spate of high-profile firearms deaths, Switzerland remains one of the most heavily armed societies on earth. With gun ownership on the voting agenda in early 2011, Swiss News explores both sides of this emotive debate.

Estimates on the number of firearms in Switzerland vary widely: ranging from 1.2 million, to an astonishing 12 million. The 2007 small-arms survey concluded that there were between 2.5 million and 4.5 million nationwide.

Despite this wide availability of guns, crime is extremely low compared to other countries. According to a United Nations survey on Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems, Switzerland has one of the lowest murder rates in the world. Nevertheless, a series of widely reported tragedies--including the massacre of 14 people inside Zug's parliament building in 2001 and the 2006 murder-suicide of a famous ski champion by her husband--has led to an increasingly fierce debate on gun ownership.

The Federal popular initiative for Protection Against Gun Violence is a coalition of 76 organisations and parties, aiming to limit access to guns. And in early 2011, they will get their chance when Swiss voters go to the polls.

Garnering attention across the political spectrum

The initiative consists of several key constitutional amendments, which are to be considered as one package: military weapons would be kept in an arsenal; every person wanting to own a gun would obtain a permit, justify the decision and prove that they are capable of using it: a national register of guns would be created; so-called dangerous weapons would be prohibited; and the Swiss Foreign Ministry would push for stronger gun control worldwide.

"The monopoly of violence should be [with] the state in every case," says Peter Hug, president of the anti-gun coalition, ban supporter and political secretary of foreign and security affairs with parliament's Social Democrat (SP) contingent.

Hug doesn't believe self-defense is a good excuse for having a gun, or even a good way to fight against criminality. "That is a job for the police," he states. Among the problems Hug and his coalition link with private ownership of firearms are increased suicides, domestic violence and the fear police might have about encountering an armed citizen.

"These weapons aren't used for anything," he says about the firearms in most Swiss homes, adding that "the Cold War is over".

Should the initiative be approved, people who can show that they have a use for weapons--such as hunting or sport shooting--will be allowed to keep them, provided they can properly operate the gun, Hug explains, estimating that "we will have, in the end, around 130,000 people with weapons at home".

He is confident that disarming the rest of the population would lead to a fall in suicides and domestic violence. "If you have no use [for a weapon] and no capacity, you have to give it over to the authorities," he says, citing the success of a past firearms amnesty as a measure of logistical viability and public opinion. "Most people are very happy to give them away."


But not according to Dr. Hermann Suter, vice-president of Switzerland's most powerful gun group, ProTell--named after legendary Swiss marksman William Tell. "We have a primary right [to] self-defence; it's the right of a citizen to defend himself when he is attacked," he says, pointing out that criminals will always find weapons.

Neither are criminals the only concern. "The world has never seen so many conflicts; so many terrorists, and so many bomb attacks, as in our time," Suter says. He also doesn't rule out hypothetical threats posed by political change: "If the government abuses its responsibility to serve the people, then the free citizen has not only the right, but the duty, to go against his government," he adds, using an argument popular among American activists.

A significant segment of the population agrees that stricter gun control is not the answer. The Swiss Shooting Sports Association has already expressed its opposition to the measures. The Swiss Federal Council and House of Representatives also rejected the initiative and are urging citizens to vote against it.

"We believe in people's responsibility," says Silvia Bar, vice-general secretary of the conservative Swiss People's Party (SVP). And guns have an important role in Swiss society as a tradition, for sport and for public safety, she adds. While the party has yet to finalise its "official" position, it "is very strongly opposed to that initiative".

"We stand for a sovereign Switzerland, and sovereignty means that you can always defend your independence and neutrality," she says. "[The anti-gun coalition] wants to protect people by having everything controlled by the state; that's think is behind the whole movement," Bar states.

Army guns at home

Until recently, the law required soldiers to keep their weapons and ammunition at home. Nowadays, the ammunition is stored on military premises: Additionally, there is an option to leave guns in an arsenal as well, although very few have taken advantage of this offer.

"Here in Switzerland, you get guns from your father and your grandfather--very old army rifles--and you keep them, maybe for your son," says semi-retired Swiss businessman Martin Aschwanden, who has 10 firearms at home. "Everyone has guns here. Mine go back to my [great, great] grandparents."

But that may soon change: Alongside supporters of the antigun coalition--such as police, doctors, leftists, pacifists and feminist groups--is the "Group for a Switzerland Without an Army" (GSOA). Its primary goal is to abolish the army; however, it is also the nation's biggest gun-control organisation. And it is adamant about the need to ban military weapons from homes.

"Nowadays, in 2010 in Western Europe, the risk of traditional war is so ridiculously small that [there's] just no need for every person have a weapon at home," says GSOA political secretary Nina Regli. "I find it just ridiculous to say that 'there is a tradition, and because of that, you can't ban it'."

However, "danger comes and goes", says author Stephen Halbrook, a member of ProTell, and an attorney who works with the American National Rifle Association. "I think [the anti-gun activists] are very naive; they forget the lessons of history." According to Halbrook, who wrote a book about the subject, one reason Germany's Nazis were deterred from invading was due to widespread Swiss gun ownership and the heavy losses they would have incurred.

There are multiple benefits to the current system, Halbrook claims. For one, it promotes marksmanship and readiness. "It also makes possible instant mobilisation in the case of a national emergency." And beyond that, echoing ProTell's Surer and other gun enthusiasts, he says, "The right to keep and bear arms is a traditional, inherent human right."


Facts and figures

Gun-control advocates in Switzerland frequently point to the Netherlands, which has almost no firearms and had a domestic homicide rate of 4.3 per one million people in 2006. Switzerland, by contrast, had 5.5 per one million. But that same year, Australia--which strictly controls firearms--recorded 7 per one million people, according to statistics cited by the University of Lausanne.

But some people are still concerned. "A lot of women tell us that they are afraid of the weapons that are at home," says Gabriela Chu, a board member of a national umbrella group for battered women shelters (Dachorganisation der Frauenhauser). Chu estimates that around 10 per cent of women coming to shelters in Switzerland, report fearing their husbands' firearms.

Suicide is another topic that crops up a lot. The rate is indeed high in Switzerland; although still significantly lower than in some countries with strict gun control, like Russia or Japan. America--with by far the highest rate of gun ownership has a much lower suicide rate, according to World Health Organization statistics.

Figures compiled by Bloomberg suggest that from 1969 to 2000, Switzerland had an average of 1,428 suicides per year. Fewer than a quarter of those involved guns. But anti-gun activists say stricter rules would deter some people from taking their own lives.

"Basically, the idea we have been looking at, was whether the availability of deadly instruments has any effect on the prevalence--the frequency--of deadly events," says University of Zurich criminology professor Martin Killias. "The point is, it obviously has. That is not really a surprise."

Killias says the initiative would be "a step in a good direction". He claims that fewer guns at home would lead to fewer domestic deaths and fewer suicides; and he also opposes claims that more guns lead to less crime.

But academic and author of More Guns, Less Crime, John Lott Jr., an authority on the relationship between guns and crime, says otherwise. "Just as you can deter criminals with higher arrest rates, higher conviction rates or longer prison sentences, the fact that a would-be victim might be able to use a gun can also make it riskier for criminals to engage in attacks and deter them from committing crimes," he says.

"Every place that 1 can find crime data for, you find that when you have a ban [on guns], you have an increase in murder rates," Lott explains, noting that other types of gun-control laws have similar effects. "Switzerland has traditionally had one of the lowest murder rates in the world, and one of the reasons why they've had that, is because people are able to protect themselves," he says. "This is one area where freedom and safety go together."

The future

This is clearly an impassioned debate, with both sides expressing optimism about their prospects in next year's nationwide vote. The will of the people remains to be seen ... but no matter what happens, the debate about guns in Switzerland will be a hot topic for a long time to come.
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Author:Newman, Alex
Publication:Swiss News
Date:Nov 1, 2010
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