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March 28, 2011

The Truth About Guns in Switzerland

In Switzerland—a nation in which a “well regulated Militia” still plays a leading role in national defense—guns are a hot issue. A February referendum on new gun policy proposals quickly turned into a national debate on Switzerland’s gun culture and citizen/soldier tradition. The resulting dialogue in this landlocked nation of mountains and lakes has been fascinating and shed light on some long-perpetuated myths about Switzerland’s gun laws.

Responding to Tragedy
In 2007, a broad alliance of approximately 80 NGOs launched the referendum effort with the backing of center-left political parties in the Swiss government. The referendum called for militia firearms, which are now stored at home, to be stored in public arsenals. It also called for a national gun registry and a ban on the sale of fully automatic weapons and pump-action shotguns. Jacques de Haller, the president of the Swiss Medical Association, described the referendum as follows: “It is about public health and suicide prevention. This is our core business, to save lives ... As we learn from observations in England, Scotland, Australia and Canada we can conclude that there is a correlation between stricter gun laws and fewer suicide cases with firearms. There is a lower suicide rate altogether.” Criminology professor Martin Killias of Zurich University added, “I believe that if the initiative was accepted and the guns would have to be deposited in arsenals, gun violence would decrease.”

Opponents of the referendum argued that its proposals would undermine trust in the nation’s citizen army. The Swiss government openly worried that soldiers wouldn’t complete mandatory militia target practice if their guns weren’t handy. Right wing groups appealed to anti-immigrant feeling in the country, telling Swiss they had better remain armed against foreign criminals.

The pro-gun Swiss lobbying group Pro-Tell, for their part, sounded more like America’s National Rifle Association (NRA). “No gun law will ever stop the crazy man from doing outrageous things,” they counseled. Then gun rights activists in America interjected themselves into the debate with customary hyperbole: “If this rush to disarmament continues, Swiss citizens may awake one morning to find that an airborne army has taken control of their country.”

In truth—referendum or no referendum—Switzerland’s gun laws have been progressively tightening over the previous decade, in large part due to several high-profile cases of suicide and homicide. One such incident that alarmed the Swiss public was a 2006 murder-suicide involving champion skier Corinne Rey-Bellet. Rey-Bellet’s husband killed her and her brother with his militia rifle before turning the gun on himself. Then, three days before the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, a Swiss man opened fire with his army rifle at a hotel restaurant in Baden, killing one and wounding four.

According to the Small Arms Survey, Switzerland ranks fourth in terms of gun ownership among nations, with 46 guns per 100 people. An estimated 600,000 Swiss citizens engage in target shooting as a sport. There are consequences to this gun proliferation, however: Switzerland and Finland—another country with a high rate of gun ownership—typically compete for the highest annual rate of gun death in Western Europe.

It was a question of national identity
A January poll indicated that 52% of Swiss citizens supported the gun policy referendum, with only 39% against it. But opponents of the referendum closed that gap quickly through grassroots organizing and successful message framing. When the Swiss finally voted on the referendum on February 13, it failed to pass, with 56.3% of voters and 20 of the 26 Swiss cantons (member states) rejecting it.

Swissinfo.ch read the result this way: “Opponents of a motion to tighten Switzerland’s gun laws succeeded by framing the debate as a loss of freedom, security, values and tradition.” “A gun in the cellar has become a metaphor for a traditional, well-fortified and independent Switzerland,” said the St. Galler Tagblatt.

Daniel Mockli, a security expert at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, expanded on the latter point: “This is a country where you are both a citizen and a soldier. We have a militia here and the gun reflects a sense of responsibility and trust given you by the state. Here the debate on guns is about national security, whereas in the U.S. it is about protecting yourself.”

Dora Andres, the president of Switzerland’s sports shooting association, alluded to Swiss fears of a “nanny state”: “Switzerland is different. In many countries, the government doesn't trust its citizens and feels it has to protect them. In Switzerland, because we have a system of popular referendums, the state has to have faith in its citizens."

But ultimately, even for those on the far right wing of the debate, the vote was a referendum on the Swiss military establishment. The right wing Swiss People’s Party celebrated the vote by declaring that, “A disarmed army is a weakened army. The Swiss people have recognized this. With today’s’ 'no' on the weapons initiative, they have clearly rejected those army abolitionists.”

Switzerland’s “Draconian” Laws
What was conspicuously absent from Swiss reaction to the referendum was any suggestion that it was an affirmation of the right to individual self-defense.

In the United States, the Second Amendment’s “well-regulated Militia,” which today is maintained by the states and federal government in the form of the National Guard, has been mythologized by the gun lobby into a loosely regulated system of individual gun ownership that contributes nothing whatsoever to the “common defense.” Aggressive lobbying by the National Rifle Association (NRA) led the conservative wing of the Supreme Court to overturn 200 years of precedent in 2008 and assert that one need not serve in any militia to enjoy a broad right to keep and bear arms. The NRA has been largely successful in convincing legislators and jurists that access to guns should be completely unfettered by any type of obligation to country or one’s fellow citizens.

That’s not the case in Switzerland, where members of the militia and private citizens alike are tightly regulated in regards to gun ownership. Despite NRA claims like, “young adults in Zurich are subject to minimal gun control,” the truth is that Switzerland has very strict gun laws that American gun rights groups would consider “tyrannical.”

For starters, it’s important to differentiate between military and private gun ownership...

In Switzerland, all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 30 are conscripted for three months and issued either an assault rifle or a 9mm pistol (the automatic or rapid-fire function is removed from these firearms so they fire only in semiautomatic mode) after completing basic military training. These firearms are kept in the home and are to be used only for military purposes, not for sports shooting or personal defense. After initial training, members of the militia are required to do three or four weeks of military service a year until they have served a total of 260 days or reached age 34. Additionally, a law enacted in 2008 requires all army ammunition issued to militia members to be stored in a central arsenal. This citizen’s militia complements a small number of full-time military personnel to constitute Switzerland’s army.

Many Swiss men buy their service firearms after they finish military service. Since January 2010, however, they are required to obtain a permit to do so, and must provide some justification for keeping the gun.

[Editor’s note: Swiss women may volunteer to serve in the armed forces and can now join all units, including combat troops. Currently 1,050 women are active-duty members of the Swiss military.]

Laws governing the private ownership of firearms are equally strict. In 1999, a federal law on arms, arms accessories, and ammunition (the Arms Act) came into effect. The Arms Act requires a permit for each transaction involving firearms or relevant parts of firearms purchased from an authorized dealer's shop. Permits for purchasing firearms are issued by the cantons. Buyers are carefully screened and have to meet a number of requirements (i.e., minimum 18 years of age, absence of any apparent risk to the buyer or third persons, no entry in the Register of Convictions for violent crimes and/or misdemeanors, etc.). Subsequent transfers of firearms among private individuals have to be documented through a written contract, which must be kept for at least ten years. Additionally, several cantons require citizens to register firearms.

Any person wishing to carry a gun in public must obtain a separate, special permit from their canton. The screening process is essentially the same as for the purchase of firearms. In addition, applicants must demonstrate a legitimate need to protect themselves, other persons, or goods against specific risks. Applicants must further pass two tests, one on the correct handling of firearms and one on legislation concerning the use of firearms. Permits are valid for five years. Certain exceptions to these rules are made for hunters, those performing military service, and those participating in shooting events.

In the United States, military weapons are more strictly controlled than in Switzerland. The National Guard and the regular Army are armed by the federal government and service members are not allowed—under any circumstances—to bring their weapons home or use them for personal self-defense.

But it’s in the laws for private firearms ownership where the you can really see the real contrast with the Swiss system. In an overwhelming majority of states in the United States:

  • Individuals with misdemeanor convictions (including for violent offenses) can legally buy guns and obtain permits to carry concealed handguns.

  • Those obtaining concealed handgun permits are not required to demonstrate any specific need (or threat) to carry a weapon in public.

  • Law enforcement officials have no individual discretion in denying gun purchases or concealed handgun permits.

  • Private sales/transfers of firearms are completely unregulated, with no background checks or paperwork required.

  • Only a handful of states require licensing and registration, and typically just for handguns.

It is no surprise that the United States has an astronomically higher gun death rate than any other industrialized democracy. The critical concept of civic duty—which is such a central element of Switzerland’s gun culture—has been eviscerated in the United States over time by the gun lobby.

A Bold Persistence
In Switzerland, the national debate about guns is not likely to go away anytime soon. Despite the failure of the recent referendum, its proponents have no intention of giving up their campaign. Ebo Aebischer, a Reformed Church minister who works with families of suicide victims, said, “We will be proposing a professional [rather than a conscript-based] military. If successful, such an initiative would fulfill the demands of the current one: army weapons would no longer be allowed in the home and the expensive shooting practices would drop by the wayside. That way, the savings arising from the abolition of shooting practices could be invested in suicide prevention.”

Perhaps more importantly, younger Swiss are the most likely of any demographic to favor additional curbs on gun ownership. One president of a pistol shooters association, perhaps indicating what the future holds, recently said the average age in Swiss gun clubs is now “closer to 50 than to 40.”

March 15, 2011

The Forgotten Guns in the Workplace Tragedy

In recent years, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has authored and successfully advocated for legislation to allow employees to bring firearms—including handguns and assault weapons—with them to work. Such laws have been enacted in at least nine states and typically require employees to keep their guns secured in their vehicle in company parking lots. In passing this legislation, state legislatures have ignored studies that show: 1) Approximately 81% of workplace homicides are committed with a firearm, and; 2) Workplaces where guns are permitted are five to seven times more likely to be the site of a worker homicide. Additionally, the NRA is now asking lawmakers to support legislation that would allow individuals to sue their employers if they are asked questions about whether they bring firearms to work.

A horrific tragedy that was almost totally ignored by the media and American public illustrates the importance of preventing workplace violence before the first shot is ever fired—in part because untrained civilians cannot be depended upon to respond to such crisis situations effectively.

“A very gruesome scene”
January 7, 2010 started like any other day at ABB, Inc., a firm that makes large transformers for power utilities in St. Louis, Missouri. But just after dawn, as workers from the night shift departed and employees arriving for daytime hours settled in, everything changed.

It was 17 degrees and snowing with 34 MPH wind gusts when ABB employee Timothy Hendron drove up to the front gate of the plant in a Nissan Altima at approximately 6:30 AM. On his hips in holsters were two handguns: a Hi Point .45 caliber semiautomatic and a Hi Point .40 caliber semiautomatic. In the back seat were two long guns: a Tri Star .12 gauge pump action shotgun and a Romarm Cugir 7.62 x. 39 caliber semiautomatic AK-47 rifle. Hendron wore a camouflage storage pouch around his waist stuffed with ammunition. Attached to his belt were additional ammunition magazines. Guard Shakira Johnson, who was manning the security booth that morning, noticed nothing unusual and waved him through the gate.

Hendron parked near the plant’s loading dock and entered a building where a group of employees were gathered for a morning meeting. Hendron immediately leveled his shotgun and opened fire on this group, which included employees Jerry Brown, Rick Lawrence, Derrick Harris, Vickie Wilson, Tony Edwards and Darrell Buckley. They scattered in terror. Most of them ran up a flight of stairs and eventually made their way to the roof of the building. Brown sustained a gunshot wound to his leg, but still managed to escape with this group.

Buckley was shot in the back by a second shotgun blast as he fled toward the office of supervisor Cory Wilson. Buckley and Wilson, 27, hid in a storage closet in the office as Hendron approached. When Hendron reached the office, he fired 30 rounds with his AK-47 rifle through the door of the closet, striking Wilson fatally and wounding Buckley in the abdomen and chest. Buckley managed to call both his wife and 911 as he lay bleeding. He told police he could hear Wilson struggling to breathe, until ultimately the breathing stopped altogether.

After shooting up Wilson’s office, Hendron moved to a different area of the building, where he shot Keith Garner and Terry Mabry in the leg. Hendron then stepped outside onto the sidewalk next to the building and opened fire on employees attempting to escape down an access road in their vehicles. He wounded John Green in the wrist and fatally shot Carlton Carter, who slumped lifeless over his steering wheel.

By this point, St. Louis Police Department officers had responded to the scene after multiple 911 calls. They observed Green and Carter’s cars driving erratically while under fire, but didn’t know whether they were involved in a gunfight with one another or victims of a separate shooter. At this point an officer called in to dispatch to instruct other responders to pull back from the plant “because the shooter was using an assault rifle and his position could not be determined.”

Meanwhile, after shooting Green and Carter, Hendron spotted Stephen Sharp II and Matt Elder carrying Terry Mabry (who couldn’t walk due to his wounded leg) across the parking lot in an attempt to move him to cover. Sharp and Elder were forced to leave Mabry when they heard Hendron’s gunshots closing in behind them. Sharp decided to run to his car to retrieve his .380-caliber Walther PPKS semiautomatic handgun.

Hendron rounded a corner and spotted Mabry lying on the ground. ABB employee Mark Campbell was watching Hendron from a distance while hiding behind a car in the parking lot. He saw Hendron stand directly over the wounded Mabry and shoot him twice with his assault rifle. Hendron then leaned down near Mabry’s face and screamed before shooting him three more times. Another witness stated that what Hendron yelled was “I got you now! You’re going to get what you deserve!

By this time, Sharp had retrieved his semiautomatic pistol and taken cover behind a car. As Hendron fired 10 to 15 rounds at guard Cordin Hudson inside the security post, Sharp took aim. He fired eight rounds at Hendron—missing every time—before running out of ammunition. Sharp then left cover, sprinting across the parking lot to get away. Hendron fired on Sharp, critically wounding him in the abdomen and bringing him to the ground. Sharp laid still and played dead in fear that Hendron would shoot him again if he moved. The tactic saved his life.

Hendron then walked back into the ABB plant, entered a private office, and took his own life.

When police entered the building minutes later, SWAT commander Michael Deeba found Hendron seated by a desk with a gunshot wound under his chin and one of his handguns near his feet. Hendron’s assault rifle and shotgun were sitting on the desk. Deeba, taking no chances at this point, handcuffed Hendron’s hands to the arms of the chair he was sitting in.

The police later collected ballistic evidence indicating that Hendron fired approximately 115 rounds during the rampage. The plant was pockmarked everywhere with bullet holes. Hendron had killed three ABB employees and wounded five (two critically).

“We should have seen it coming”
The subsequent police investigation of the shooting painted a portrait of a disgruntled employee turned mass murderer.

Hendron’s co-workers recalled that he used to be a “happy-go-lucky guy” who would crack jokes and play billiards with co-workers at local bars/restaurants. Over the past five or six years, however, Hendron had become withdrawn and stopped socializing. In the words of one co-worker, he simply “clammed up.”

Many recalled that Hendron’s behavior had changed after the shift he supervised at ABB was terminated. Hendron was relocated to an administrative position, but didn’t get along with his new boss, so he opted to return to the assembly line alongside individuals he used to supervise. Later, he was passed over as supervisor when his old shift was restored. A much younger man, Cory Wilson, got the job (which made investigators speculate that Hendron had specifically targeted Wilson in the shooting). By this point, Hendron was acting “despondent,” “agitated” and “extreme.”

Kathleen Hendron further explained that her husband felt "ostracized" at ABB for trying to start a union and participating in a lawsuit against the company over its pension plan. She told police he was worried about his impending performance as a witness in the case. He was scheduled to testify in Kansas City on January 11, 2010. Hendron was also paranoid—and became convinced that people from ABB were coming to his property and “messing” with his car and home.

Hendron bought his .45 caliber handgun on January 23, 2008 and the .40 caliber handgun on April 4, 2008. The AK-47 rifle and shotgun were purchased the day before his shooting rampage on January 6, 2010. There is no waiting period for firearm purchases in Missouri.

In hindsight, ABB employee Jeff Ray told police, “We should have seen it coming.” Others concurred, saying they knew Hendron was “capable of doing something like this.”

Wolves, Lions and Lambs
Recently, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre told a Conservative Political Action Conference audience that "the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." LaPierre called for an “armed citizenry” to take back our nation’s streets and communities because—as he sees it—everyone is safer when "the wolves can't tell the difference between the lions and the lambs."

The inference is that would-be murderers will be deterred if they have reason to believe that a potential victim could be armed. Or, if killers can’t be deterred, armed citizens will rise up to shoot and stop them.

It didn’t quite work that way at the ABB plant on January 7, 2010. Stephen Sharp II was able to get his handgun, take aim at Hendron, and fire eight shots. But he missed every single time, and the “lion” quickly became a “lamb” as an enraged Hendron turned his gun on Sharp. One witness recalled Hendron shouting at Sharp, “I’m going to get you. You shot at me. I’m going to get you!” Sharp was critically wounded by Hendron and had to play dead until police arrived to help him.

Nonetheless, the NRA actively pushed a guns in the workplace bill in the Missouri legislature in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. It passed the Missouri House before being shelved in the Senate.

An Ounce of Prevention
The problem with relying on a “good guy” to shoot a “bad guy” is that mass shootings are characterized by panic and pure chaos. The potential for collateral damage in a crossfire is enormous and the killer will always define the rules of engagement.

A preferable strategy is to make sure the shooting never starts in the first place. There is a lot more our country could be doing to prevent homicidal individuals like Timothy Hendron from acquiring small arsenals (in this case two handguns, a shotgun, an AK-47 and hundreds of rounds of ammunition).

For years, dating back to the Brady Bill, the NRA has opposed waiting periods for firearm purchases. In this case, a waiting period could have made Hendron think twice before committing mass murder. The fact that he was able to acquire an assault rifle and a shotgun in a matter of minutes the day before the shooting left him little time to reflect on the consequences of his planned actions.

The ABB shooting rampage was also facilitated by the immediate access that Hendron had to military-style weaponry. Even had Hendron been a prohibited purchaser under federal law, he could have easily acquired the assault rifle and high-capacity ammunition magazines used in the shooting through an unregulated private sale in Missouri—no background check, no paperwork, cash and carry. Hendron’s weapon of choice—a semiautomatic AK-47 with banana clips—not only made it easier for him to wound and kill multiple victims, but also prevented responding law enforcement officers from immediately entering the plant to subdue him. First responders had to wait for a SWAT team with an armored vehicle because they feared they would be outgunned.

The ABB massacre joins a growing list of mass shootings made more lethal due to assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. And the NRA continues to fight all efforts to prohibit such items from being sold in the civilian market.

“I feel like my civil liberties are being taken away from me.”
ABB is certainly not the only company to experience the trauma of workplace violence. A 2008 report from the ASIS Foundation found that workplace violence affects more than two million workers in the United States each year and accounts for about 20% of all violent crime.

The House of Delegates of the American Bar Association passed a resolution critical of laws allowing employees to bring their guns to the workplace, noting that such laws conflict not only with traditional private property rights, but also with employers’ obligations under federal law to provide a safe workplace.

Unfortunately, many Americans do not feel safe at work. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence recently received the following emails from concerned individuals that live in states that allow guns in the workplace:

I am a manager for a glass shop. The owner of the company I work for has recently hired a former employee back as a tech for me to manage. He has informed me that he previously fired the employee due to complications stemming from an addiction to prescription pain medication. This employee now comes to work daily carrying a small semiautomatic pistol. He makes no attempt to "conceal" his weapon and regularly carries it in his waistband or sets it out in the open near his workspace or in the open in the company vehicle. I have voiced my concern with my employer several times, but to no avail. My employer does not confront the issue. I thought the idea behind a concealed weapon was that no one was to see or know that you had the weapon. Also upon reading I found that employers must ensure a safe work environment and as they cannot ban an employee from bringing a weapon to work, must ensure that the employee keeps the weapon "locked up in their vehicle in the parking lot."

I work at a fortune 500 company in Florida and here in the Gunshine State citizens could basically do whatever they want. After the recent events in Arizona, I am scared to work at my employer because at my employer we deal with not just angry customers, but a very intense atmosphere. Also, I don’t only work inside the building, but I work as a repair man for which I deal with even angrier people because they are paying for something that isn’t working correctly. In the atmosphere we live in now, I feel like my civil liberties are being taken away from me. Not sure what to do.

No American should have to go to work and fear for their safety. Peace of mind starts with a workplace that has a no-weapons policy. In the words of the ASIS Foundation: “Enforcing a no-weapons policy for employees as allowed by law is a fundamental component of establishing effective countermeasures [to workplace violence]. Weapons policies should be written, made known to all employees, and consistently enforced. Employer policies prohibiting firearms have been shown to reduce the incidence of homicide in the workplace, and they demonstrate a commitment to safety.”

But equally important are policies that keep individuals who are unstable or violent from stockpiling firearms. President Obama put it well in an editorial he wrote for the Arizona Daily Star: “I'm willing to bet that responsible, law-abiding gun owners agree that...an unbalanced man shouldn't be able to buy a gun so easily; that there's room for us to have reasonable laws that uphold liberty, ensure citizen safety and are fully compatible with a robust Second Amendment ... Porous background checks are bad for police officers, for law-abiding citizens and for the sellers themselves. If we're serious about keeping guns away from someone who's made up his mind to kill, then we can't allow a situation where a responsible seller denies him a weapon at one store, but he effortlessly buys the same gun someplace else. Clearly, there’s more we can do to prevent gun violence.”

Yes sir, there is.