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.”