'Gun crazy' Switzerland votes in EU-aligned firearms control

REUTERS/Denis Balibouse | A rifle with a Swiss flag is pictured during a competition, ahead of a May 19 referendum on proposals to tighten weapon ownership laws in line with EU steps, in Romont, Switzerland May 11, 2019.

Swiss voters agreed this Sunday to tighten its gun laws and meet EU’s demands, according to final referendum results. The wealthy Alpine nation is the world’s 16th country in terms of civilian firearms possession, but has rarely seen mass shootings.


Switzerland’s public broadcaster RTS reported 63.7% of voters nationwide agreed on Sunday to toughen its laws on firearms possession in order to bring it in line with the new European Union legislation on the matter, citing final results. According to the same results, voter turnout was 43%.

When the European Union demanded the Alpine country abide by the bloc’s new legislation, the nation’s legislators approved new laws. But the new restrictions have prompted a national debate in Switzerland, sparkling opposition from the gun lobby and shooting enthusiasts, who managed to gather enough signatures to trigger a referendum.

Switzerland is not an EU member, even though it is linked to the bloc through many bilateral agreements. It is a member of the Schengen Area, which grants open borders between states, and also of the Dublin accords, which regulates Europe’s asylum seeking process.

Approving the new gun legislation was crucial to maintaining warm relations with the EU and a “No” could threaten that, the Swiss government warned before the vote.

Nearly 3 guns for every 10 inhabitants

Switzerland has a deeply-rooted gun culture. While the gun-crazy country has no national registry and guns are registered regionally, according to a 2017 report by the Small Arms Survey, there are over 2.3 million firearms in civilian hands for 8 million residents.

With nearly three firearms for every 10 inhabitants, Switzerland has the world’s 16th highest rate of gun ownership, the Geneva-based NGO estimates, but only 791,719 firearms have been registered.

Rare mass shootings

Unlike the United States, which has the world’s highest gun-possession rate, the Swiss have rarely seen the kind of mass shootings that also prompted the EU to change its weapons laws in 2017.

The rate of violent deaths by firearms in Switzerland is 15.5 times lower than in the US, 2016 data shows. The last deadly tragedy dates back from 2001, when 14 people were killed in the central city of Zug.

Such figures astonish many specialists. But Martin Killias, head of the Criminology Institute at the Lausanne University, argues that “what is decisive, instead of the number of firearms, is the number of people who have access to guns. This rate is largely inferior in Switzerland”, when compared to the US, he told the Swiss French-speaking newspaper Le Temps.

Swiss gun-owners “are also more peaceful”, Killias says. They also concentrate on sport and target shooting.

Militia-based army

The strong gun culture in Switzerland is largely tied to the country’s national defence service, a militia-based army. Most men between the ages of 18 and 30 have to undergo mandatory military service consisting of three weeks a year, and they are allowed to keep their assigned weapon once the service has finished.

“The overwhelming majority of people who own a firearm in Switzerland are in such categories: either they are in the army or attached to it, or are shooting enthusiasts and hunters. It is almost unthinkable that someone would buy a gun to protect their family, for instance,” Killias says.

“The Swiss know that guns are not made for people to attack each other with, but rather to defend our country,” 61-year-old gun collector from Zurich Markus Thommen told French newspaper Le Figaro.

High suicide rate by firearms

Although Switzerland has a low level of mass shootings, it has one of the highest suicide rates by firearms in Europe. Its rate is three times superior to the European average, according to the Swiss television RTS, and reportedly half of Swiss young men who commit suicide use a firearm -- a record for Europe.

Brigitte Crottaz thinks the new legislation could tackle this sad reality: “Data has proven: the more guns we have, the more suicides there are, mainly,” the Socialist MP told Le Figaro.

Under previous Swiss legislation, in order to obtain a firearm, a citizen had to be over 18, have an ID card and have no criminal record. Guns also were and still are divided into categories with different restrictions.

The new laws oblige shooting enthusiasts to prove they attend a shooting range regularly in order to have a gun-possession authorization. As for those who already own guns, they have three years to declare ownership to the regional authorities. Semi-automatic weapons with high-capacity magazines are now listed as "banned".

REUTERS/Denis Balibouse | National Councilor Brigitte Crottaz talks, ahead of a May 19 referendum on proposals to tighten weapon ownership laws in line with EU steps, in Lausanne, Switzerland May 14, 2019. Picture taken May 14, 2019.

'Completely useless' legislation, gun-enthusiasts say

Its opponents consider the new laws “completely useless in fighting terrorism”, said the “No” campaign, which has the backing of the country's biggest political party, the populist right-wing Swiss People's Party. They also opposed a “EU dictate” which is seen as impinging on Swiss sovereignty.

“This is not a EU diktat,” Philippe Miauton, a Radical-Liberal party member and also a member of the Vaud trade chamber, told FRANCE 24. “Switzerland took part in the negotiations and got everything it wanted. Switzerland obtained a number of exceptions that I believe allow our [gun-culture] tradition to continue... We must stay in the Schengen Area.”

Lisa Mazzone, vice-president of the Green Party, also argued that the new law would grant Swiss authorities more control, with "improvements in the tracing and the marking of firearms,” she told AFP. “In terms of security, it is obviously a good thing to have a better overview of what weapons are in circulation."

According to the latest opinion polls, 65% of the Swiss support the new legislation, with only 35% opposing to it.

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