The Swiss Difference: A Gun Culture That Works

The country had one mass shooting in 2001, but a resulting anti-gun referendum failed to pass. The Swiss will not give up the gun. Can their system work in the U.S.?

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Michael Buholzer / Reuters

Swiss marksmen shoot at targets over 300 m away during an annual shooting-skills exercise near Bern

Even as the gun-control debate rises again in the U.S. in the aftermath of the horrific school shooting in Newtown, Conn., the gun-loving Swiss are not about to lay down their arms. Guns are ubiquitous in this neutral nation, with sharpshooting considered a fun and wholesome recreational activity for people of all ages.

Even though Switzerland has not been involved in an armed conflict since a standoff between Catholics and Protestants in 1847, the Swiss are very serious not only about their right to own weapons but also to carry them around in public. Because of this general acceptance and even pride in gun ownership, nobody bats an eye at the sight of a civilian riding a bus, bike or motorcycle to the shooting range, with a rifle slung across the shoulder.

(MORE: The World’s Best — and Worst — Places to Live)

“We will never change our attitude about the responsible use of weapons by law-abiding citizens,” says Hermann Suter, vice president of Pro-Tell, the country’s gun lobby, named after legendary apple shooter William Tell, who used a crossbow to target enemies long before firearms were invented.

Switzerland trails behind only the U.S, Yemen and Serbia in the number of guns per capita; between 2.3 million and 4.5 million military and private firearms are estimated to be in circulation in a country of only 8 million people. Yet, despite the prevalence of guns, the violent-crime rate is low: government figures show about 0.5 gun homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010. By comparison, the U.S rate in the same year was about 5 firearm killings per 100,000 people, according to a 2011 U.N. report.

Unlike some other heavily armed nations, Switzerland’s gun ownership is deeply rooted in a sense of patriotic duty and national identity. Weapons are kept at home because of the long-held belief that enemies could invade tiny Switzerland quickly, so every soldier had to be able to fight his way to his regiment’s assembly point. (Switzerland was at risk of being invaded by Germany during World War II but was spared, historians say, because every Swiss man was armed and trained to shoot.)

(MORE: Switzerland: Are Its Days as a Tax Haven for Foreigners Numbered?)

But the “gun in every closet” tradition was challenged in 2001, after a disgruntled citizen opened fire with his army rifle inside a regional parliament, killing 14 and injuring 14 others — the only mass shooting in Switzerland’s recent history. The subsequent opposition to widespread gun ownership spearheaded a push for stricter arms legislation. The government and pro-gun groups argued, however, that the country’s existing laws regulating the sale, ownership and licensing of private guns, which includes a ban on carrying concealed weapons, are stringent enough. The law allows citizens or legal residents over the age of 18, who have obtained a permit from the government and who have no criminal record or history of mental illness, to buy up to three weapons from an authorized dealer, with the exception of automatic firearms and selective fire weapons, which are banned. Semiautomatics, which have caused havoc in the U.S., can be legally purchased.

The authorities made one concession, though: since 2008, all military — but not private — ammunition must be stored in central arsenals rather than in soldiers’ homes. The debate culminated in a nationwide referendum last year, when 56% of voters rejected the proposal initiated by anti-gun organizations to ban army rifles from homes altogether.

Although guns are responsible for between 200 and 300 suicides each year in Switzerland, Pro-Tell’s Suter says these statistics have to be put in a wider perspective. He points out that the bullets used in suicides are only a tiny fraction of the 75 million rounds of ammunition that are fired each year in Switzerland during military and civilian target practice.

(MORE: When the Swiss Aren’t Neutral: Chocolates and the CIA)

One of the reasons the crime rate in Switzerland is low despite the prevalence of weapons — and also why the Swiss mentality can’t be transposed to the current American reality — is the culture of responsibility and safety that is anchored in society and passed from generation to generation. Kids as young as 12 belong to gun groups in their local communities, where they learn sharpshooting. The Swiss Shooting Sports Association runs about 3,000 clubs and has 150,000 members, including a youth section. Many members keep their guns and ammunition at home, while others choose to leave them at the club. And yet, despite such easy access to pistols and rifles, “no members have ever used their guns for criminal purposes,” says Max Flueckiger, the association’s spokesperson.

“Social conditions are fundamental in deterring crime,” says Peter Squires, professor of criminology and public policy at the University of Brighton in Great Britain, who has studied gun violence in different countries and concluded that a “culture of support” rather than focus on individualism, can deter mass killings.

“If people have a responsible, disciplined and organized introduction into an activity like shooting, there will be less risk of gun violence,” he tells TIME.

That sense of social and civic responsibility is one of the reasons the Swiss have never allowed their guns to come under fire.

MORE: Switzerland: A Painful History

415 comments
electrotectic
electrotectic

 (Switzerland was at risk of being invaded by Germany during World War II but was spared, historians say, because every Swiss man was armed and trained to shoot.)


Or maybe because they partly cooperated with Germany. It's complex. In any case, your version is glib.

JoyceClemons
JoyceClemons

You know what cracks me up about the Americans commenting on this thread is that they completely ignore the main reason why the Swiss have a distinctly positive view of personal firearms and skill in using them. Somehow it all wanders off into gun crime, minority topics, self-image, yada yada and almost any other thing other than the ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM.... Switzerland’s gun ownership is deeply rooted in a sense of patriotic duty and national identity.... culture of responsibility and safety that is anchored in society and passed from generation to generation...Americans have blown off their duty to the UNORGANIZED MILITIA. It's part of our Constitution, it is codified into statute, and, because of left wing influence, it is considered archaic and laughable. What better way to undermine American security? And those of us who know better are supposed to be the clowns. It may be true that Americans no longer generally mistrust "standing armies" and that we endeavor to honor and value our troops and veterans. But I think the best way to honor them is to call them back into local community service to refresh, renew and train a new UNORGANIZED MILITIA, in accordance with Federal Law.

KalCastelian
KalCastelian

Lets see...No concealed carry, only 3 weapons per person, no ammo, civic duty required.  How is like the US again?

cetsky33
cetsky33

Problem is that the criminally insane are running the country...Keep your powder dry!

MiloBendech
MiloBendech

In 2001 a disgruntled citizen opened fire with his army rifle inside a regional parliament, killing 14 and injuring 14 others — the only mass shooting in Switzerland’s recent history. 

UPDATE


In 2013 in the French-speaking village of Daillon, 100km (62 miles) from Geneva, a psychologically disturbed man opened fire on locals, killing three people and wounding two others. Police had already confiscated weapons from the gunman in 2005, after he had been placed in psychiatric care.

Inevitably, his actions prompted a fresh wave of debate in Switzerland about its relatively liberal gun laws.

Chedring
Chedring

Would the Swiss system work in the US? Sure, but why does it work so well for them? Probably because they have very few immigrants and most of the civilian population is white, so low gang rate and low chance of recruitment and development. This is literally one big hope for civilized society for the future.

JennWhitfordPalumbo
JennWhitfordPalumbo

Someone asked what the answer is. Look at who is committing the majority of gun crimes in this country. LIBERALS. The very scum who want to take away our rights are the ones  who abuse them. Guns aren't the problem. Liberals are.

DefuseCrime_LLC
DefuseCrime_LLC

"Unlike some other heavily armed nations, Switzerland’s gun ownership is deeply rooted in a sense of patriotic duty and national identity. Weapons are kept at home because of the long-held belief that enemies could invade tiny Switzerland quickly, so every soldier had to be able to fight his way to his regiment’s assembly point." 

"Deeply rooted in a sense of patriotic duty" ..... America could learn from Switzerland's way of doing things. 

Yours in crime prevention and training,
Mark Fowler/Manager DEFUSE CRIME LLC

1300 S. Watson Rd. STE-114, PMB-262

Buckeye, AZ 85326 

defusecrime.com

emailjamesikanov
emailjamesikanov

@KalCastelian Where did it say only 3 weapons a person, exactly? And you can have all the ammo you want. The government used to ISSUE ammo to the citizens of Switzerland. I'm still not even sure this is all accurate, as I arrived here looking for information after reading about a supposedly Swiss person saying they could have just about any full auto firearm they wanted, with a suppressor even. The guns flow much freer there, my friend.

electrotectic
electrotectic

46 people were murdered in Switzerland last year. Per person, it's tiny.

So of course, an extra 3, or 14 (!!) causes a national debate.

Switzerland can afford to debate tiny things and make refined, delicate improvements.

In the U.S., it's not tiny. It's a flood. 

pepe.felipe
pepe.felipe

@Chedring Well, there's around 25% of immigrants. That's not the reason that makes the system work. Actually, immigrants have the pretty much the same rights as Swiss citizens, included the right to own firearms. I'lll say that what makes the system work here is the fact that we care for each other, immigrant or Swiss, meaning that no one is left behind. Immigrants get help when they need it, as Swiss citizens do, exactly the same help. What does it translate into ? Mainly that there's no hopeless situation were your only option is to enroll in a gang or do crazy things. 


Beside this, every Swiss citizen considers his rifle as a tool to defend the country and his inhabitants. That includes defending immigrants in the country if needed. There's a big respect to the weapons because they're the tools that could keep us free from invasion, even if we have pretty good relations with surrounding countries :) We are grew up like this, that's why it works quite well in Switzerland. 


I'm not saying that everything is perfect in the country, there are obviously tensions in betweens Swiss citizens and immigrants, but people talk and when talking, you always get to a solution.


So, can it work in the US ? Of course, but then you'll have to import all the concept. That means helping the poorest people of the society to make a life. Give them the opportunity to study, get a job and thus avoiding having them into gangs. Will this stop mass shootings ? Maybe, not sure, but it will probably stop street shootings ... Question is are the US ready to do something like this, considering that most people in the US will call it communism ? Not sure ...


electrotectic
electrotectic

@Chedring Very few immigrants? Your facts are utterly and completely wrong. Switzerland is 25% non-Swiss (check Wikipedia), yet it is still extremely safe. Something different is going than what you said.

CarlE.MottIII
CarlE.MottIII

@Chedring Because they are white? Didn't white folks have a problem in Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina? No gangs? Ever hear of the Russian or Irish mafia? And I guess you know little of Switzerland a nation of 4 languages and 2 religions? Far from homogeneous by Euro standards. Well regulation works, especially in a well law abiding nation. It'd probably work in Japan too, and they've got the Yakuza.

KevinSpruill
KevinSpruill

@Chedring your one big hope is monoculture... a shunning of all cultures, groups, religions not yours? Is it your contention that a vast homogeneous society... one religion, one political philosophy, etc. - that will solve the problem? Tell me again why in cultures that fit your ideal - there is still violence?

CarlE.MottIII
CarlE.MottIII

@JennWhitfordPalumbo Where did you get this unsubstantiated gem? Rush? From what I see most in these high profile, whack-job,  mass shooters seem to be apolitical, expressing no real interest in politics.

KevinSpruill
KevinSpruill

@JennWhitfordPalumbo - first, typing things in all caps, especially terms used as pejoratives such as "LIBERALS" does nothing to dissuade people from the notion that your full of crap. But I'll bite... please provide credible sourcing for that ludicrous claim (the liberals commit majority of gun crime) - we'll wait. As for the other part... no ones trying to take away your guns... your sense of victimization is showing... might want to get some therapy for that

springsky
springsky

@JennWhitfordPalumbo WHERE  did you get that information? It's a blatant lie perpetuated by the nuts at Fox. Adcutally, the opposite is true. Most all of the mass murderers have identified as politifcally Right Winged!! Go do you homework!!

springsky
springsky

@JennWhitfordPalumbo WHERE  did you get that info from? It's a blatant lie perpetrated by the nutwings. Actually, the opposite is true. All the mass murderers have been Right-winged. go do your homework!

MiloBendech
MiloBendech

@JennWhitfordPalumboI'm not sure where you got your information from because authorities don't keep records of  the political preference of people who commit gun crimes.

Rather than to rely on heresay or information it's better to go by the facts:

Here is a list of the massacres that occurred in the US last year.  It list the state, the dates, the number of people killed (4 or more innocent victims and it's on this list).

Although it doesn't say liberal or conservative, you can see whether the Red States or the Blue states have more gun massacres.  Generally speaking the Red states have more gun friendly legislation


12/1/13    Topeka    Kan.    Shooting    Family killing    4
11/23/13    Tulsa    Okla.    Shooting    Other    4
11/7/13    Jacksonville    Fla.    Shooting    Other    4
10/29/13    Callison    S.C.    Shooting    Family killing    5
10/28/13    Terrell    Texas    Shooting    Other    5
10/26/13    Phoenix    Ariz.    Shooting    Other    4
10/26/13    New York    N.Y.    Stabbing    Family killing    5
10/9/13    Paris    Texas    Shooting    Other    4
9/20/13    Rice    Texas    Shooting    Family killing    4
9/16/13    Washington    D.C.    Shooting    Public Killing    12
9/11/13    Crab Orchard    Tenn.    Shooting    Robbery/burglary    4
8/14/13    Oklahoma City    Okla.    Shooting    Family killing    4
8/7/13    Dallas    Texas    Shooting    Family killing    4
7/26/13    Clarksburg    W.Va.    Shooting    Other    4
7/26/13    Hialeah    Fla.    Shooting    Public Killing    6
6/7/13    Santa Monica    Calif.    Shooting    Public Killing    5
5/13/13    Fernley    Nev.    Shooting, Stabbing    Robbery/burglary    5
5/11/13    Waynesville    Ind.    Shooting    Other    4
4/28/13    Ottawa    Kan.    Shooting    Family killing    4
4/24/13    Manchester    Ill.    Shooting    Family killing    5
4/22/13    Federal Way    Wash.    Shooting    Family killing    4
4/18/13    Akron    Ohio    Shooting    Robbery/burglary    4
4/15/13    Boston    Mass.    Blunt force    Public Killing    4
3/13/13    Herkimer    N.Y.    Shooting    Public Killing    4
1/19/13    Albuquerque    N.M.    Shooting    Family killing    5
1/7/13    Tulsa    Okla.    Shooting    Robbery/burglary    4

pepe.felipe
pepe.felipe

@DefuseCrime_LLC That's it, patriotic duty. That's teacher from the early ages. Even immigrants  that that later on become Swiss citizens have this patriotic sense of duty. Education is the answer, not laws !

pepe.felipe
pepe.felipe

@happyloner @Methos2010 Correct, in Switzerland we say : "We have no army, we are an army" :)

Dams
Dams

@happyloner @Methos2010  exactly there's a difference between some lone gun lover stocking up on automatic weapons and a civilian militia 

pepe.felipe
pepe.felipe

@emailjamesikanov @KalCastelian I'm swiss and gun/rifle owner :) full auto firearm is ok, you just need a more expensive permit to buy plus some paperwork when you want to shoot it. suppressors are forbidden(At least they are in the area I'm living.). True regarding the ammo, there's no limit on how much you can store at home. It's true too regarding the fact that government used to issue ammo to the citizens, but only while in the army. As for the 3 weapons, it's 3 weapons per permit. Then you have to ask for another one (basically background check and 50 francs...)

electrotectic
electrotectic

@springsky I agree with EvilWayz. It's only right-wing states that have the mass murders. No indication of the politics of the killers themselves. Of course, they are all gun owners.

EvilWayz
EvilWayz

@springsky looked on the internet, nothing to indicate that the most recent mass shooters were right wing.  If you have proof of this, I'd like to see it. 

andyvanm
andyvanm

@MiloBendech Gun Control Works...For Tyrants


In 1929, the Soviet Union established gun control.
From 1929 to 1953, about 20 million dissidents, unable to defend themselves,
were rounded up and exterminated.

In 1911, Turkey established gun control. From 1915
to 1917, 1.5 million Armenians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up
and exterminated.

Germany established gun control in 1938 and from
1939 to 1945, a total of 13 million Jews and others who were unable to defend
themselves were rounded up and exterminated.

China established gun control in 1935. From 1948 to
1952, 20 million political dissidents, unable to defend themselves, were
rounded up and exterminated.

Guatemala established gun control in 1964. From 1964 to 1981, 100,000 Mayan Indians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded
up and exterminated.

Uganda established gun control in 1970. From 1971
to 1979, 300,000 Christians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and
exterminated.

Cambodia established gun control in 1956. From 1975
to 1977, one million educated people, unable to defend themselves, were rounded
up and exterminated.

Defenseless people rounded up and exterminated in
the 20th Century because of gun control: 56 million.

You won’t see this data on the US evening news, or
hear politicians disseminating this information.

Guns in the hands of honest citizens save lives and
property and, yes, gun-control laws adversely affect only the law-abiding
citizens.

Take note my fellow Americans, before it’s too
late!

DinouDinou
DinouDinou

@MiloBendech - You're an idiot. Blacks commit 50% of homicides in the US and hispanics 25%. The vast majority are Obama voters. It's a MINORITY problem and also why Switzerland doesn't have a high crime rate. All the European countries who have been accepting refugees are experiencing higher crime rates as a result.

dabouv1
dabouv1

@JennWhitfordPalumbo @RyanTracey You are an idiot.  Guns aren't a liberal/conservative issue nor are they a he man/pansy issue.  Its a smart/stupid issue and I know what you are.  I own a bunch of guns.  Real guns that are used to hunt.  I don't need a semi automatic .223 to feel tough.  Its a crappy caliber not much good for anything.  If I had an intruder, I'd use my 12 gauge IF they got past my big dog.  If I wanted a rifle, I would want more knock down power than a .223. My police buddies don't like 9mm, they want more power suck as a .45.  I have owned guns for most of 50 years and grew up in the rural Midwest.  30 years ago, almost no one had a pistol and we seemed to do fine with bolt action rifles.  In fact, I quit my group hunting for coyotes when the mini 14's started to become popular because it attracted morons who weren't responsible.  Did I say you were an idiot? 

dabouv1
dabouv1

@JennWhitfordPalumbo @RyanTracey You are a true idiot. 

Dams
Dams

@JennWhitfordPalumbo @RyanTracey  I dont usually say this but hows about you go back to the kitchen or bedroom whichever one you're best at so the rest of us imaginary men can discuss issues with facts like adults 

pepe.felipe
pepe.felipe

@DinouDinou We don't have a high crime rate because we do treat immigrants with respect and give them opportunities to succeed in life. We have around 25% of immigrants in the country. Almost the double of any other European country around us and have way less crime rate ! You can't blame it on immigrants when the citizens are the guys who can change things. Give them a chance to be integrated in the country and things will change. What do you expect ? If your family was starving, won't you leave the country to try to get them a better life ? And if by doing so you arrive in a country were they give you no chance to improve your family life, won't you do everything to get them a better life ? Of course you will. And thus your kids will take example in you, and that will remain like this until somebody do something to change things. 


mynsplain
mynsplain

@DinouDinou It's a minority problem eh?  Well you do know that whites are the actual minority in this country now thanks to the influx of immigration.

CarlE.MottIII
CarlE.MottIII

@DinouDinou Funny, but I've yet see one black or hispanic involved in a mass shooting....or woman for that matter. Just angry white men...and one Arab in 2009 Ft hood.

KevinSpruill
KevinSpruill

@DinouDinou that is a patent lie and thats clearly and easily debunked using the FBI crime statistics... sorry sparky, but lying to perpetuate your bigotry doesn't make it so... grow up. But by all means - if you have facts to back up your fantastic claim... g'head, we'll wait.

ThomasA.RussellSr.
ThomasA.RussellSr.

@CarlE.MottIII @DinouDinou  What about that spree a few years back, I think it was 2007 or 2008, A couple of African-Americans, one victim at a time in the north east. One driving, the other shooting out of a hole in the trunk. Black mass murderers. Just took their victims at random, one or two at a time.

sukotsuto
sukotsuto

@DinouDinou Funny you should say that, considering that they happen so much, the news no longer report them  - so if you're just going by what the typical news media are telling you, these crimes "don't exist". 


Whereas "crazy whitey with a gun" gets so much coverage since it doesn't happen as frequently - look at them cite the same few white mass shootings that happens every few years but never mention gang-related shootings in the news that happens EVERY MONTH.


Just like how the news would fixate on missing white women, but never mentioning missing minorities, since people pay more attention to whitey crimes - suspect or victim. No mention of that Peruvian girl in that Natalee Hollaway case back in 2005, for instance.


In the issue of guns, if your current understanding of a semi-automatic is thinking they shoot rapid fire like "machine guns", please refrain from gun issues altogether. We need to filter out idiots from any debate and leave it to reasonable, well-informed people who NEVER believe the news from its face value.

CharlesThomas
CharlesThomas

@KevinSpruill He's actually correct about the stats.  Check out FBI.gov.  What he's wrong about is why those stats are what they are.