Last week’s shooting at a wood-processing plant in Menznau, Switzerland, which left four people — including the shooter — dead and six others injured, is fueling a recurring debate about the country’s gun policy, one of the most liberal in the world.
The issue is even more pertinent these days because the tragedy at the Menznau factory, where an employee armed with a Sphinx AT380 weapon opened fire on his co-workers in the company’s cafeteria, came only weeks after another shooter killed three people and wounded two others in the southern Swiss village of Daillon in early January.
Over the weekend, authorities reported that the suspect in the Menznau shooting, who arrived in Switzerland as an asylum seeker from Kosovo in 1991 and became a naturalized Swiss citizen, used his brother’s gun in the rampage. (The perpetrator, whose name was not released, reportedly suffered from psychological problems, and arms permits cannot be issued to people with a history of mental illness.)
However, unlike the current emotional debate surrounding gun control in the U.S., the Swiss approach is more dispassionate and pragmatic. Given Switzerland’s long history of what the Swiss proudly call “responsible gun ownership” and a low crime rate, very few voices are calling for drastic measures like an outright ban on privately owned firearms. Instead, the majority of anti-gun activists are urging better control over who buys firearms and for what purpose.
“Ideally, we would like to reduce the number of guns to 1 million within the next seven years,” says Josef Lang, a Green Party parliamentarian who is a member of the anti-gun coalition. “But that would require a national campaign like the one the government launched to fight AIDS, and there is no political will to do that.”
One of the reasons there is not more of a push to introduce more restrictive laws is the country’s deeply ingrained gun culture, which is based on an old belief that enemies could invade tiny Switzerland quickly, so every man had to keep his weapon at home to be able to fight. Many Swiss still consider gun ownership as their patriotic and civic duty, even though their neutral country has not been involved in an armed conflict in over 160 years.
Shooting is also a popular pastime. The Swiss learn to shoot from an early age, master safety techniques and develop a sense of responsibility toward their firearms. It is not unusual to see entire families — kids as young as 12 and their grandparents — participating in target practice or sharpshooting competitions that are held in towns and villages across the country.
Because of these traditions, gun ownership in Switzerland is among the highest in the world, trailing behind only the U.S. and Yemen. Between 2.3 million and 4.5 million are estimated to be in circulation in a country of only 8 million people. But while the gun-suicide rate is fairly high — about 300 cases a year — the number of violent crimes is relatively 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 five firearm killings per 100,000 people, according to a 2011 U.N. report.
Rocket launchers, heavy machine guns, automatic weapons and silencers are banned. But the law allows Swiss citizens or legal residents over the age of 18, who have no criminal record or history of drug abuse and mental illness, to buy semiautomatic and assault weapons with a permit. For sports and hunting rifles, a simple notification to the local firearms office is sufficient, but Green Party’s Lang says his group wants a law requiring that all the guns kept in private houses be registered.
The biggest change to the firearms legislation was made in 2007, requiring soldiers to store their bullets in an arsenal rather than in the households, but they were allowed to continue to keep their firearms at home. However, people who own private guns can purchase ammunition freely, as long as their weapon is registered.
Although the government has repeatedly said existing laws are strict enough, Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga conceded this week that the authorities “are aware that the weapons law must be continually improved.”
One area that needs a major overhaul, Sommaruga said at a postshooting press conference, is a better coordination of gun registers across the country. The government posts online the names of people who had been refused a gun permit by the army or the police. But licensing and keeping track of guns and their owners is left to each of the country’s 26 cantons. There is no national registry. Now Sommaruga is urging local authorities to establish an electronic intercantonal database of gun owners.
In the meantime, Switzerland’s pro-gun lobby claims that, even in view of the recent killings, there is nothing wrong with the current legislation or customs like keeping military weapons in one’s closet (or under the bed). The majority of the Swiss agree: in a nationwide referendum held in 2011, 56% of voters rejected the proposal launched by anti-gun organizations to ban army rifles from homes and tighten the existing legislation.
“It is impossible to prevent tragic but isolated incidents like the ones in Menznau or Daillon, but we will never change our position regarding responsible gun ownership,” says Hermann Suter, vice president of a gun lobby, proTell. He adds that considering the prevalence of guns in the country and tens of millions of rounds of ammunition that are fired each year during military and civilian target practice, the number of criminal shootings is very low.
He also argues that the way to prevent more killings is not to make guns less accessible, “but to instill safety measures as well as the sense of social responsibility in their users.”