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.
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“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.)
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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.
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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.