Switzerland has long been a bastion of gun ownership and tradition, with men required to keep military weapons at home throughout their militia service. The country is among the most heavily armed on earth. And instead of requiring a license to obtain fully automatic weapons, the government distributes them to men when they turn 18. Men then have the option to keep their weapons after serving in the militia.
But thanks to relentless EU bullying and threats, Swiss voters have finally agreed to adopt a gun-control regime demanded by the EU that everyone from Adolf Hitler to Joseph Stalin would have loved. Over 60 percent of Swiss voters supposedly supported the scheme in the May 19 referendum. It requires gun registration, special permits even for semi-automatic rifles, and other attacks on the right to keep and bear arms.
Critics say it threatens the unique Swiss gun culture which makes Switzerland a peaceful nation of sharp shooters, as well as one of the safest countries on the planet. Indeed, despite guns being ubiquitous, Switzerland has among the lowest murder rate of any nation. Because most guns are unregistered, data is sparse. But some estimates suggest the Swiss may have even more guns per capita than Americans.
The EU has also been terrorizing Switzerland on open borders, mass migration, low taxes, and even its famously decentralized form of government. The U.S. government has also been bullying the Swiss, especially on its banking laws.
This writer wrote a detailed investigative report on Switzerland’s amazing gun culture for Swiss News magazine just before another referendum on gun control some years ago. That one was rejected by voters. But the Swiss News article may be just as relevant today as it was then. And it has major implications for America’s gun owners, too.
Gun debate heats up as vote on new gun control nears
Guns are a part of Swiss culture. They have been for centuries. Switzerland is home to the world’s largest shooting competitions, which attract target shooters by the hundreds of thousands. Nearly every Swiss militiaman still keeps a fully automatic rifle at home – a weapon that even Americans cannot obtain without a special permit. Significantly more than half of Swiss soldiers purchase their military rifles from the government after their service is concluded. And for hundreds of years, the well-trained populace has protected Switzerland from Europe’s mightiest armies.
The idea that a well-armed society is key to national defense is almost as old as the confederation. Even in the early 1500s, famed military strategist Niccolo Machiavelli remarked in his book ‘The Prince’ that, “The Swiss are well armed and enjoy great freedom.” And still today, Switzerland remains one of the most heavily armed societies on Earth – and one of the freest.
Estimates on the number of privately owned firearms in Switzerland vary widely, ranging from 1.2 million on the very low end to 12 million on the high side. The 2007 Small Arms Survey concluded that there were between 2.3 million and 4.5 million, translating into between 31 and 60 per 100 residents. A recent study found that more than one third of Swiss households own at least one gun.
But even with the wide availability of firearms and some of the most liberal gun laws in the world, crime is extremely low when compared to other countries. According to statistics compiled by the United Nations Survey of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems, Switzerland actually has among the lowest murder rates in the world – even when compared to countries where legal guns are virtually non-existent except among police and the military.
Questions about stricter gun laws were almost unheard of until recent decades. But after a series of high-profile tragedies like the Zug Parliament massacre or the murder of a famous ski champion by her husband, the gun-control debate in Switzerland has become increasingly fierce. Under the banner of the ‘Federal Popular Initiative for Protection Against Gun Violence,’ a powerful coalition consisting of 76 organizations and parties is now trying to limit access to guns. And in February or May of 2011, they will have a chance to move closer to that goal, having obtained the required number of signatures to force a vote on changing the Swiss Constitution.
The initiative consists of several key changes which will all be considered together as one package. Among the new provisions: all military weapons would be kept in an arsenal, not at home; every person who has or wishes to acquire a gun must obtain a permit, justify the decision, and prove that they are capable of handling a weapon; a national register of all guns would be created; so-called dangerous weapons, such as pump-action shotguns, would be prohibited; and the Swiss Foreign Ministry would be required to push for stronger gun-control laws worldwide.
“The monopoly of violence should be by the state in every case,” says Peter Hug, the president of the anti-gun coalition and the political secretary for foreign and security affairs of the social-democratic (socialist in French) group in the Swiss Parliament. “These weapons are not used for nothing – not for hunting, not for shooting – for nothing,” he said about the majority of firearms in Swiss homes.
And self-defense is not a good excuse for having a gun, or a good way to fight against criminality, he says. “That is a job for the police.” Among the problems Hug and his coalition blame on private ownership of firearms are increased suicides, domestic violence, and the fear police might have about encountering an armed citizen. And plus, “the Cold War is over,” he says, repeatedly calling for a professional army and police force rather than an armed populace to achieve peace and security.
If the initiative is approved, people who show that they have a use for weapons – such as hunting or sport shooting – will be allowed to keep them, provided they can prove they have the “capacity” to handle it, Hug explains. “So we will have, in the end, around 130,000 people with weapons at home.” The rest of the population will be disarmed, he notes, acknowledging that determined people would always find weapons, but expressing confidence that the measures – if approved by voters – would lead to a decrease in suicides and domestic violence.
“If you have no use [for a weapon] and no capacity, you have to give it over to the authorities, of course,” Hug says. Collecting the nation’s arms should be fairly easy, he adds, explaining that there was already a campaign to have citizens surrender their weapons and “most people are very happy to give them away.”
But not according to Dr. Hermann Suter, vice-president of Switzerland’s oldest and most powerful gun group, ProTell, named after the legendary Swiss marksman and tyrant-slayer William Tell. Suter and his organization are leading the charge against the initiative, opposing every single point. “We have a primary right of self-defense; it’s the right of a citizen to defend himself when he is attacked,” he says. “Not only a militia soldier, but also a normal citizen has an absolute right to bear arms and to use his arm when he is attacked by a criminal.”
Plus, criminals will always find weapons, Suter says, noting that 80 percent of crime and gun abuse in Switzerland was committed by illegally armed foreigners. Since England disarmed its subjects, criminality has risen by more than 40 percent, he points out. “It’s because, quite simply, every criminal knows not a single household in England has a gun.”
It’s not just criminals that are the problem, either. “The world has never seen so many conflicts, so many terrorists, and so many bomb attacks as in our time. People who say there is peace for all generations, they are either stupid or liars,” Suter says, noting that around the world, military spending was at record levels. And it’s a matter of trust and tradition, too, he adds, saying that historical records show that the Swiss had shooting competitions as early as the 1500s, and that a state which expects citizens to give their life for it must trust said citizens with weapons.
And then there is the potential danger from some future hypothetical government. “As the Founders of the United States said – Jefferson, Madison, etcetera. – the most important sign of a free citizen is his right to bear arms, and if the government abuses its responsibility to serve the people, then the free citizen has not only the right, but the duty to go against his government, in extremis,” Suter says, using an argument especially popular among American gun-rights activists. “So the right to have and bear an arm is a sign of a free citizen, and it is the best weapon against any sort of dictatorship,” he adds, pointing out that the Nazis, the Soviet and Chinese communists, and all other authoritarians disarmed the people before implementing total tyranny.
ProTell is not alone. A significant segment of the population is inclined to agree that stricter gun control is not the answer. The Swiss Shooting Sports Association, for example, has expressed its opposition to the measures, calling them patronizing to militiamen and too restrictive. It represents around a quarter of a million people. The Swiss Cabinet and House of Representatives also rejected the initiative and are urging citizens to vote it down, saying gun laws are already strict enough.
“We believe in people’s responsibility,” says Silvia Bär, vice-general secretary of Switzerland’s biggest political party, the Swiss People’s Party. “Our people can handle guns responsibly, we’ve seen that for all the years, we’ve always had it in Switzerland that all our military people have their guns at home, so we don’t see a problem.”
Guns also have an important role in Swiss society as a tradition, for sport, and for public safety, she says. “So for us it’s clear that, no, there shouldn’t be more regulation.” While the party has not yet held an assembly of delegates to finalize its official position, “the party has a very clear position and it is very strongly opposed to that initiative.”
“We stand for a sovereign Switzerland, and sovereignty means that you can always defend your independence and neutrality,” she says, also citing police statistics that show Switzerland has extremely low levels of crime and abuse of weapons. “[The anti-gun coalition] wants to protect people by having everything controlled by the state, and that’s what I think is behind the whole movement,” Bär says, noting that it simply doesn’t work. “[Criminals] are always going to have weapons no matter what kind of controls you have.”
Guns at Home and the Militia
Until recently, militiamen were actually required by law to keep their weapons and ammunition at home. Now, government-issued ammunition is no longer stored with the soldiers (though it is still easy to obtain), and there is an option to leave military guns in a cantonal arsenal. Very few militiamen, however – probably less than 1,000 – actually took advantage of the offer.
“Here in Switzerland you get guns from your father and your grandfather – very old army rifles – and you keep them, maybe for your son,” says Martin Aschwanden, a 61-year-old semi-retired Swiss businessman who has ten firearms at home. “Everyone has guns here. Mine go back to my grand-grand-grandparents.”
But that all may change soon. Among the organizations supporting the anti-gun coalition – an alliance of leftists, pacifists, feminists, doctors, and police – is the ‘Group for A Switzerland Without an Army’ (GSOA). With around 18,000 members, its primary goal is to eventually abolish the Swiss Army. But it is also the biggest gun-control group in the nation, collecting more signatures than any coalition member except the social-democratic party. And it is adamant about the supposed need to remove militiamen’s weapons from the home.
“Nowadays, in 2010 in Western Europe, the risk of traditional war is so ridiculously small that it’s just no need anymore that every person has to have back home a weapon,” says GSOA political secretary Nina Regli. “It’s much more about the tradition that every real man has to have a weapon back home, and if they don’t have a weapon back home, they aren’t a real man – it’s like a big thing connected with honor and confidence, it’s a sign of confidence that they actually leave the weapons with the Swiss soldiers. But I find it just ridiculous to say that ‘there is a tradition and because of that you can’t ban it’.”
But there is, of course, another side to the story. “Danger comes and goes,” says Stephen Halbrook, author of two books about Switzerland, guns, and World War II; a member of ProTell; and an attorney who works with the American National Rifle Association. “I think [the anti-gun activists] are very naïve; they forget the lessons of history. They’re just up in the clouds to think that there will never be another danger or another threat from a foreign power or from domestic terrorists.”
The Nazis, for example, had drawn up plans to invade Switzerland. But they were deterred by widespread Swiss gun-ownership, the excellent marksmanship of Swiss militiamen, and the heavy losses they would have doubtlessly incurred, explains Halbrook. “It’s true Switzerland is not threatened by what was called Gross Deutschland at the time, but things change, and therefore it’s always prudent to keep a strong defense … [the militia with guns at home] system should be retained in good times and bad.”
The system has multiple benefits, according to Halbrook. For one, it promotes marksmanship and readiness. “It also makes possible instant mobilization in the case of a national emergency,” he says. Beyond those positive factors, “The right to keep and bear arms is a traditional, inherent human right. If you take away that right and you allow government to become all-powerful, you subject populations to tyranny at home and invasion from abroad. The Swiss learned this centuries ago – they defeated all the big armies.”
Supposed Dangers on Both Sides
Because of exceptionally low crime, gun-control advocates in Switzerland lean heavily on two main arguments to push their position – that guns supposedly increase suicides and domestic homicides. Those concerned with murder in the home point to the Netherlands, which has almost no privately owned firearms and had a domestic homicide rate of 4.3 per million people in 2006. Switzerland, by contrast, had 5.5 per million. But that same year, Australia, which strictly controls the availability of firearms, recorded seven domestic homicides per million people, according to statistics cited by the University of Lausanne in a report.
But experts in the field insist that there is a relationship, and that the presence of firearms in homes can be dangerous. “A lot of women tell us that they are afraid of the weapons that are at home,” says Gabriela Chu, a board member of a national umbrella group for battered women shelters (Dachorganisation der Frauenhäuser) which is part of the anti-gun coalition. She estimates that around ten percent of the women coming to shelters in Switzerland report fearing their husbands’ firearms.
Suicides with firearms is another topic that comes up a lot in discussions with gun-control advocates. The rate of suicides is indeed higher in Switzerland than most places, though significantly lower than in some countries with extremely strict gun control like Russia, Japan, and Lithuania. America, with by far the highest rate of gun ownership in the world, has a much lower rate, according to statistics compiled by the World Health Organization. And the top ten nations in terms of suicide rates all have much stricter gun control than Switzerland. But gun-control advocates say having guns in the home makes it easier to commit suicide.
The Swiss Ministry of Defense estimates that military weapons are used in about 170 suicides per year. And government statistics compiled by the Bloomberg news agency suggest that from 1969 to 2000, Switzerland had an average of 1,428 suicides per year. Less than a quarter of those actually involved guns, but critics of Switzerland‘s current firearm laws say stricter gun rules would deter some people from taking their own lives.
“Basically, the idea we have been looking at was whether the availability of deadly instruments has any effect on the prevalence – the frequency – of deadly events,” says University of Zurich criminology professor Martin Killias, who has done a lot of research in the field. “The point is, it obviously has. That is not really a surprise.”
Killias says that, while the ballot initiative may not necessarily consist of the best possible measures, it would at least represent “a step in a good direction.” He claims that less guns at home would lead to less domestic deaths and less suicides, saying, “The less guns the better.” And despite some research to the contrary, in terms of criminality rates, more guns do not lead to less crime, Killias says.
But John Lott Jr., author of ‘More Guns, Less Crime’ and an academic who is widely considered one of the world’s top authorities on the relationship between guns, gun control, and crime, says different. “[J]ust as you can deter criminals with higher arrest rates, higher conviction rates or longer prison sentences, the fact that a would-be victim might be able to use a gun can also make it riskier for criminals to engage in attacks and deter them from committing crimes,” he says. “Every place that I can find crime data for, you find that when you have a ban [on guns], you have an increase in murder rates,” he explains. Other types of gun-control laws have similar effects, he says, pointing to England, which had a “much lower” murder rate before the implementation of gun control.
“Switzerland has traditionally had one of the lowest murder rates in the world, and one of the reasons why they’ve had that is because people are able to protect themselves,” Lott says, adding that he hoped the Switzerland would resist the pressure from its European neighbors to disarm society. “This is one area where freedom and safety go together.”
Both sides in the debate are passionate about their positions. And both sides expressed optimism about their prospects. The result of next year’s vote remains to be seen, but no matter what happens, the debate about guns in Switzerland will be around for a long time to come.