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Switzerland has lots of guns. But its gun culture takes different path from US.

how others see it

For many Swiss citizens, guns are as central to their identity as the Alps. But their attitude toward weapons – and the laws by which their guns are governed – are built on consensus that gets beyond the polarization that paralyzes the American debate.

Participants hold their rifles as they await their turn at a shooting competition at the Rütli, a mountain meadow on Lake Lucerne in central Switzerland, in 2016.
Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters
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Caption

Marksmen fill the recreation hall of this sand-colored shooting club in the wooded hills outside Bern, capping off a weekend competition to commemorate the 1798 Battle of Grauholz in the French Revolutionary Wars.

There is no shortage of patriotism here – there is even a yodeling club dressed in traditional red-trimmed black felt jackets – and indeed, for many Swiss citizens, guns are as central to their identity as the Alps. Switzerland has one of the highest per capita rates of guns in the world. “Every Swiss village has a range just like this one,” says Renato Steffen, a top official of the Swiss Shooting Sports Association, representing the group at the event. The association counts 2,800 such clubs across the country, with a youth wing for children as young as 10.

If this seems like a scene that belongs in gun-loving America, there the similarities end. The Swiss’s historic relationship to their arms as members of a standing militia, their motives for keeping them, and the regulations around them diverge from the American experience. It’s one reason that the prevalence of arms here is not accompanied by a scourge of gun violence.

Yet Switzerland does provide clues for gun ownership in America. Here divisions also have emerged after gun tragedies and efforts to rein in use – and the story is not settled as a new gun-control directive comes from the European Union. But ultimately the two sides have found consensus, getting beyond polarization that paralyzes the American debate even after such tragedies as the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. Those who loathe guns here accept their deep-seated position in Swiss tradition as they push for more controls, while gun advocates have pushed back but ultimately accepted more rules and oversight in the past 15 years.

“We can live with the restrictions placed on us until now,” says Kaspar Jaun, president of the Battle of Grauholz association, before hurrying off to prepare for the awards ceremony for best marksman.

‘Sport and protection of country only’

There is no official count of guns in Switzerland. But according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, Switzerland has more guns circulating per capita than any country besides the US and Yemen. The most recent government figures estimate about 2 million firearms in Swiss households. Conscription is mandatory for Swiss males, and citizen soldiers store their weapons at home, making up the bulk of guns in households today.

The militia, and the culture it has fostered, is seen as part of the common good, binding a nation together in a mission of national security. That differs widely from America’s individualistic gun culture. According to a Pew poll in 2017, 67 percent of those who own guns in the US cite their personal protection as a major motive.

And differences with the US don’t end at cultural ones. In Switzerland, regulations have become much more stringent since the free-wheeling days before a Weapons Act was put into place in 1999. And they have steadily tightened over the past 15 years. Military guns, once given to members after their service and passed down for generations, can now only be acquired after service with a firearms acquisition license. Since 2007, army-issued ammunition cannot be kept at home. A gun under the bed for self-protection? Impossible in Switzerland.

Loaded guns, whether military or for sport, cannot be carried on the streets here without a special permit which is rarely issued. Because of conscription, the Swiss are highly trained in weapons handling and storage. As he drives away from the shooting range Sunday, Mr. Steffen says he would never want the right to transport his army rifle loaded. “No, no,” he says, “that is crazy. For us, guns are for sport, and protection of our country, only.”

Switzerland does grapple with gun death rates higher than European neighbors, the vast majority of it suicide. Guns also play a troubling role in domestic disputes. But unlike the US, gun deaths out of self-defense are a rare phenomenon. Criminologist Martin Killias, at the University of St. Gallen's law school, built a database looking at homicides committed in self-defense over a 25-year period ending in 2014. Of 1,464 homicides, in 23 cases defenders killed victims in self-defense or under duress. In 15 of those cases, a firearm was used, nine of which were the weapons of on-duty police officers.

The homicide rate in the US is about six times that of the Swiss national average. But when comparing domestic violence that ends in death with a firearm, the ratio is just under 2 to 1, a much smaller gap of gun deaths between American and Swiss households. “It is very illustrative,” Mr. Killias says. “It’s not so much that American people are more aggressive, or Swiss are so terribly more peaceful, it’s simply that gun use in the street [in the US] is quite common,” he says. “That is why robbery quite often ends with a shooting in America, whereas in Switzerland it is practically never the case.”

Switzerland's gun debates

Nonetheless, the debate has still been divisive and bitter here. Josef Lang sits on the opposite end of the spectrum as men such as Steffen, and still receives hateful threats and messages over his role in the gun control movement in Switzerland.

A pacifist activist since the 1980s, Mr. Lang was a parliamentarian in 2001 in the canton of Zug when a gunman stormed the chamber. He ducked underneath the desk in time and survived, but nearly 20 years later he recounts vividly every second of the 2.5 minutes gun spree during which 14 of his colleagues around him were killed. He remembers the feeling of a bullet grazing his bushy hair.

With each incident, laws have tightened to get rid of loopholes. After the Zug massacre, gun control advocates pushed for cantonal police registries to be linked and for tighter controls for private gun sales. In 2006, after Swiss alpine skier Corinne Rey-Bellet and her brother were killed by Corinne's estranged husband with his military rifle, rules banning the storage of military ammunition at home were created. Today, military members can choose to also keep their weapons at a central arsenal.

The battle hasn’t always favored gun control. In a 2011 referendum voters would have, among other things, required military arms to be stored in a central arsenal. Fifty-six percent voted against it. Today, many feel satisfied with where Switzerland is on gun control. "Swiss laws give freedom to the citizen but at the same time they attempt to reduce abuse with guns,” says Luca Filippini, the president of the Swiss Shooting Sports Association.

Switzerland’s reform history provides a lesson for the US, argues Erin Zimmerman, an American living in Switzerland who is a former US police officer and gun owner. While the country is vastly different from the US in demographics and population, she believes it shows the possibility of consensus for sensible gun regulations.

To underline the point, a nongovernmental organization she belongs to, Action Together: Zurich, led a fundraiser for the US-based nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety, timed to a visit to Zurich this week by former White House strategist Steve Bannon, who has resisted gun-reform efforts in the US.

While some US states have been able to pass gun reform, she says Americans in the national debate are too often only presented with “zero-sum” options. They are cast as simply pro- or anti-gun, making middle ground choices more elusive. “Switzerland has done a really good job of modeling that,” she says.

Creeping ‘Americanization’?

Now, however, the battle is heating up once more in Switzerland – and some worry about the creep of “American” mentalities. In response to the wave of terrorist attacks in Europe starting in 2015, the EU has imposed tighter gun restrictions. While Switzerland is not part of the bloc, it does belong to the passport-free Schengen area and so must adhere to EU rules.

Mr. Filippini argues the rules won't have any bearing on terrorism, which is committed by criminals using illegal weapons and methods such as trucks. Gun advocates have promised to fight it in a referendum if it’s adopted into Swiss law and in general worry this is just the beginning of interference from the outside into their gun rules.

Both sides are staking their positions as gun-owning households in Switzerland has waned, in large part because the Swiss military has reduced its size by about sixfold since the 1990s. Today, 22 percent of households say they own guns, compared to 35 percent 15 years ago. Still, Lang worries about language he hears from the hard-line gun lobby about “self-protection,” against refugees and migrants or cuts in police budgets, a concept that is largely a taboo in Swiss society. Lang calls this the “Americanization” of the Swiss mentality.

That trend is something that would be deeply unsettling to most Swiss. When it comes to guns, many sit somewhere in the middle, like Chris Völkle, who works in sales in Bern. The gun in his home would be counted in the surveys that put Switzerland at the top of global gun ownership. Having finished his military training in 2016, he still must practice shooting annually, so he keeps it at home for convenience. But following strict guidelines, the rifle is in the cellar, the firing pin is in the cupboard, and the ammunition is at a military facility. “I don’t look at it like a gun,” he says. “It’s like a long, heavy piece of metal. It’s useless.”

Mr. Völkle says he accepts the status quo here because there haven’t been widespread gun problems in his country, unlike the wrenching violence the US is living through. After Parkland, Fla., he once again looked across the Atlantic in bewilderment.

“Mostly it’s just baffling to us that nothing gets changed after something like this happens,” Völkle says. “I assure you if more people died it would very, very quickly change, and you would not be able to keep your gun at home anymore.”

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