When a disgruntled gun owner opened fire inside a regional parliament in 2001, it was the first mass shooting in Switzerland’s modern history. Fourteen people were killed, and another fourteen injured, all with standard issue weapons kept by many Swiss people at home. Despite the overall high gun ownership in Switzerland – 45,7 guns per 100 people – this shooting was an unprecedented event.
Every healthy Swiss man between 18 and 34 is required to do military service. During this service they are issued assault rifles or pistols, which they are supposed to keep at home. Until very recently, most people kept those guns after the end of their military service, creating a “gun in every closet” culture that has shaped Switzerland’s relationship to guns. Estimates put the number of guns at between 2.3 and 4.5 million, in a country of only 8 million people, placing them third behind only the US and Yemen in guns per capita. The exact number of guns is unknown, because there is no national firearms registry.
Shooting is a popular pastime among the Swiss people. Learning to shoot and properly and safely take care of a gun usually starts at a young age. Shooting ranges blanket the country, and sharpshooting competitions are common.
Gun shop in Zurich. (Picture: Flickr CC)
Despite this widespread proliferation, Switzerland has only had one mass shooting in modern time. Peter Squires, a criminologist at the University of Brighton, attributes this absence to cultural differences. Mass shooters tend to be loners without social support, and their shootings are often meant as revenge. Squires has found that in many European countries where gun ownership is high, but mass shootings few, including Switzerland, societies tend to be very tight-knit. This strong social bond, and social safety net, prevents alienation and mental illness from coming to these extremes.
He also points to the Swiss’ disciplined relationship to their guns. The army issued guns are generally considered just that – army weapons, meant for training and for military use. Despite the 160 years that have passed since Switzerland were last involved in an armed conflict, keeping weapons at home is considered a patriotic duty. While gun ownership in the US is discussed almost exclusively in terms of personal safety, Swiss gun culture is built around national security.
The original purpose of keeping military weapons at home was the worry that Switzerland, with its small area, could easily be overrun by an invading force very quickly. In that case, every man would need a gun at his home so that he could fight his way to the military regiment. Some historians think that the reason Nazi Germany never attempted to invade Switzerland was that so many people had guns and knew how to use them.
Military-issue guns certainly play a big role in people’s personal lives. While firearm deaths in Switzerland take place at only about one-seventh of the American rate, they are still heavily involved in suicides and crimes of passion. Between 1991 and 2008, 90 percent of homicide-suicides involved firearms. According to the Zurich Women’s Shelters Association, one-fifth of their clients have been threatened with guns at home by their partner. Swiss rates of suicide and family shootings are among the highest in Europe. At the same time, pro-gun advocates would point out that about 75 million rounds of ammunition are fired every year in Switzerland. The 300 or so firearm murders occurring every year make up a very small fraction of that number.
When Corinne Rey-Bellet, one of the Swiss team’s top skiers during her active career, was murdered along with her brother, there was some impetus for change. The murderer was Rey-Bellet’s estranged husband, and the weapon his military-issued rifle. After that, the military changed their policies. Soldiers may still keep their weapons when they leave the service, but they must now give a reason for doing so, and apply for a permit. Keeping army ammunition at home is no longer allowed, it will stay in arsenals at the base.
These changes were still limited, however, and a 2011 federal popular initiative attempted to make a more dramatic change to gun laws. If the referendum had passed, it would have meant stricter requirements for a firearms license, the creation of a national weapon registry instead of the current canton level one, and an end to the practice of keeping military weapons at home. There was a clean split along partisan lines, with left-wing parties supporting and right-wing parties opposing the initiative. The support was strong in the French-speaking West, while the German and Italian parts mostly opposed the bill.
But 56 % of voters and 20 out of 26 cantons said no – the laws stayed the way they were. A constitutional change via initiative like this one would have required a majority of both the popular vote and the cantons to pass, which means it was not a very close vote. Opponents of the referendum bill claimed the new measures would have undermined trust in the military, again proving just how vital the military is to Swiss gun culture.
The Swiss example provides an interesting look at the actual dynamics behind firearm deaths. Guns don’t kill people – a complex mix of national characteristics and historical factors eventually coming to a boil does. And in domestic disputes, their presence certainly doesn’t help.