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Can the world learn from Switzerland’s gun culture?

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The Week Unwrapped looks at the Alpine nation where firearms ownership is high but mass shootings are low

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Friday, May 24, 2019 - 11:02am

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Switzerland has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world yet also boasts an eviably low crime rate. In 2018, the Swiss authorities recorded 50 murders and 149 attempted murders, with guns involved in just 11% of the incidents, according to The Local.

So how has Switzerland - where nearly half of households own at least one firearms - developed a gun culture that seems to work?

What happened this week?

Swiss voters have agreed to tighten their gun laws to bring the Alpine nation into line with EU regulations introduced in response to terror attacks across Europe.

The reforms will make it harder for Switzerland’s 8.3 million civilians to obtain assault weapons and make it easier for the authorities to track firearms.

Conservative politicians and shooting interest groups have protested against the changes, which they view as an attack on their national identity. Critics of the new laws point out that Switzerland has seen only one major mass shooting in the past century: in 2005, an angry citizen gunned down 14 people inside the regional parliament in the city of Zug, before turning the gun on himself.

In the aftermath of the massacre, many local and federal government institutions introduced tighter security measures, but most Swiss viewed the attack as a horrifying anomaly, with attempts to curb access to guns met with indifference or hostility.

However, voters have now approved the gun reforms by 64% to 36%, with many seeking to avoid conflict with the European Union and safeguard the nation’s Schengen Area membership.

How do the Swiss control gun ownership?

Despite it often being said - correctly - that Swiss citizens are able to access firearms more easily than almost anywhere else in Europe, that doesn’t mean controls are lax.

Unlike in the US, automatic weapons are totally banned in Switzerland, as is military hardware such as grenade launchers.

Any firearm other than the single-shot and bolt-action rifles commonly used in hunting or target shooting requires a weapons permit, issued subject to a background check.

Citizens with a criminal record or a mental health problem that could make them a danger to themselves or others, including alcohol or drug addiction, are prohibited from owning a firearm, as are under-18s.

Firearms requiring a permit can only be purchased from licensed dealers, and all purchases or transfers must be registered with the cantonal weapons bureau and logged in a central database.

Gun owners are legally required to store their weapons safely, to prevent any access by unlicensed third parties.

Furthermore, all able-bodied Swiss men aged 18 must take part in 21 weeks of military training, after which they become militia reserves and must contribute another 21 weeks of service before the age of 34. Civilian soldiers are usually permitted to take their rifles home after they complete their training.

As a result, “many Swiss see gun ownership as part of a patriotic duty to protect their homeland”, says The Independent.

In addition, target shooting is one of Switzerland’s most popular sports, among both the young and old. “About 600,000 Swiss - many of them children - belong to shooting clubs,” the BBC reports.

Since this shooting takes place at licensed ranges, most Swiss have gun safety protocols drilled into them, often from an early age.

Hunting is another a popular past-time, and also comes with strict regulations to encourage responsible firearm use. To obtain a hunting licence, applicants must pass an exam that includes a demonstration of safe weapons handling.

The fact that the vast majority of gun use in Switzerland is associated with recreational activities in highly controlled settings has engendered “a culture of responsibility and safety that is anchored in society and passed from generation to generation”, concludes Time magazine.

Why will we be talking about this for years to come?

Pro-gun groups in the US often use the example of Switzerland to argue that high rates of firearm ownership do not necessarily result in higher rates of violence and crime. 

But “the fundamental difference between Switzerland and the US when it comes to buying guns is not the ease of purchase - it’s easy in both countries - but the regulations that are associated with gun ownership in Switzerland”, says The Atlantic.

Another key difference is that while gun ownership in the US is often motivated by self-defence, either from intruders or from potential government oppression, in Switzerland owning a firearm is commonly seen as an act of civic duty.

Indeed, Martin Killias, head of the Criminology Institute at Lausanne University, told France24 that the notion of buying a weapon to defend one’s home or family from crime was “almost unthinkable” in Swiss culture.

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