On February 13 voters in Switzerland turned back a proposal that would have tightened controls on firearms possession and use in a country where a large share of the homes have at least one gun and where learning to shoot and handle a rifle for defense of country (as well as sport) is a right of passage for every Swiss male.
Gun enthusiasts and sport shooters were joined by officers and supporters of the country’s citizen militia in applauding the 57 percent majority vote in favor of keeping the country’s historic right of private firearms possession, a unique position in Europe, where most governments consider guns evil and those who possess them (other than law enforcement and military personnel) criminal.
A recent Swiss survey on gun ownership found that the country’s eight million residents hold between 2.3 million and 4.5 million firearms, trailing only the U.S. and Yemen in the number of guns per capita.
Swiss lawmaker Pius Segmueller, a former commander of the Vatican’s famed Swiss Guard, called the vote “an important sign of confidence in our soldiers,” referring to the Swiss law that requires every able-bodied young man to be part of the national militia and which allows them to retain possession of their state-issued firearms, even after their military service is concluded.
Firearms are used regularly in citizen militia drills as well as for recreational target practice and shooting competitions, “so it is not unusual to see civilian men and women, as well as soldiers, with rifles slung across their shoulders, on bikes, buses or trains,” reported Time magazine. “In some shooting clubs, children as young as 12 learn sharpshooting and go on to participate in youth rifle competitions around the country. Much of this tradition is based on trust the government places in its citizens to act responsibly. ‘We feel it’s our patriotic and civic duty to use the guns wisely,’ Felix Endrich, a spokesman for the Swiss Armed Forces, told TIME in 2007.”
The gun control referendum, which had been proposed and backed by a coalition of women’s groups, unions, churches, and pacifist organizations, called for banning military firearms from private residences, as well as establishing a nationwide firearms database and implementing stricter licensing of guns – all for the supposed purpose of addressing an increase in suicides and gun violence in the country.
“If you make firearms less accessible there will be fewer suicides,” declared Elsa Kurz of the Geneva-based organization Stop Suicide, one of the groups pushing for the tighter controls.
Time magazine quoted Ebo Aebischer, a Swiss minister and proponent of the initiative, as claiming that “a significant number of suicides [in Switzerland] involve a gun” and noting that last year nearly 27 percent of Swiss men who killed themselves used a firearm. “That’s why everybody should have been supportive of this initiative,” he said after the vote.