Swiss to vote on tighter gun controls

Swiss to vote on tighter gun controls

2nd March 2009, Comments 0 comments

Swiss citizens will decide whether soldiers can continue to bring their weapons home.

GENEVA - Switzerland's part-time soldiers traditionally store their guns in the attic, in a cupboard or under the bed. They see it as their honor and duty to keep their weapons close at hand.

But critics say the proliferation of firearms led to both suicides and homicides throughout the neutral nation, and they are seeking tighter firearms controls.

Campaigners said earlier in February they collected around 120,000 signatures to force a nationwide referendum on whether to confine army weapons to military compounds.

"Almost every day a person commits suicide with a firearm in Switzerland," said Josef Lang, a lawmaker for the Green Party who is campaigning for the proposal alongside the Social Democrats, rights groups and others.

The nation was shocked when in 2006 former ski star Corinne Rey-Bellet and her brother were shot dead by her husband with an army gun. He killed himself the next day.

The referendum, for which a date was not set, would also ask voters to decide whether to set up a national firearms register and forbid citizens from buying particularly dangerous guns, such as pump-action rifles or automatic weapons, for personal use.

It goes far beyond a 2007 law that requires military ammunition to be stored on base, a move that was seen by many as the first step to dismantling the guns-at-home tradition. But the left says that is not enough and the risk of misuse of military guns is still too high.

Anita Fetz, a lawmaker for the Social Democrats, said a register would lead to more security and was worth the cost, which opponents claim would be immense. "Every single car and every cow in Switzerland are registered. Of course that costs something," she said.

Service in Switzerland's militia army is compulsory for men, and soldiers must take their guns home between military duties.

Nearly a third of respondents in a 2008 poll said they keep at least one military gun at home, said the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich in a report for the country's Defense Ministry.

The exact number of army rifles and other guns in Swiss homes is unknown. The Defense Ministry estimates that there are about 2.2 million firearms in this nation of 7.5 million people. But the independent Small Arms Survey puts the figure at between 2.3 million and 4.5 million.

Professor Martin Killias, who co-directs the institute for criminology at the University of Zurich, said two-thirds of homes with guns only have military weapons.

SPECIAL FORCES SWISS ARMY © youtube footageSwitzerland's overall suicide rate is comparable to other European countries, according to a study by Killias and researchers of the University of Lausanne. But the proportion of firearm suicides is higher in Switzerland than in many countries on the continent, it said.

Suicide statistics in some Swiss cantons lead to an estimate of around 170 suicides committed with army guns every year in the country, the Swiss Defense Ministry said.

It was unable to provide a figure for homicides with military guns.

A report published in November by the ministry found a higher risk of family killings, threats and suicides where guns were easily available in households.

Lang said a countrywide firearms register would have enabled police to prevent Switzerland's worst shooting incident, when in 2001 an armed man stormed into a regional parliament building in the town of Zug, fatally wounding 14 lawmakers and officials before turning his gun on himself.

Lang, who himself was in the room at the time of the attack, said the man used a pump-action gun that he bought a few days earlier, despite being under investigation for allegedly threatening a bus driver with a gun and possession of a large collection of firearms.

Text: Elian Engeler / AP / Expatica

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