Swiss vote on keeping army guns at home

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Switzerland, which has the highest rate of suicide by firearms in Europe, voted Sunday to hold fast to its long-standing tradition of letting citizens keep army-issue weapons at home, exit polls showed.

A referendum, launched by a coalition of non-governmental groups, religious authorities and centre-left parties, sought to get the weapons stored in armouries instead.

The initiative also wanted to abolish the practice of allowing those on military service to keep their government-issue assault rifles even after they leave the army.

However, exit polls indicated that most Swiss had voted against the move. Those estimated were confirmed in five of the 26 cantons which had already returned final results an hour after polls closed.

For any initiative to pass, it requires the twin support of a majority of citizens and of cantons.

The practice of keeping arms at home was once a core part of the country's defence strategy, which was in part aimed at deterring invasion with the threat that its citizens are combat-ready at any sign of trouble.

According to official data, about two million firearms are in circulation in this Alpine country of about seven million inhabitants. But there are an estimated 240,000 more unregistered weapons.

The Swiss ease with weapons is betrayed on the street and in railway stations, as young conscripts travel to and from military service nonchalantly carrying their semi-automatic rifle, with barely a glance from passers-by.

Xavier Schwitzguebel, an officer in the Swiss army when he is on compulsory military service, pointed out that gun culture is a tradition here.

"If the yes goes through, it really risks destroying the country," he warned ahead of the vote.

Swiss society is built on trust between the citizen and the state, he argued.

"If we take away the weapon, which represents this trust, that means that we are breaking the sacred union between democracy and citizen."

The government has also called on the population to vote against the initiative, explaining that "current legislation assures adequate and sufficient protection of the population against the abusive use of weapons."

It noted for instance, that it is no longer possible for citizens to trade freely in these weapons. The army also instructs servicemen to keep their weapons disassembled and not to divulge where they are hidden.

In addition, those who wish to, can already store their weapons in armouries.

Nevertheless, some have been alarmed by episodes such as the 2001 shooting in central Switzerland's Zug canton, when 14 people were gunned down during a local parliament sitting.

Advocates of the ban believe that the easy availability of weapons poses a danger particularly for suicidal people.

Rates of suicide using firearms in Switzerland are three times higher than in the rest of Europe, said Anne-Marie Trabichet, from Stop Suicide, one of the groups that launched the initiative.

© 2011 AFP

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