An Ar­mory in Gun-Shy Europe

Switzer­land Weighs Curbs on Its Cul­ture of Firearm Own­er­ship

The Washington Post Sunday - - World News - By Kevin Sul­li­van

ZUG, Switzer­land — Evening rush hour at a Swiss train sta­tion: men in suits, a wo­man car­ry­ing a cello, kids lug­ging snow­boards. Markus Marschall, a univer­sity en­gi­neer­ing stu­dent, walked through the bus­tle wear­ing an orange T-shirt, leather jacket and avi­a­tor sun­glasses — and a Stur­mgewehr 90 au­to­matic as­sault ri­fle slung over his shoul­der.

“It’s per­fectly nor­mal,” said Marschall, 25, who car­ried the olive­g­reen ri­fle, is­sued to him by the Swiss mil­i­tary, on a can­vas strap as ca­su­ally as he might carry a ten­nis racket. No­body gave him a sec­ond glance.

Switzer­land, a coun­try of 7.5 mil­lion peo­ple with an es­ti­mated 2 mil­lion or more guns in cir­cu­la­tion, sits as a heav­ily armed ex­cep­tion in the heart of Europe, where most coun­tries have strict gun-con­trol laws. Vir­tu­ally all able-bod­ied Swiss men are re­quired to serve in the mil­i­tary, which is­sues them as­sault ri­fles or pis­tols, or both, which they store at home and keep when they leave the ser­vice.

At a time when the Vir­ginia Tech killings are stir­ring de­bate about U.S. gun laws, Switzer­land is also weigh­ing new curbs on a ro­bust cul­ture of gun own­er­ship that dates back cen­turies. Par­lia­ment is con­sid­er­ing a mea­sure to ban the keep­ing of am­mu­ni­tion at home. Op­po­si­tion politi­cians, backed by a lead­ing women’s mag­a­zine, are cam­paign­ing to get guns and am­mu­ni­tion out of Swiss homes to be stored in gun clubs and mil­i­tary ar­mories.

“If you have a gun in the home, the risk of death is higher than if you don’t have a gun at home — very sim­ple,” said Manuela Weichelt-Pi­card, an elected of­fi­cial and sur­vivor of this coun­try’s worst gun slaugh­ter, in which a man with a ri­fle killed 14 peo­ple and him­self at a lo­cal gov­ern­ment meet­ing in this lake­side city south of Zurich in Septem­ber 2001. Swiss anti-gun ac­tivists saw the Vir­ginia Tech shoot­ings demon­strate all over again the dan­ger of easy ac­cess to firearms.

Gun ad­vo­cates ar­gue that stricter con­trols would vi­o­late age-old Swiss tra­di­tion, would not de­ter crime and would not have pre­vented the Zug mas­sacre. “No gun law will ever stop the crazy man from do­ing out­ra­geous things,” said Ferdinand Hedi­ger of Pro Tell, a gun own­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tion.

Anti-gun ac­tivists said they were pes­simistic about win­ning ma­jor gun-law changes in a coun­try where guns are a com­monly ac­cepted part of life. Each spring, more than 200,000 peo­ple take part in a na­tional tar­get-shoot­ing com­pe­ti­tion staged in nearly ev­ery vil­lage in the coun­try. Hedi­ger of Pro Tell — named for William Tell, the leg­endary Swiss char­ac­ter who with bow and ar­row shot an ap­ple from his son’s head — said Swiss shoot­ers fire 70 mil­lion rounds of am­mu­ni­tion each year, nearly 10 bul­lets for ev­ery cit­i­zen.

But a poll pub­lished Sun­day in a na­tional news­pa­per, Son­ntags­Blick, found that 65 per­cent of 1,200 Swiss sur­veyed were op­posed to stor­ing mil­i­tary guns at home, with 76 per­cent say­ing it was not “nec­es­sary for the army’s mis­sion.” Al­though 54 per­cent said Switzer­land’s high rate of gun own­er­ship made the coun­try “less safe,” 60 per­cent said that changes in laws would not stop gun vi­o­lence in Swiss homes.

No one knows ex­actly how many guns are in Switzer­land — es­ti­mates reach 3 mil­lion or more — in part be­cause mil­i­tary guns have been passed down through gen­er­a­tions. The Geneva-based Small Arms Sur­vey es­ti­mates that the coun­try has 46 guns per 100 peo­ple, which puts it be­hind only the United States, with 90 guns per 100 peo­ple; Ye­men, with 61; and Fin­land, with 56 — and just ahead of Iraq with 39.

Hedi­ger, of Pro Tell, es­ti­mated that at least half of Swiss homes have a gun tucked away some­where. Marschall, a full-time stu­dent and Swiss Army mili­tia­man, said he keeps his ri­fle in a bed­room closet with “T-shirts and sports equip­ment” and a sealed can­is­ter of 50 mil­i­tary-is­sued bul­lets. He was on his way to the an­nual shoot­ing prac­tice re­quired of all 200,000 sol­diers and re­servists.

A gun for ev­ery man is the ba­sis of a gen­er­a­tions-old de­fense doc­trine in the tiny, tra­di­tion­ally neu­tral coun­try. Swiss of­fi­cials call it the “por­cu­pine” approach: Switzer­land may be small, but weapons in base­ments and at­tics in ev­ery Alpine vil­lage act as mil­lions of quills to de­ter in­vaders.

“An army should be ready as soon as pos­si­ble, so sol­diers should have weapons and am­mu­ni­tion at home — this is our tra­di­tion,” said Ul­rich Sch­luer, a na­tional leg­is­la­tor who serves on a com­mis­sion on se­cu­rity. Many Swiss feel the pol­icy served them well dur­ing World War II, when their coun­try largely es­caped the con­fla­gra­tion that con­sumed most of Europe.

Ac­cord­ing to Swiss po­lice, there were 204 homi­cides in Switzer­land in 2005, in­clud­ing 48 that in­volved guns. That is about the same num­ber of gun-re­lated killings as took place last year in Eng­land and Wales, which have strict gun con­trol and a pop­u­la­tion seven times the size of Switzer­land’s.

Ac­cord­ing to a 25-na­tion sur­vey by the In­ter­na­tional Ac­tion Net­work on Small Arms, a Bri­tish­based or­ga­ni­za­tion against gun vi­o­lence, Switzer­land’s to­tal num­ber of gun deaths, in­clud­ing ac­ci­dents, in 2005 was 6.2 per 100,000 cit­i­zens, which was sec­ond only to the U.S. rate of 9.42 per 100,000. Switzer­land’s rate of gun deaths was more than dou­ble that of 18 of the coun­tries sur­veyed, in­clud­ing neigh­bors Ger­many and Italy.

Sch­luer and other gun ad­vo­cates at­trib­uted much of the vi­o­lence to crim­i­nals who ob­tain weapons il­le­gally.

But gun-con­trol pro­po­nents here con­tend that guns kept at home are used in­creas­ingly in sui­cides; ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment fig­ures, there were 271 sui­cides by firearm in Switzer­land in 2004 out of a to­tal of 1,283.

Annabelle, a Swiss women’s mag­a­zine, re­ported that there were at least eight cases in the coun­try last year of men shoot­ing their wives or chil­dren, then them­selves. Th­ese in­cluded the mur­der of in­ter­na­tional ski cham­pion Corinne Rey-Bel­let by her hus­band, who then shot him­self. To high­light the prob­lem, the mag­a­zine printed posters show­ing a happy Swiss fam­ily: mom with a baby, a young boy in dress clothes and a beam­ing dad wear­ing a tie and hold­ing his as­sault ri­fle un­com­fort­ably close to his wife’s face.

“We don’t know any wo­man who wants a weapon in the house,” said Lisa Feld­mann, the mag­a­zine’s ed­i­tor. “Women and the younger gen­er­a­tion think this is crazy.”

Al­though there was a na­tional de­bate, Switzer­land did not make any ma­jor changes to its gun laws af­ter the mas­sacre in Zug, a pic­turesque town of about 24,000 on the shores of a placid lake that bears the same name.

“I don’t know how many peo­ple have to die be­fore things change,” said Weichelt-Pi­card, who was in the room dur­ing the Zug killings and helped tend to the dead and wounded, all of whom she knew. “There are too many peo­ple in our world who can’t han­dle a gun in mo­ments where they are an­gry or up­set.”

Weichelt-Pi­card said her first re­ac­tion to the news about Vir­ginia Tech was, “Oh no, not again.” She said she was in trauma ther­apy for months af­ter the shoot­ing here.

Si­mone Hin­nen, 35, one of 14 peo­ple wounded in the shoot­ings, still wears an elas­tic ban­dage over the scar­ring on her right lower leg and, af­ter a half-dozen op­er­a­tions, still has trou­ble walk­ing. Hin­nen said that stricter gun laws would not have stopped the Zug shooter, who used pri­vately pur­chased guns, but that guns stored at home of­ten lead to fam­ily vi­o­lence.

“I un­der­stand peo­ple who say this is our his­tory,” she said. “But for the younger gen­er­a­tion, I think it’s dif­fer­ent. It should be for­bid­den to have a gun at home.”

On Fri­day af­ter­noon, Mar­cel Brun­schwiler, 34, a busi­ness con­sul­tant, ate lunch in a sunny plaza next to the build­ing where the Zug shoot­ings hap­pened. He said that while Switzer­land and the United States are world lead­ers in gun own­er­ship, gun-re­lated killings are in his view far more com­mon in the United States. He blamed that partly on vi­o­lent Amer­i­can television shows such as “24,” which he watches avidly.

“Kids in Amer­ica watch th­ese shows and think, ‘I just have to kill this guy and the prob­lem’s solved,’ ” Brun­schwiler said. “We have a com­pletely dif­fer­ent way of think­ing.”

Brun­schwiler said he owns a 9mm pis­tol, which he keeps in a drawer with his CDs.

PHO­TOS BY KEVIN SUL­LI­VAN — THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Markus Marschall, 25, a Swiss stu­dent and mili­tia­man, totes his army-is­sued au­to­matic as­sault ri­fle in Zurich.

Manuela Weichelt-Pi­card sur­vived a 2001 shoot­ing ram­page in which 14 peo­ple were killed at a meet­ing in Zug. She is now an anti-gun ac­tivist.

Lisa Feld­mann, ed­i­tor of the women’s mag­a­zine Annabelle, with the poster her pub­li­ca­tion is us­ing in its cam­paign to get guns out of Swiss homes.

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