An Armory in Gun-Shy Europe
Switzerland Weighs Curbs on Its Culture of Firearm Ownership
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.
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.