On a snowy late-February morning, a man walked into the cafeteria of a wood-processing plant in the Swiss village of Menznau and opened fire with a Sphinx AT .380 pistol. Four people died, including the gunman. Six others were wounded. It was Switzerland’s second mass shooting in less than two months. In January a man with a history of mental illness fired a rifle from his window in the Alpine village of Daillon, killing three and injuring two. The shootings have rekindled the debate over gun control in Switzerland, where an estimated one in four households has a gun. “This act has touched us all deeply and made us aware what incredible suffering can be inflicted by weapons,” Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said in Bern on Feb. 27, the day after the Menznau killings.
This month, Parliament is set to vote on legislation that would require Switzerland’s 26 states to share data in their local gun registries with each other. After languishing for two years, the plan was revived after the shooting in January. For years, Switzerland’s experience seemed to support the argument that widespread gun ownership doesn’t lead to increased murders. Its homicide rate of 0.7 per 100,000 people is among the world’s lowest, and less than one-sixth the rate in the U.S. But its 8 million citizens own 3.4 million firearms, the world’s third-highest rate after the U.S. and Yemen, according to Small Arms Survey, a research group in Geneva. “A law-abiding citizen must have the right to defend himself,” says Hermann Suter, vice president of the Swiss gun-rights lobbying group ProTell, named after the legendary Swiss archer William Tell.
Swiss gun culture is rooted in patriotism. After completing compulsory military service, men are expected to keep their service weapons in case of an emergency mobilization. But those guns account for only about 10 percent of those in circulation, says Martin Killias, a professor of criminal law and criminology at the University of Zurich. The rest are bought from gun shops and private sellers. Although sales must be reported to police, voters in a 2011 referendum rejected a plan to create a nationwide registry and require veterans to return their guns to the military.
Swiss gun buyers have to certify they have no criminal record or psychiatric problems. The Menznau shooter, though, was once sentenced to a year in prison for robbery. The accused Daillon killer was a veteran whose service weapon had been confiscated because of his history of mental health problems. Police haven’t released the men’s names or said how they obtained their guns.
Gun-rights advocates say that stricter laws are bound to fail. “It’s not a question of availability,” says Tobias Ruggli, an airline pilot who keeps his military rifle at home in Winterthur and has practiced target shooting since he was a teenager. “You’d always be able to obtain a weapon, even illegally,” he says.
Others contend tighter regulation could curb suicides and domestic violence. Switzerland’s gun suicide rate is the second-highest in Europe, close behind Finland’s. A 2011 study showed that 43 percent of homicides within Swiss households were committed with firearms, a far higher rate than in neighboring countries. Adding to concerns about lax controls, the Swiss army said recently that it had lost track of about 5,000 weapons issued to soldiers who left active duty.
The pending record-sharing legislation “is a good thing, but we need to do something more,” says Anne-Marie Trabichet, coordinator of Stop Suicide, a Geneva-based advocacy group. “The problem is the easy accessibility.” Parliament is unlikely to approve anything tougher than the record-sharing legislation, because the Swiss tend to view mass killings as a “medical” issue rather than a legal one, Killias says. “There are analyses on the state of mind of the offender, what had gone wrong in their childhood, their marriage, all that.”
A week after the Menznau shooting, David Jokic, a resident of the village near Lake Lucerne, said he’s now convinced that no one should be allowed to keep a gun at home. “We have the police to keep us safe; we don’t need guns,” he says. “People can turn to weapons when they’re provoked or angry, and that’s just the worst way to deal with it.”