Swiss Killings Raise Pressure for Stricter Gun-Control Laws

Switzerland’s second shooting spree in the past two months is increasing support for tougher gun controls, including a proposal to link the firearm registries of the Alpine nation’s 26 cantons.

The death toll from yesterday’s shooting at a wood-processing factory in Menznau rose to four when one of seven injured people died in the hospital, Lucerne cantonal police said today in a statement. The 42-year-old Swiss national who opened fire with a Sphinx AT 380 pistol was among the dead. That followed the Jan. 3 killing of three people by a gunman armed with a military rifle in the southern Swiss village of Daillon.

Switzerland, where citizens can keep army-issue firearms after mandatory military service, is debating stricter gun controls after the worst mass shootings since 2001. While the country has a gun homicide rate one-seventh of that in the U.S., the killings add to political pressure to tighten firearms laws.

“This act has touched us all deeply and made us aware what incredible suffering can be inflicted by weapons,” Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga told reporters yesterday in the Swiss capital, Bern. “For me it’s always been clear we have to continually improve our weapons legislation.”

A parliamentary committee voted 12 to 7 on Jan. 8 to push a proposal for Swiss cantons to share information from their existing local gun registries. The ownership of hundreds of thousands of weapons in Switzerland is still unclear, Sommaruga said.

Gun Relationship

In a 2011 referendum, Swiss voters rejected a plan to require the registration of all firearms as well as a motion to change Switzerland’s tradition of letting citizens keep army-issue weapons at home.

“If there was a vote today, the situation would be different, but will mentalities change in the long term?” Christian Levrat, head of the Social Democrats, the second-biggest party in the Swiss Parliament’s lower house, told Tribune de Geneve last month. “We’re realizing that Switzerland, like the U.S., is faced with a problem in its relationship with firearms.”

Switzerland ranks third behind the U.S. and Yemen in firearms per capita, with the country’s 8 million people owning an estimated 3.4 million guns in 2007, according to the independent Small Arms Survey.

Less Isolated

The Menznau and Daillon shootings suggest that Switzerland may be becoming more influenced by events elsewhere in the world, such as the Newtown massacre in Connecticut and even the trial of Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee South African track star accused of killing the 29-year-old model Reeva Steenkamp, said Daniel Warner, assistant director at the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces.

“Switzerland has become less isolated from the social phenomenon in other places and the free movement of people has had its influence,” said Warner. “Switzerland used to be the world’s largest gated community -- those days are over.”

Still, the Alpine country had roughly 0.5 gun homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010 compared with 3.6 in the U.S., government figures show. That translates to 45 gun murders in Switzerland in 2011, police crime statistics show.

The shootings over the past two months aren’t part of a trend, said Hermann Suter, vice president of the nation’s gun-rights lobby group ProTell, named after legendary archer William Tell.

“It doesn’t show Switzerland is getting more violent,” said Suter, a 72-year-old former Swiss army lieutenant colonel. “It’s absolutely wrong to say Switzerland will have one incident after another. It just happens like a car accident.”

Cultural Differences

Suter, who joined Switzerland’s Grenadiers infantry corps in 1961, said that tougher Swiss firearms laws and a culture shaped by universal military service differentiate the country from the U.S.

Customers of Swiss gun shops need to certify that they have a clean criminal record and no psychiatric disability as well as prove they know how to use the weapon. U.S. states, including Florida, Montana and Utah, allow people to buy semi-automatic assault weapons without a license, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

“America is definitely a more violent society,” said Aaron Karp, a lecturer in political science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia and a senior consultant with the Small Arms Survey. “Most homicides are by individuals who believe they have the right and obligation to implement justice. The Swiss don’t think that way.”

Patriotic Duty

Switzerland’s gun culture is rooted in a sense of patriotic duty and national identity, according to Suter. An armed citizenry has been a cornerstone of Switzerland’s defense since the country’s founding in 1291. Service weapons are kept at home to speed up a mobilization in case the country, with a population smaller than New York City, is invaded. Since 2008, almost all military ammunition is kept at secure army depots.

“Americans have this cowboy mentality while in Switzerland, there’s a militia and hunting culture,” said Warner. “A large part of the population here is educated about using weapons, and that’s not the case in the U.S.”

Stephen Halbrook, a U.S. lawyer who has represented the National Rifle Association, calls Switzerland “the proof in the pudding” that guns don’t cause crime.

“The bottom line is that there are a lot of guns in that society and the crime rate is low,” Halbrook said in a Feb. 26 interview.

Zug Massacre

Calls for tighter gun controls increased in Switzerland in 2001 after a man killed 14 people in a regional government building in Zug, the worst mass murder in the country’s history. Six years later, the government began harmonizing weapons rules nationwide before Switzerland joined the European Union’s passport-free zone in 2009.

While ProTell doesn’t want Swiss laws weakened to resemble U.S. gun rules, it supports people’s right to own firearms for self-defense.

“I’m convinced that only a dictator takes away the weapons of his people so he can sit on his throne,” Suter said.

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