Why are people who have guns bad?

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The days when most men in Switzerland had a service weapon at home are over. But there are still more than 2.5 million rifles and pistols in private hands. Parliament and government now want to tighten the laws. Hobby shooters fight back - by referendum.

This content was published on January 17, 2019 - 2:00 p.m.

Why aren't there constant shootings in Switzerland, where there is a firearm in almost every household? This is what John McPhee, author of the bestseller "The Watchful Peace of Switzerland", asked himself in the 1980s. The American essayist's succinct answer: Because it is forbidden.

The US comedy program "The Daily Show" investigated the phenomenon a little less seriously last week: Reporter Michael Kosta had visited the Federal Field Shooting to get to the bottom of the peaceful Swiss gun culture. Here is the post (in English):

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Vid weapons

Among other things, he met former Federal Councilor Samuel Schmid there, who explained why Switzerland had hardly any deaths or injuries from firearms despite many weapons: "We have respect for the weapon. And then it is not a problem."

The example shows that when you are abroad you always register with a mixture of admiration, curiosity and astonishment how Swiss soldiers kept their service weapons at home.

Foreign tourists used to be amazed when they saw teenagers in denim jackets on their mopeds, assault rifles on their shoulders: for a long time, that was the usual Saturday wear of members of local shooting clubs.

For decades, the image of the armed citizen who was ready to defend his country at any time stood for the motto that Switzerland did not have an army, but an army. Then came 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall, a third of Swiss citizens spoke out in favor of the abolition of the military - and a lot changed.

Today, the emotional bond between citizens and the army is no longer the one that shaped the Swiss mentality during the Second World War and the Cold War. The number of soldiers has decreased, the army is less present in everyday life. And the assault rifle in your own household has gone out of fashion.

Less service weapons at home

In 2017, 1,523 assault rifles and 990 rifles were delivered to dismissed soldiers, according to the newspaper "Blick", citing figures from the Department of Defense. Ninety percent of the soldiers who had completed their service during the year did not take their service weapons home with them.

In 2004, the number of dismissed soldiers and officers who had taken their weapons with them was 43 percent: more than 20,000 assault rifles were handed over to the population, almost 12,000 pistols.

However, the figures for 2004 are to be read in connection with the army reform 21, which came into force this year. It has led to a significant decrease in the number of soldiers in service and has reduced the number in the arsenals.

In the years that followed, the numbers fell rapidly. Since 2004 until today, a total of 106,000 weapons have been handed over to those who have left the service. Since 2010, anyone who wants to take a gun home has to take part in regular shooting exercises. This has undoubtedly made it less attractive to take the weapon with you.

Purchase approval boom

But that doesn't mean that the traditional passion of many Swiss people for firearms has disappeared. According to the "NZZ am SonntagExterner Link", the cantons issued between 30,000 and 35,000 permits for the purchase of weapons last year. Pistols, revolvers and semi-automatic weapons are subject to authorization. According to the newspaper, the number of weapons actually bought is between 45,000 and 55,000.

Other journalistic surveys (e.g. by Der BundExterner Link and Tages AnzeigerExterner Link) have shown that applications for gun purchase permits have increased massively in recent years. The "NZZ am Sonntag" assumes - based on federal estimates and purchasing surveys in recent years - that the number of firearms in the hands of private individuals is between 2.5 and 3 million.

In a 2011 study, the Geneva-based NGO Small Arms Survey even mentioned 3.4 million weaponsExternal Link. This would put Switzerland in third place worldwide after the USA and Yemen among the countries with the highest density of weapons per capita.

However, more recent data from the same organization, which refer to 2017, revise these estimates significantly: Around 2.3 million weapons - according to the current estimate by External Link - would be in private hands. This means that every third to fourth inhabitant in Switzerland owns a weapon.

The large number of weapons in Switzerland is not only explained by the fact that discharged soldiers can take their service weapons home with them. The rather liberal legislation is also responsible for this.

And it is precisely this that could soon change. The government and parliament want to tighten the rules for gun ownership and adapt them to the guidelines of the European UnionExternal link.

Stricter norms

A year and a half after the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, the EU decided to ban semi-automatic weapons. This category also includes Swiss Army assault rifles. Switzerland, which is part of the Schengen area, is obliged to apply the European legislation at least in principle until the end of May 2019. However, Bern has succeeded in obtaining numerous exceptions.

When the rifle is lost

In 2018, 107 army weapons were lost in Switzerland, much more than in the previous year. In 2017, 85 assault rifles and pistols disappeared, according to the Federal Department of Defense, Civil Protection and Sport (DDPS), which confirms a report in the newspaper "Blick". In the previous year, 69 weapons were lost.

A total of 766 firearms have disappeared since 2009. 36 were found last year, including three assault rifles abroad. According to army spokesman Stefan Hofer, there are several reasons for the loss of weapons. Sometimes they are stolen in a break-in, lost on the way, or destroyed by fire. Since 1969, nearly five thousand army weapons have been lost and not found.

(Source: SDA)

End of insertion

In particular, service weapons that are taken over by soldiers after the end of their service time no longer fall under the category of prohibited weapons. According to the new law, only the resale of the rifle requires a special permit. Sport shooters, on the other hand, would have to be a member of a shooting club or prove that they regularly participate in target practice.

The reform goes too far for the shooting associations. They fear that the new rules will mark the end of shooting as a popular sport and put gun owners under general suspicion. For this reason, the Swiss Shooting AssociationExterner Link (SSV) Externer Link took the referendum against the revision of the law.

The SSV submitted this to the Federal Chancellery on Thursday with 125,000 signatures. 50,000 signatures would have been necessary. The Swiss electorate will therefore have to comment on the tightening of legislation on gun ownership on May 19th.

(Translated from Italian: Balz Rigendinger)

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