Swiss doctors consider it their professional duty to back an initiative aimed at restricting access to firearms to be voted on in a nationwide ballot on February 13.
The Swiss Medical Association, which represents the overwhelming majority of practising doctors, considers the initiative an important part of suicide prevention.
“It is about public health and suicide prevention. This is our core business, to save lives,” said the association’s president, Jacques de Haller.
He dismisses accusations that the Medical Association was taking sides with centre-left political parties.
“The support committee is made up of people from different parties,” de Haller said. He added that the initiative was put to a vote of delegates after both supporters and opponents had had their say.
De Haller explains that backing the initiative can be seen as an extension to the Hippocratic oath – the pledge made by all doctors to practise medicine ethically.
“In general terms it is our duty to treat people suffering from depression, to assist them and of course to avoid death,” he said.
De Haller speaks from experience. He used to work as a practitioner in Geneva. One of the first death certificates he had to write more than 20 years ago was a gun suicide and he remembers the gruelling details of the case.
He says such tragedies are often a terrible shock for doctors too. “We must not hesitate if there is anything we can do to prevent this happening 100 times a year in Switzerland,” de Haller said.
Arms - suicide
The number of people who use firearms to commit suicide has dropped over the past decade. In most cases people nowadays use poison or a drug to end their lives.
Nevertheless young men still very often choose a firearm if they want to die, according to de Haller. Statistics also show that more than 90 per cent of the people who died of gunshot wounds are suicide cases.
The figures are proof for de Haller that fewer firearms means fewer suicides.
“As we learn from observations in England, Scotland, Australia and Canada we can conclude that there is a correlation between stricter gun laws and fewer suicide cases with firearms. There is a lower suicide rate altogether,” says de Haller.
Price of a life
He is convinced that a ban on keeping army-issue firearms at home – as demanded by the initiative – would help make life safer.
Current law, introduced in 2008, allows members of the Swiss militia army to store their guns at an arsenal.
“It might not have an impact on crime – this is not the target of the initiative – but safety in terms of fewer suicides and less domestic violence,” de Haller explains.
He agrees that the mandatory storing of army-issue guns might indeed create extra costs as opponents of the initiative argue.
“But what a bizarre idea to set dozens of saved lives against spending a million francs,” he wonders.
De Haller also rejects allegations by opponents of the initiative that amateur shooters and hunters would face high obstacles.
He says the initiative clearly says that exceptions to the home ban are possible for those using firearms for their favourite sport or their hunting activities.
The ban could be a key element in cases where depressive people act on impulse he argues.
“The fact that there is no easily accessible firearm in the house often means people do not commit suicide. And this helps save lives. But if they know that there is a gun in the cupboard in the corridor they use it,” de Haller explains.
To back up his argument de Haller refers to another measure that has helped prevent suicides in the city of Bern.
In 1998 the city authorities installed safety nets at a public garden next to the cathedral high above the Matte area on the River Aare.
People thwarted from jumping from the garden could have gone 100 metres and jumped off a bridge, but they did not do so.
“That shows that people do not simply use another method,” de Haller says.
The Swiss Medical Association has more than 30,000 members and represents 95% of all practising doctors in Switzerland.
The organisation came out in favour of the initiative in 2009 and is among the 70 groups backing efforts to restrict access to firearms and prevent arms abuses.
However, a survey among the medical association found many members rejecting the official position, as de Haller told the NZZ newspaper.
De Haller, who is a member of the Social Democratic Party, is personally in favour of the initiative, while another doctor and parliamentarian of the centre-right Radicals, Ignazio Cassis, is among the leaders of the opposing committee.
Aims of the initiative
The initiative wants to introduce a strict licensing system for the use of firearms and seeks a ban on the purchase of automatic weapons and pump action shotguns.
It also demands the creation of a central registry for firearms, instead of a cantonal system.
Members of the militia army could no longer store their army-issue guns at home but would have to take them to an arsenal.
259 people fell victim to a bullet wound in 2008, and 239 among them were cases of suicide.
The overwhelming majority of the victims were men. There were only 13 women.
The number of gun deaths nearly halved in a decade. Of the 466 cases in 1998, 413 were recorded as suicides.
At the same time suicide through poisoning and drugs nearly doubled to 395 cases in 2008.
(Source: Federal Statistics Office)