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Move to ban rifles at home gathers pace

Anti-gun campaigners want to ban scenes like this


Anti-gun supporters have collected enough signatures to force a nationwide vote on banning more than one million military weapons from Swiss households.

Guns are stored in homes under Switzerland's militia system, but opponents say the practice is too dangerous, pointing to deaths and domestic violence cases involving army weapons.

The people's initiative, launched by the centre-left Social Democratic Party and a number of pacifist organisations, was handed in to the Swiss chancellery in the capital, Bern, on Monday.

It calls for army weapons to remain in barracks, a national gun register, a ban on private individuals buying or owning particularly dangerous guns such as automatic weapons and pump-action shotguns and tighter controls on firearm carriers.

According to the initiative's committee, around 2.3 million weapons are currently in circulation Switzerland, of which a tenth belong to soldiers.

Keeping military firearms at home is a long-standing tradition for the militia army, which is supposed to be ready for a call to arms in times of crisis. However, most active members are not allowed to store munitions, since a ban on the practice was agreed by Parliament in December 2008. Ammunition is now mainly stored in central arsenals.

Safety risk

The initiative's supporters argue that the practice is a safety risk. Experts claim that around 300 deaths each year are caused by army weapons, which also play a role in domestic violence.

Social Democrat parliamentarian Chantal Galladé said the proposal created more security and prevented tragic deaths. "Guns don't belong in people's bedrooms or unsecured cellars," she said.

Green parliamentarian Josef Lang pointed to the 2001 case of a gunman who shot and killed 14 people in Zug's cantonal parliament with a pump-action gun. These had to be banned, he said.

"The pump-action shotgun is a weapon for madmen and killers," Lang said.

For Reto Moosmann from the pacifist organisation Group for Switzerland without an Army the compromise of not keeping munitions at home does not go far enough. Bullets could be bought in gun shops, he said.

Many doctors also support the initiative, pointing to suicide risks, particularly among young men.

Weakening the country

However, those in favour of keeping weapons at home argue that decommissioning is a weakening of Swiss security and a vote of no confidence in soldiers. The new defence minister, Ueli Maurer, has already indicated that he will fight attempts to take firearms out of the home.

The Swiss Shooting Sports Association, representing 250,000 members, said in a statement that the initiative would harm gun sports and hunting.

"The association calls on the public to reject the initiative. Accepting it won't stop abuses and won't solve the safety issues to the extent the initiative supporters would make you believe," it said.

The association added that respecting the revised law were more important than new legislation and bans.

Galladé told swissinfo that the initiative was not aimed at punishing those who acted responsibly with guns and that hunters should be able to keep their weapons at home.

She said that opponents' fears over losing their guns were largely unfounded. "We don't want to take anything away from anybody, we just want to prevent unnecessary deaths," said Galladé.

Tide turning?

All able-bodied Swiss men aged 20-30 are conscripted for around three months and are issued with a rifle. After initial training they are required to do up to four weeks of army service a year until they have served 260 days or reached the age of 34.

Debate has been raging on what should be done with these weapons since the shock of the Zug killings.

Further fuel was added when the husband of former women's ski champion Corinne Rey-Bellet killed her and her brother with his army pistol in 2006.

A security study published last year suggested that support for keeping weapons at home was falling. It found that just 34 per cent of the population was in favour, compared with 57 per cent in 1989. Women and young people were particularly against the practice.

Gun figures

Estimations of the number of firearms in circulation in Switzerland range upwards from 1.2 million. The initiative committee puts the figure at 2.3 million.

Army-issue weapons are said to be involved in the deaths of more than 300 people in Switzerland every year.

According to Ipsilon Suicide Prevention, 34% of suicides among men are due to firearms, compared with only 3.7% of female suicides.

An international survey, carried out by the European Alliance Against Depression and published last year, found that almost half of all suicides by Swiss youngsters were committed using a gun.

Swiss gun laws are among the most liberal worldwide. Most army weapons are stored at home, but since the beginning of 2008, they can be kept in barracks in the canton of Geneva.

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Army under fire?

The anti-gun initiative is supported by 74 organisations, including the Social Democrats and Greens, the Group for Switzerland without an Army and other peace bodies, doctors, churches and unions.

They gathered 107,000 valid signatures (from around 121,000 in total) from around the country – 100,000 were needed for a vote according to Switzerland's system of direct democracy.

The new defence minister, Ueli Maurer, has previously said that he will do all he can to prevent moves towards creating a professional army and to remove army weapons from home.

Maurer replaced Samuel Schmid, who resigned last year following pressure over his army policies and a controversial army chief appointment.

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