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Centre-left wants to end Swiss gun tradition

The Swiss can keep their army guns at home - for the time being

(Keystone)

Pacifists and centre-left parties want voters to have the final say on breaking with a long-standing Swiss tradition of storing personal army rifles and pistols at home.

They said they would launch a people's initiative to ban such weapons in households. The announcement came a day after parliament refused to take action over the issue.

Supporters of the ban are expected to launch a bid to collect the necessary signatures for the vote within the next few months.

The House of Representatives on Thursday threw out a proposal by the Social Democrats and the Greens to tighten the gun law, including having a central arms register.

"Firearms are the biggest security risk in the country," said Green parliamentarian Jo Lang, while the Social Democrat, Boris Banga, argued that current regulations on standard issue firearms were outdated.

His party colleague Chantal Galladé added a personal aspect to the debate. "I was 11 when my father committed suicide with an army gun."

Other speakers pointed out the latest case of murder committed with such weapons – a man shot his girlfriend in southeastern Switzerland earlier this week.

Under Swiss law all-able bodied men are issued with a rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition which they can keep after completing their military service.

An estimated 1.6 million firearms are in circulation in Switzerland and a study found that 300 people are killed every year by standard issue weapons.

There are also more than 150,000 active members of rifle clubs, many of whom own more than one gun.

Mistrust

However, Justice Minister Christoph Blocher, a member of the rightwing Swiss People's Party, downplayed the importance of guns in crimes, adding the issue of keeping weapons at home should be part of a wider discussion on the army.

Ulrich Schlüer, also from the Swiss People's Party, dismissed allegations that members of Switzerland's militia army and civilian shooting clubs acted irresponsibly.

"It's a sign of honour for the citizen to take the weapon home. They feel treated with disrespect if they are denied this right," he said.

Parliament will continue the debate on the gun law and on proposals to ban the storage of gun and rifle ammunition in households at a later date.

Recent polls show support for keeping army firearms at home is waning among the public. Last year a women's magazine handed in a petition to parliament in a bid to rid Swiss households of weapons.

Criminologist Martin Killias of Lausanne University has said that guns play a central role in suicides and in the country's grim history of family killings.

Many newspaper commentators echoed the changing attitude among the public.

Zurich's Tages-Anzeiger newspaper says the ballot box challenge mounted by pacifists and the centre-left is a way out of an obvious impasse in a parliament.

Arms fetishists

"Arms fetishists dominate parliament. Their decision had to be expected in a country which celebrates its readiness to fight off an outside threat by letting citizens keep their automatic rifles and pistols at home," the paper said.

Der Bund from Bern says understanding for Switzerland's gun tradition is dwindling in society, particularly among women.

"Whether a ban would make Switzerland necessarily any safer is another question, but better protection from gunmen running amok is reason enough to collect individual army firearms."

In a similar vein, the Basler Zeitung says parliament missed an opportunity to reduce the number of weapons in circulation.

Le Temps from Geneva sees no point in sticking to the gun tradition for the sake of those who put tradition above everything else.

"It seems absurd and outdated to refer to the need for security in the face of terrorist threats."

It says rational arguments, such as the prevention of murder cases, should be more important than emotional aspects and the natural instinct to oppose any state interference in citizens' rights and freedoms.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser

Militia army

The Swiss army functions according to a militia principle. All men liable to do military service undergo basic training and broaden their ...

In brief

The reform of the gun law aims to bring regulations in line with the EU's open border policy, which Switzerland will be joining in the near future.

The legislation includes a permit for purchasing firearms from private individuals, a ban on anonymous sales through the internet or small ads and the tagging of new weapons produced in Switzerland or imported.

However, there is no provision for a central arms register or restrictions for standard issue army firearms.

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Key facts

There are an estimated 1.6 to 2 million firearms in circulation in Switzerland.
About a third of all murder cases involve private guns and army weapons.
Army weapons were used in 68% of suicides, according to recent study.

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