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Gun debate sets sights on army ammo

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

(Keystone)

A Senate committee has taken a first step towards banning the country's 120,000-strong militia army from storing ammunition at home.

It comes at a time of increased debate in Switzerland over the long-standing tradition of keeping army guns at home, and shock at the killing of more than 30 students in the United States' worst-ever shooting.

It also follows a fatal shooting last week in the northern city of Baden when a 26-year-old Swiss emptied the magazine of his military rifle inside a hotel restaurant, killing one man and injuring four others.

Speaking after Monday's 11-1 vote in favour of an ammunition ban, Hermann Bürgi, president of the Senate committee on security policy, denied that members had been influenced by recent events and media pressure.

The proposal, which will now be examined by the seven-strong cabinet and parliament, would allow for around 2,000 specialist troops, such as those guarding airports and other important installations, to keep ammunition at home. The government would also be able to lift the ban in the event of a security crisis.

Bürgi added that the vote should in no way be seen as a first step towards putting a bullet in the sacred Swiss cow of keeping army rifles and pistols at home. "The decision does not create a precedent," he said.

Willy Pfund, president of the country's gun lobby Pro Tell, said on Tuesday that society rather than the practice of keeping army weapons at home was to blame for gun violence.

He added that storing ammunition and guns in different places made no sense in terms of defending the country.

Nationwide vote

But on Tuesday pacifists and centre-left parties said they would push ahead with plans to force a nationwide vote to scrap the practice of keeping army guns at home.

They are due to decide on whether to launch a people's initiative on May 25. Beni Hirt, an official for the centre-left Social Democratic Party involved in the campaign, said the "ready availability of weapons" was a serious problem.

A Lausanne University study, published in December last year, revealed that army-issue weapons were involved in the deaths of more than 300 people every year.

Hirt said the Senate committee's decision was "a step in the right direction" but would have no influence on his campaign. He said all military weapons should be removed from Swiss homes and a national gun register introduced.

"Everyone knows that it is very easy to obtain ammunition from rifle ranges," he said. "It's just a question of not firing all the cartridges that you get and putting the rest in your pocket."

Tighter gun laws?

All able-bodied Swiss men aged 20-30 are conscripted for about three months and issued with a rifle.

After initial training, they are required to do three or four weeks of army service a year until they have served a total of 260 days or reached the age of 34. Throughout this time they keep their rifles and 50 rounds of ammunition at home.

Five years ago Switzerland was stunned when a gunman shot and killed 14 people in Zug's cantonal parliament with his army rifle, before turning the gun on himself.

Debate on the use of firearms was further fuelled in April last year when the husband of former women's ski champion Corinne Rey-Bellet killed his wife and her brother with his army pistol.

In June 2006 the Senate came out in favour of slightly stricter rules for purchasing and keeping firearms but a significant tightening of the law was not on the table.

At the end of March the House of Representatives rejected by 96 votes to 80 a proposal to tighten the gun law, including having a central arms register.

swissinfo with agencies

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 a recent study.

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In brief

In September 2006 the government said family tragedies and suicides were not valid reasons to stop soldiers from keeping their army weapons at home.

Swiss Defence Minister Samuel Schmid, a member of the rightwing Swiss People's Party, argues that Switzerland's militia army needs to be able to mobilise rapidly.

Among those demanding tighter gun laws are Amnesty International, the Swiss Peace Council, the Victims of Violence Forum, the Stop Suicide Association, Ipsilon (the Initiative for the Prevention of Suicide in Switzerland) and the Swiss Society of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy.

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