Senate backs revision of weapons law

There are no precise figures on the number of firearms in circulation Keystone Archive

The Swiss Senate has come out in favour of slightly stricter rules for purchasing and keeping firearms, but a significant tightening of the law was not on the table.

This content was published on June 8, 2006 - 08:00

It supported a ban on offering weapons anonymously through advertising or on the internet but the draft falls short of introducing a central database of all weapons in circulation.

If supported by the House of Representatives, the legislation would include baseball bats, soft air guns and bicycle chains as weapons.

Despite a long tradition of bearing arms and fairly responsible attitudes towards guns, Switzerland is not immune to tragedy and the gun law is a highly controversial subject.

It appears to be a contradiction that Switzerland, an orderly country with an efficient administration, has no record on the exact number of firearms.
Official estimates are surprisingly vague: between one and three million weapons, many of them kept in people's houses.

According to the Small Arms Survey (SAS), an international research programme based in Geneva, the per capita figure for weapons ownership in Switzerland is in fact above average.

"This is not due to the legal framework, which is neither liberal nor strict," says Keith Krause, director of SAS. "It depends far more on cultural and social factors. Switzerland has a traditional culture of bearing arms."

For example, soldiers of Switzerland's militia army are allowed to keep their army rifles and pistols at home. And the various sports involving firearms are particularly popular. There are more than 150,000 active members of rifle clubs, many of whom own more than one weapon.

Culture and tradition

"Things have been this way for centuries. The Swiss learn familiarity with weapons as children, in the company of their fathers," is the intentionally reassuring message of Willy Pfund, president of Pro Tell, an association that campaigns for liberal arms legislation.

"There is no need to worry. The Swiss have a responsible attitude towards firearms."

But Amnesty International believes that the availability of guns should be restricted, saying the fact that they are kept in the home is a permanent risk and could be a contributing factor for suicides and murders.

"In Switzerland, the percentage of people killed by firearms is slightly higher than in the rest of Western Europe", says Krause, who admits that it is not possible to identify a direct link between the numbers of weapons in circulation and their use.

However, the debate flares up every time a tragedy occurs, as it did in April when a former women's skiing champion, Corinne Rey-Bellet, was killed by her husband with his army pistol.

Schengen area

The government wants to impose tighter controls, largely to bring regulations into line with the regime in force in the European Union's Schengen area, which Switzerland will be joining in the near future.

The draft law includes introducing a mandatory permit for purchasing or keeping all types of firearms which is not at present necessary for all weapons.

It also foresees a ban on anonymous sales through the internet or small ads, and an obligation to report sales between private individuals.

"These are important moves and we support them," comments Amnesty International. "We welcome the prospect of an exchange of information between the armed forces and the Federal Police Office. There are some improvements, but we remain sceptical, given the decision not to go for a central arms register."

Central register

The establishment of such a register was initially to have been a key aspect of the reform.

But the proposal was rejected by 93 per cent of those questioned during the consultation procedure, mainly for financial reasons and because people objected to seeing their rights as free citizen curtailed.

"It would be difficult to bring in a register of this kind, given the Swiss federal system", Krause points out. He says an inventory of Switzerland's arsenal would be useful, although it would be difficult to assess its impact in reducing acts of violence.

Pfund of the gun lobby group rejects the proposed restrictions and thinks it far more important "to educate young people to have a safe and responsible relationship with firearms. It is a learning process, a question of learning adult behaviour".

swissinfo, Marzio Pescia

Key facts

The existing federal law on firearms, accessories and ammunition came into force in 1999.
An initial partial revision of the law provided only for the changes strictly necessary to enable Switzerland to subscribe to the Schengen/Dublin accords with the EU.
The House of Representatives will debate the bill at a later stage.

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In brief

According to statistics from Amnesty International, around the world one person is killed by a firearm every thirty seconds. There are more than 500,000 victims every year.

About 75 million rounds of ammunition are fired every year in Switzerland. In 2004, just 57 were used for criminal purposes.

In Switzerland, every militia soldier is entitled to keep his army rifle or pistol, together with sealed ammunition. The many hunters, collectors and members of shooting clubs also account for a large arsenal of weapons.

Following the recent murder of Corinne and Alain Rey-Bellet at the hands of the former women's ski champion's husband, who shot them with his army pistol, the Swiss Society for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy called for army weapons to be banned from Swiss people's houses.

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