‘Give me a Kalashnikov and three magazines’
Switzerland is said to be liberal when it comes selling weapons. But is it really easy to purchase a military-grade gun and munitions? Yes and no, with plenty of legal hurdles along the way, but also a number of loopholes.
The AK 47, a gun with an unmatched mythical status, developed over 70 years, is also the most widespread weapon of its type worldwide. Buying one in Switzerland is apparently quite simple, as easy as a few clicks of your mouse button.
A few minutes on a classified ad website turns up one, never used, for SFr900 ($980), less than the usual market price according to the seller.
Not bad for a first try, but I want more. For the same price, I can get the VZ 58, a Czech cousin of the AK 47, I add a mini-Uzi submachine gun, and for another SFr350, a 1931 issue Swiss army rifle.
This collection is hardly discrete, so I need some handguns. Thanks to the classifieds, I can order an Austrian Glock 17 and a US-made 357 Wesson revolver. Expensive, rare and old fashioned for the last one, but powerful enough to stop a bear.
So, a done deal? Not so fast. Of the six weapons in my basket, only the army rifle can be purchased without any authorisation. This gun, which was used by the armed forces until the 1970s, is deadly though, as witnessed after the recent murders in the mountain village of Daillon.
All the sellers I chose respect federal legislation. “I don’t agree to direct person-to-person sales no questions asked,” wrote one, who mentioned that he had received plenty of strange requests, mostly from outside Switzerland.
Weapons everywhere and more than you would think
The next step, therefore, is to get a gun purchase licence. In theory, the criteria are quite strict. You need some form of official identification and a copy of your criminal record, if possible unblemished – although breaking the odd road rule is not considered a major hurdle.
On the other hand, any violent acts on my record will preclude me from getting a licence, as would any criminal prosecution. I also have to prove I am not addicted to alcohol, medication or drugs.
And finally I will have to explain why I want to buy a gun if it doesn’t involve hunting, sports or a personal weapons collection.
So who will check all this out? In Switzerland, where federalism is king, granting purchase licences is handled by the cantonal police forces.
To find out just how hard it was, I contacted police in cantons Valais and Bern. If I lived in either and had not done anything illegal there, how would they know if I was being prosecuted in another canton?
Does gun love have a place in today’s society?
The Bernese told me they used all the means at their disposal to check if I am clean, but refused, for “tactical reasons”, to reveal their methods. The Valais police, on the other hand, said they would contact the police in all the cantons where I could have lived previously.
In canton Valais, people who request a licence to protect themselves are unlikely to receive it, unless they are a security agent or a money transporter. The Bernese police say they consider each demand individually, but do not say how they evaluate each case.
As to how they might detect an addiction that could make a gun owner dangerous, the Bern police say the licence request is to the person’s commune of residence, where he or she should be known. Other sources are also called upon to complete the picture.
In Valais, if they still have questions about a licence request, the police can demand a certificate from a psychiatrist.
Bern says it turns down around two per cent of the requests it receives annually, handing out a total of 3,210 licences in 2012. In Valais, 1,080 requests were accepted, while a few dozen were turned down.
Based on those figures, an estimated 26,000 guns were sold legally last year in Switzerland for sports shooting, collections or hunting. Other estimates show that there could be between 29 and 46 guns for every 100 inhabitants.
No licence, no sale
“Gun lovers are good people,” says Pierre-Alain Dufaux, a 19-time world shooting champion who runs one of Switzerland’s biggest weapons stores just outside of Fribourg. It’s here that I have stopped off on the last stage of my gun hunt.
All the guns I thought of buying are here, but the store owner is once again very clear: no licence, no sale. For ammunition sales, he demands a copy of the criminal record from each customer he doesn’t know.
“As time goes by, you learn how to evaluate people,” Dufaux says. “And trust me, when something happens, it’s rarely because of a gun store customer.”
“Criminals don’t come to Switzerland looking for their guns,” he adds. “They go to Ireland, where contraband weapons come in on ships docking there and where you can find anything you want.”
“And don’t forget that in some neighbouring countries, the legislation is less strict than here. In France, you can buy a 22 caliber rifle in a sports store along with a silencer, something that is illegal in Switzerland.”
At the end of the day, it seems that only unmentionable bars and the dodgy black market are all that are left if I want to tick off my shopping list. But I don’t think I can be bothered to stoop that low.
United States: the right to own and bear arms is guaranteed by the constitution’s second amendment. Its application varies from state to state.
According to the University of Chicago’s most recent study (2010), there are 300 million guns for 315 million inhabitants, the highest density in the world.
France: 2012 legislation puts guns in four categories based on how dangerous they are, much like Switzerland. Military and automatic weapons are outlawed, the others either requiring an authorisation, some form of declaration or held without any form of registration (items held in collections, of historical value or not considered dangerous).
Germany: legislation was toughened in 2009 after a 17-year-old killed 15 people. Purchase permits are only granted to people who can prove their weapons are not accessible to minors. Spot checks by the police are allowed.
Denmark, Netherlands: legislation bans the sale, possession, carrying or the use of firearms and munitions. Exceptions are allowed for hunters and sports shooters. Collectors must maintain an up-to-date register that must be handed over to the police every year.
Britain: almost all firearms are banned, apart from sporting rifles and hunting guns. Purchase permits are granted if the demand includes a written moral endorsement.
Japan: since 1958, legislation bans the ownership of firearms. Illegal owners face up to ten years in prison. Only hunting rifles and air guns are allowed, but sales are strictly regulated.
Purchases of most firearms, either in stores or from individual sellers, require an authorisation from the cantonal police. If an authorisation is not required, buyer and seller must put together a written contract of which a copy must be provided to the police.
Rocket launchers, heavy machine guns, automatic weapons, laser sights, night-vision sights and silencers are banned.
Sports shooters are only allowed to transport their guns from their home to the firing range. Guns and munitions must be kept separate during transport.
Gun licences themselves are required for any person bearing a weapon in a public place. In practice, only security specialists receive one after passing theoretical and practical exams.
Nationals from Sri Lanka, Algeria, Turkey and Albania as well as from ex-Yugoslavia, are not permitted to buy and carry weapons in Switzerland.
(Adapted from French by Scott Capper)
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