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Swiss rapped over poor data on gun ownership

Estimates on gun ownership in Switzerland vary between 1.2 to 12 million Keystone

Civilians in Switzerland own an estimated 3.4 million guns – putting the country in fourth place for weapons possession per capita, according to a report.

This content was published on August 28, 2007 - 21:23

The latest Small Arms Survey, published by the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International Studies (GIIS), criticises Switzerland's lack of transparency over reliable statistics on firearms.

Switzerland ranks behind the United States, Yemen and Finland, but ahead of Iraq in the per capita count, and in position 22 overall.

Civilians globally own approximately 650 million handguns and semiautomatic rifles - accounting for about three quarters of the total 875 million combined civilian, police and military firearms in the world today, the survey says.

"Civilian holdings of weapons worldwide are much larger than we previously believed," said Keith Krause, head of the research group on Tuesday.

The increase is seen as a result of more systematic reporting.

However, the authors point out that only about 12 per cent of all weapons worldwide are registered with the authorities.

Lack of transparency

The 2007 survey highlights the public uncertainty and biases of expert estimations over gun ownership in Switzerland.

Published estimates range from 1.2 million to 12 million firearms.

Higher numbers typically come from gun owners and police. Lower numbers are from gun control advocates, according to the report.

"Without comprehensive records or careful public polling, neither perspective is sufficient," the authors of the survey point out.

"One major area of disagreement is the number of modern military rifles in the hands of formers reservists, their heirs and clients. Even greater uncertainty surrounds privately purchased firearms," they add.

Exports

The researchers accuse Switzerland of a lack in transparency when it comes to figures about arms exports. They rank the country in position 14 for this - far behind the US and many European countries.

Israel, North Korea, Russia, Bulgaria as well as Saudi Arabia are bottom of the table as the least transparent nations.

The survey says Switzerland has provided weapons to countries which violate human rights, including China, Russia, Indonesia, Israel and Turkey, as well as Guinea, Pakistan and Serbia.

"Steps will be taken to improve the transparency and we hope to publish more precise figures on the trade in small arms next year," said Jean-Daniel Ruch of the Swiss foreign ministry.

Crime and suicide

The survey dismisses suggestions that gun ownership and high levels of violence go hand in hand. It points to the situation in Latin America where there is a high crime right but low gun ownership.

But Krause said studies had shown that violent incidents involving firearms often occurred in places undergoing rapid urban growth, and when lawless areas are created by extreme poverty and the absence of effective policing.

In line with the survey's findings, Ruch rejected a clear link between the number of firearms in civilian possession and the crime rate.

But he confirmed that the suicide rate in Switzerland is higher than in other European countries.

Moves are underway in Switzerland – a country known for its militia army tradition and its liberal gun laws - to ban the storing of army weapons in households amid a controversy over the risks of private gun ownership.

Ruch praised the survey is a reliable source to raise awareness among politicians and governments to step up controls on small arms across the world.

"Switzerland has been pushing for increased controls for more than a decade. Together with France we contributed to an international accord on the marking and tracing of small arms," he said.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser and Frédéric Burnand

In brief

Switzerland is well known for its militia army, strong traditions and liberal gun laws.

Parliament earlier this year voted to tighten the rules on the sale of firearms to bring gun law in line with the EU.

Moves are also underway to force a nationwide vote on a proposal for army weapons to remain in the barracks, a national gun register, as well as a ban on private individuals buying or owning particularly dangerous guns.

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.

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

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Largest arsenals

Per 100 civilians, according to 2007 Small Arms Survey.

US: 90
Yemen: 61
Finland: 56
Switzerland: 46
Iraq: 39
Serbia: 38
France: 32
Canada: 31
Austria: 31
Germany: 30

Firearms - absolute figures:

US: 270 million
India: 46 million
China: 40 million
Germany: 25 million
France: 19 million
Pakistan: 18 million
Mexico: 15.5 million
Brazil: 15.3 million
Russia: 12.7 million

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