Swiss vote on anti-gun initiative

Direct democracy in action: Voters have the last word on a proposal to tighten liberal gun laws Keystone

Polls have closed in a nationwide vote on restricting access to firearms. The controversial initiative includes a ban on keeping army-issue guns at home.

This content was published on February 13, 2011 minutes

Sunday's vote challenged a long-held Swiss tradition and pitted the centre-left against the centre-right and rightwing majority.

The initiative, launched four years ago, sought to introduce stricter rules for gun possession, notably a nationwide database and a more comprehensive licensing system.

Supporters of the proposal – an alliance of about 80 organisations backed by centre-left political parties - hoped to reduce the number of suicides and incidents of domestic violence.

Parliament and the gun lobby came out against the proposal, saying tighter laws would undermine trusted Swiss values and cherished traditions, in particular the militia army.

The government said current laws were sufficient to protect against misuse.

Support slipping

Early opinion polls in January showed the anti-gun initiative enjoying widespread support, but the 13 per cent margin dwindled to just two per cent in the space of  three weeks.

Opponents from centre-right parties were successful in mobilising their grassroots, according to the leading gfs.Bern research institute.

“However, the outcome of the vote remains open,” said the institute’s Claude Longchamp at the beginning of this month.

He added that women could be a decisive factor in the ballot which is expected to draw above-average public interest and result in a high turnout - more than 50 per cent.


The nationwide ballot – the first this year - was preceded by a relatively short but intense campaign by both sides.

Attention-grabbing posters, heated public debates, spats over controversial statistics and a flood of readers’ letters in newspapers were evidence of feverish emotions in the run-up to the vote.

Police opened an inquiry into the illegal use of toy weapons for a local campaign event by a pacifist group, while the federal chancellery admonished opponents of the ban for using official stationary to woo voters when a local rifle association sent out anti-gun initiative leaflets in official envelopes to several hundred young citizens.

Defence Minister Ueli Maurer also hit the news headlines with  verbal attacks - seen as calculated and provocative - against supporters of the initiative and women in particular.

New Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga, who is known to personally support the anti-gun initiative, wasd careful to to the official government line.


The second stage of the public campaign was marked not only by voter mobilisation but also by antagonism between the left and the conservative right, according to political scientist Longchamp.

“There is an extraordinary polarisation between the parties,” he said.

Longchamp also noted that supporters of the initiative had limited their campaign to the main cities hoping to win votes among the urban population.

Opponents for their part were most active with numerous committees and groups in rural regions where residents are generally more conservative in outlook.

“But it is the many bigger and smaller towns across the country which hold the key to success,” Longchamp said.

Other ballots

Local votes and elections are taking place in more than half of Switzerland’s cantons.

The issues range from nuclear energy, tax amnesty, education and the promotion of bicycles to the funding of the National Museum and a theatre.

Voters choose a new government in Appenzell Outer-Rhodes and Bern holds a by-election for a senate seat.

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Key facts

About five million Swiss, including registered expatriates, are eligible to take part in the votes.

As a rule ballots on specific issues take place four times a year.

As part of extended trials with electronic voting a number of citizens from several cantons, including registered expatriates, are allowed to use computers to participate in the ballots.

Parliamentary elections – taking place every four years - are scheduled for October 23.

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