What's Worked, And What Hasn't, In Gun-Loving Switzerland
Originally published on Tue March 19, 2013 7:34 pm
Switzerland has an entrenched gun culture that is embraced by most of its 8 million citizens, some of them as young as 10 years old.
Every Swiss community has a shooting range, and depending on who is counting, the alpine country ranks third or fourth in the number of guns per capita.
"You can walk into a cafe in a town where there is a shooting festival and you'll see rifles hanging on the hat rack. It's just incredible. It's just proliferation all over the place, but it's all for a peaceful purpose," says Stephen Halbrook, a Virginia-based lawyer who has argued cases for the National Rifle Association.
Halbrook, who has written books on Swiss history, is a frequent visitor to Switzerland and takes part in shooting contests there.
At a shooting range in the town of Dielsdorf outside Zurich, school-aged children like 11-year-old Greta Wolff are introduced to target shooting, a popular Swiss sport.
The sixth-grader — who immigrated to Switzerland with her family from Germany, where guns are far more restricted — is one of the best shots at a recent practice session. She and the other children use air guns to learn proper handling and technique before graduating to real guns.
Firing a gun was easier to learn than playing the piano, says Greta, who is also an accomplished swimmer: "You have to be sure you stand still and breathe properly before you release the trigger."
Her father, Markus Wolff, who also shoots for sport, says his daughter first learned to shoot more than 18 months ago after seeing her older brother do it.
Their enthusiasm is music to the ears of Rene Koller, a Swiss army veteran and collector who owns hundreds of guns and heads youth training at the Zurich Shooting Sports Association.
"These days there are too many hobbies available," Koller says. "We have to work hard to get children to take up shooting sports."
Lower Death Rate Than In The U.S.
But the Swiss — like Americans — are grappling with the question of gun control these days after shooting attacks like one on Feb. 27 that killed four people in a factory outside Lucerne.
Firearm deaths in Switzerland take place at just one-seventh the rate that they occur in the United States. But researchers say guns are often used in suicides and crimes of passion in Switzerland.
Interest in gun ownership is waning, partly due to the shrinking size of the conscripted militia that serves as Switzerland's army. Men between the ages of 20 and 30 report for training and are issued military weapons, which they keep at home.
It's a tradition that some historians say kept the Nazis from trying to overrun Switzerland during World War II.
Gun control advocates argue Swiss authorities have lost track of too many of these military-issued guns, which account for most of the 2.5 million-plus guns in Switzerland.
As well, says Susan Peter, who is the director of the Zurich Women's Shelters Association, one-fifth of her clients report being threatened with guns kept at home by their male spouse or partner.
"It's not a private problem when someone in the family is killed, it's a public problem," she says. "The Swiss government has the responsibility to protect people."
There's also pressure on the Swiss government to adhere to the Schengen agreement. The accord opens borders between 26 European countries, but makes buying and owning guns more difficult than the Swiss are used to.
In Europe, "there is a mandate to register all guns and to have a central electronic registration," explains Halbrook, the Virginia-based lawyer. "Germany just announced it was the first to do so — that was on Jan. 1 this year — and others are supposed to follow suit."
Pro-, Anti-Gun Lobbies Spar
Strengthened by local shooting attacks and Swiss research on violence, a growing anti-gun movement in Switzerland is also pushing for increased gun control.
Marcel Zwahlen, a professor of epidemiology, was one of the key researchers on a study presented recently by the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine at the University of Bern.
The study reviewed 158 Swiss murders and suicides that took place between 1991 and 2008. It found 90 percent of the cases involved firearms.
Zwahlen says that owning a gun in Switzerland is easier than owning dogs or cars — but shouldn't be.
"It's OK to regulate how you are allowed to have it, how you should use it and that this gets checked," he says.
Lawyer Hanspeter Uster agrees. The former justice minister from the Swiss canton, or state, of Zug was shot in the chest by a gunman who stormed the regional assembly there in September 2001. The assailant killed 14 people before turning the gun on himself.
It's certainly important that all these weapons are secured, legally speaking, Uster says.
"Having them registered in each Swiss state and having those states share the data is also important," he says. "We need laws passed to make this happen as well as a committed government."
But the Swiss equivalent of the NRA, ProTell, rejects any new restrictions. Named after Swiss folk hero William Tell, who used a crossbow to target his enemies, the group argues that there are plenty already, including a crackdown in the past 18 months on the purchase and transport of ammunition.
"You can't register weapons that are in the hands of criminals so it doesn't help you prevent a tragedy, you know?" says ProTell Vice President Hermann Suter. He, like many Swiss, blame local gun violence on criminals from other countries, as well as the mentally ill who aren't supposed to own guns.
The majority of Swiss voters appear to agree that gun control is not the way forward. In February 2011, nearly 57 percent of them voted against storing military-issued guns in armories rather than at home. The reason? Suter says they saw it as undermining trust in Swiss soldiers.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
This week on our program we're talking about guns, gun culture and gun violence. The U.S. has the highest rate of gun ownership per capita in the world. It's estimated that Americans own nearly 300 million firearms. Also high on that list is Switzerland, it's fourth in terms of gun ownership. And that is where we go for our next story. Historically, Switzerland has had a remarkably low rate of gun violence.
But NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports that a number of gun attacks in recent years have the Swiss rethinking their relatively liberal gun laws.
(SOUNDBITE OF STRIKING TARGETS)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: A handful of youngsters with air guns practice hitting paper targets at this shooting range outside Zurich. Their instructor, Erich Kanobel, monitors the students' progress. They will move up to regular guns as they become more proficient.
ERICH KANOBEL: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Kanobel tells them: Keep your guns up so I can check your form. Among his students is 11-year-old Greta Wolff. The shy sixth grader, who is from Germany, where firearms are far more restricted, is the only girl here on this day. She also is one of the best shots.
GRETA WOLFF: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Shooting a gun was easier to learn than playing the piano, says Greta, who is also an accomplished swimmer. She says key to her success at shooting is patience, practice and deep breaths.
Her father, Markus Wolff, also shoots.
MARKUS WOLFF: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: He says his daughter began target shooting more than 18 months ago, after seeing her older brother Vincent do it. Wolff adds that the sport has improved his children's concentration.
Nearby, Rene Koller smiles. He's a Swiss army veteran and collector who owns hundreds of guns and heads youth training at the Zurich Shooting Sports Association.
RENE KOLLER: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Koller says there are so many activities available to young people these days that it's difficult to get them interested in shooting.
But he and others acknowledge that even among Swiss adults, interest in firearm ownership is waning. Part of it is due to the shrinking size of the conscripted militia that serves as the national army. As a result, fewer Swiss men between the ages of 20 and 30 are storing weapons at home.
There's also pressure on Switzerland to adhere to the Schengen Agreement. It opens borders between most European countries, but also makes buying and owning guns more difficult than the Swiss are used to.
Stephen Halbrook, a Virginia-based author and lawyer who has argued cases for the NRA, has been a frequent visitor to the Alpine country since 1991.
STEPHEN HALBROOK: The European countries themselves, there's a mandate to register all guns and to have a central electronic registration. Germany just announced that it was the first to do so, to implement that. And that was on January 1 of this year. And the other ones are supposed to follow suit.
NELSON: A growing anti-gun movement in Switzerland, strengthened by local shooting attacks and Swiss research on violence, is also pushing for improved gun control. While firearm deaths are much lower here than in the United States - one Swiss death for every seven U.S. deaths - guns are often used in suicides and crimes of passion.
Susan Peter heads the Zurich Women Shelters Association.
SUSAN PETER: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: She says a fifth of her clients report having been threatened with guns by their male spouses or partners who keep military-issued weapons at home.
PETER: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Swiss society must take responsibility and deal with it, Peter adds.
A recent study by the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine at the University of Bern raises similar concerns about gun violence. Epidemiology professor Marcel Zwahlen was among the researchers who conducted a review of 158 Swiss murders and suicides, where the attacker and victim lived in the same households. He says nine of every 10 cases involved firearms.
He says owning a gun in Switzerland is easier than owning dogs or cars but shouldn't be.
MARCEL ZWAHLEN: It's OK to regulate how you are allowed to have it, how you should use it and that this gets checked.
NELSON: Lawyer Hanspeter Uster agrees. He's a former justice minister from the Swiss canton or state of Zug, who was shot in the chest by a gunman who stormed the regional assembly there in September 2001. The assailant killed 14 people before turning the gun on himself.
HANSPETER USTER: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Uster says he hasn't touched a gun since the attack. He adds he's always had concerns about the wide availability of firearms in Switzerland. Estimates range from two and a half million guns to more than three million and most are military-issued rifles.
Many historians credit the armed-to-the-teeth tradition with protecting Switzerland from the Nazis in World War II. But Uster and others say it's time for the Swiss government to act to prevent shooting attacks like the one in Zug.
USTER: (Through Translator) It's certainly important that all these weapons are secured, legally speaking. Having them registered in each Swiss state and having those states share the data is also important. We need laws passed to make this happen, as well a committed government.
NELSON: The local equivalent of the NRA rejects any new restrictions. It argues there are plenty already, including a crackdown in the past 18 months on the purchase and transport of ammunition.
Herman Suter is vice president of the Swiss group Pro Tell, named after William Tell, who used a crossbow to target his enemies.
HERMAN SUTER: You can't register the weapons which are in hands of criminals. So it doesn't help you prevent a tragedy, you know?
NELSON: He, like many Swiss, blame local gun violence on criminals from other countries, as well as the mentally ill who aren't supposed to own guns. So far, the majority of Swiss voters have agreed that gun control is not the way forward. Two years ago, 57 percent of them voted against storing military-issued guns in armories rather than at home.
They saw it as undermining trust in Swiss soldiers, Suter says.
SUTER: Every militia soldier has the right and even the duty to take his personal arm - as long as he in active service - back home. Of course, as soon as the soldier leaves the service, he has to change the mechanism so that he cannot shoot automatically, you know, but only one shot after the other.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: The single-shot action is evident at this recent shooting contest in the town of Pfaeffikon.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
NELSON: The top shooters win a wheel of local cheese or coupon worth $10. Many of them use converted military weapons to shoot the paper targets which are some 300 yards away. Guns not in use sit out in the open.
URS STAEHLI: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Those guns are safe because it violates Swiss tradition to touch another person's weapon without his or her permission, says Urs Staehli, president of the Zurich Shooting Sports Association.
What is expected, however, is for participants to gather in the local pub and discuss the day's shoot over a steaming drink spiked with plum brandy.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.