Taking Aim at William Tell: Referendum Could Change Swiss Gun Culture

The Swiss vote in a referendum this Sunday on a measure to collect military-issue weapons. The aim is to store guns in public arsenals, rather than at home -- and cut down on domestic violence. But it could end a tradition of gun ownership associated with Swiss independence and the legend of William Tell.

This poster against an initiative to round up military-issue guns in Switzerland reads: "A weapons monopoly for criminals? No." But increased gun control is favored by a slight majority of the Swiss. Zoom
REUTERS

This poster against an initiative to round up military-issue guns in Switzerland reads: "A weapons monopoly for criminals? No." But increased gun control is favored by a slight majority of the Swiss.

Switzerland is an exception to many clichés about Europe, but gun control is one of the most unexpected. In stark contrast to the neighboring European Union, and in spite of the country's placid image of cow pastures, Alpine landscapes and official neutrality in war, every third Swiss household owns a gun.

That may, however, change on Sunday, when Swiss voters decide on a measure to end a tradition of sending military-issue rifles home with reserve soldiers. Most Swiss men are reservists because Switzerland has a mandatory draft and only a small standing army. Sunday's "weapons initiative" is aimed at rounding up those weapons and storing them in public arsenals. The idea is that the weapons can be retrieved in case of war, but not used for impulsive domestic violence.

The measure, surprisingly, may pass. The country's stout tradition of gun ownership has been rattled by a persistently high suicide rate and a number of mass murders, including a 2001 incident involving a commercial version of the Swiss army's SG 550 assault rifle. Doctors and women's groups have also argued that guns in the closet lead to more bloody accidents and lethal disputes at home.

"If you make firearms less accessible, there will be fewer suicides. It's that simple," Elsa Kurz, from the Geneva-based group Stop Suicide, told the Associated Press. Switzerland has the highest rate of suicide by firearm of any European nation -- about 26 percent, compared to 2.8 percent in the UK and about 1 percent in Germany.

'Pro Tell'

Switzerland's rate of gun murder is still relatively low, about 0.3 homicides by firearm per 100,000 people (compared to 4.2 per 100,000 in the United States). And gun-rights advocates argue that restricting firearms won't bring down the suicide rate overall. "Anyone who wants to commit suicide will find a way," said Willy Pfund, president of the gun-rights group Pro Tell, according to the Swiss newspaper Tagesanzeiger.

The name "Pro Tell" suggests how deep private-firearm traditions run in Switzerland. William Tell, the semi-legendary folk hero, was an ordinary farmer who brought his hunting crossbow to one of the first Swiss wars of independence. As the legend has it, he not only shot an apple off his son's head; he also killed Albrecht Gessler, an unloved local deputy of the Habsburg empire.

Guns in Switzerland, like guns in America, are associated with liberty, and local gun clubs as well as Swiss military groups have opposed the arsenal law with rhetoric about freedom. "The real purpose of this initiative is to weaken the militia army and withdraw the state's confidence in its citizens," said Markus Müller, spokesman for a group of Swiss military officers called ASMZ, according to AP. "Only a disarmed people can be oppressed."

A Conservative Black Sheep

Popular attitudes, though, are changing. "As a child, I experienced the threat of gun violence," a conservative parliamentarian named This Jenny told the Swiss newspaper Tagesanzeiger last month. He saw it happen in a friend's house as a boy, he said. "When children have to stare down a gun barrel, and feel fear," he said, "they will be traumatized."

Jenny, 59, belongs to the controversial Swiss People's Party (SVP), an anti-immigrant party that won national seats in 2007 and that -- as a bloc -- strongly opposes the arsenal law. As a party renegade on this issue, Jenny has agreed not to cross his colleagues by campaigning in favor of it. "I could make three campaign appearances a week, but I don't," he told the Tagesanzeiger. But he says he's received hundreds of emails from people who feel threatened and frustrated by the presence of a gun at home.

"A gun is a different dimension," he told the newspaper. "It's final. It can curdle a woman's blood."

And women may tip the election. Recent polls suggest that a narrow majority support the initiative -- 52 percent, according to a January poll by the gfs.bern institute -- but the discrepancy between men and women is stark.

According to Claude Longchamp, who heads gfs.bern, there's a 24 percentage point difference between male and female voters, which represents the widest gender-based difference his institute has seen in 10 years of research.

"Many women believe that it is unnecessary to keep a firearm at home nowadays," he told the website swissinfo.ch, "whereas men typically fear for cherished Swiss traditions, and therefore tend to oppose the initiative."

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