While the assassination attempt on Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona revived a predictable and unchanging round of gun control debate in the U.S., a referendum in Switzerland — Europe’s best-armed nation — is showing a shift of opinion away from private gun ownership.
Every third household in Switzerland has a firearm, normally government-issued, because every male citizen under about 50 is also a reserve soldier. Instead of a standing professional army, the government maintains a well-armed militia to be called up in case of war.
The tradition goes back to at least 1291, when several regions of what’s now Switzerland rose up against the Austrian empire, starting a war of liberation with citizen-soldiers like William Tell (who may be mythical) wielding private crossbows and hunting bows to defeat a more professional Habsburg army. Legends of Swiss independence have an almost American ring of under-doggedness.
But a referendum on Feb. 13 will decide whether the Swiss should go on keeping their guns at home or store them in public arsenals. Lately, yes votes for the arsenal bill have led public opinion — 45 percent support it versus 34 percent who oppose, plus a wide undecided margin, according to a poll from early January.
If the Swiss tradition of armed domesticity falls, the American gun lobby may lose a prime example of responsible European gun ownership. Nonhunting firearms are rare across Europe; but Switzerland has always struck American gun owners as a shining case of a well-trained and relatively peaceful armed society.
Not that there isn’t violence. The arsenal initiative is led by women fed up with lethal accidents at home, as well as domestic violence, which has a way in Switzerland of ending in gunfire. The rate of death-by-gun in Switzerland in 2005 was 6.2 per 100,000 people — well behind the U.S. rate of 9.4 per 100,000, but still second in the world.
The problems in Switzerland tend to be suicide and family killings, not the sort of random public gun crime — like holdups or mass murder — traditionally seen in America.
U.S. gun advocates put this down to national character. “Cultural conditions, not gun laws, are the most important factors in a nation’s crime rate,” ran the (unchanging) argument in a 1990 issue of American Rifleman. “Young adults in Washington, D.C., are subject to strict gun control but no social control, and they commit a staggering amount of armed crime. Young adults in Zurich are subject to minimal gun control but strict social control, and they commit almost no crime.”
But one main difference in Switzerland is that the swarm of public firearms includes very few automatic weapons. Before the government sends an assault rifle home with a reserve soldier, it removes the automatic or rapid-fire function and leaves the weapon in self-loading, or semi-automatic, mode.
Active-duty soldiers traditionally get to store assault rifles at home; but the arsenal law would only strengthen Swiss restrictions against home storage of “especially dangerous weapons that are designed only to kill, such as automatic or so-called pump-action weapons,” as the Swiss broadcasting network SRF puts it.
The non-radical idea of banning sophisticated military firearms from American streets is, of course, roughly the Obama administration’s position on gun control. But when the president in 2009 tried to extend the assault-weapons ban that expired under Bush in 2004 — the law that would have prevented Jared Loughner from buying that long clip for his Glock pistol — there was a panicked run on assault rifles across the United States; Obama backed down.