Why Switzerland has so many guns

February 8, 2013
People walk by a poster urging people to vote against the anti-firearms initiative in order to keep status quo in Geneva, Switzerland, Jan 6, 2011. Poster reads: "Monopoly on weapons just for criminals? No!" (Frank Jordans/AP)
People walk by a poster urging people to vote against the anti-firearms initiative in order to keep status quo in Geneva, Switzerland, Jan 6, 2011. Poster reads: "Monopoly on weapons just for criminals? No!" (Frank Jordans/AP)

The U.S. conversation about whether or not to introduce new guns laws, in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting that killed 28 people, has often drawn upon international comparisons. American gun culture is largely unique, but advocates on both sides have often pointed to the gun-control success stories (we looked at Japanese and British gun laws) as well as the countries with relatively wide gun ownership, such as Israel. But what about Switzerland?

Switzerland has the world's third-highest number of privately held guns per person, after the United States and Yemen, an outgrowth of its unique military culture. Service is mandatory for young men, though the national military is a little bit like a collection of local militias. That militia-tinged military culture blurs the line, just a bit, between an "on duty" time, when it's normal to carry a gun, and "off-duty"; the result is that it's not considered crazy, as it might be in the United States, for a service member to carry his or her assault rifle home.

It also means that gun owners are more likely to have formal firearm training. (Such training is also mandatory in Israel, something that some gun control advocates have discussed implementing in the United States). But it's more complicated than that.

The Washington Post's Edward Cody visited the country to investigate its national gun culture and came away with some interesting observations. The "tradition of off-duty troops storing their guns at home in a closet" is just the start. Here's Cody:

Philip D. Jaffe, a forensic psychologist, said Switzerland’s military draft and annual weapons training have historically fostered national unity among the confederation’s cultural groups, which include French, German and Italian speakers. Even though the citizen militia may be outdated in modern military terms, he said in an interview in Lausanne, it has long fit in with the national image of small, self-reliant Switzerland maintaining its independence while being surrounded by much larger countries.

“They drill this into you; there’s something idealistic about it,” Jaffe said. “They hand you a big, bulky machine gun, and it’s yours. You get to keep it.”

Still, gun culture is controversial in Switzerland, as it is in the United States, and gun laws may actually be tightening. Cody explores the Swiss debate over gun laws that came after their own mass shooting, an interesting window into what makes the place, and its gun culture, both similar and different.

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Max Fisher · February 8, 2013