An Armory in Gun-Shy Europe

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 29, 2007

ZUG, Switzerland -- Evening rush hour at the train station: men in suits, a woman carrying a cello, kids lugging snowboards. Markus Marschall, a university engineering student, walked through the bustle wearing an orange T-shirt, leather jacket and aviator sunglasses -- and a Sturmgewehr 90 automatic assault rifle slung over his shoulder.

"It's perfectly normal," said Marschall, 25, who carried the olive-green rifle, issued to him by the Swiss military, on a canvas strap as casually as he might carry a tennis racket. Nobody gave him a second glance.

Switzerland, a country of 7.5 million people with an estimated 2 million or more guns in circulation, sits as a heavily armed exception in the heart of Europe, where most countries have strict gun-control laws. Virtually all able-bodied Swiss men are required to serve in the military, which issues them assault rifles or pistols, or both, which they store at home and keep when they leave the service.

At a time when the Virginia Tech killings are stirring debate about U.S. gun laws, Switzerland is also weighing new curbs on a robust culture of gun ownership that dates back centuries. Parliament is considering a measure to ban the keeping of ammunition at home. Opposition politicians, backed by a leading women's magazine, are campaigning to get guns and ammunition out of Swiss homes to be stored in gun clubs and military armories.

"If you have a gun in the home, the risk of death is higher than if you don't have a gun at home -- very simple," said Manuela Weichelt-Picard, an elected official and survivor of this country's worst gun slaughter, in which a man with a rifle killed 14 people and himself at a local government meeting in this lakeside city south of Zurich in September 2001. Swiss anti-gun activists saw the Virginia Tech shootings demonstrate all over again the danger of easy access to firearms.

Gun advocates argue that stricter controls would violate age-old Swiss tradition, would not deter crime and would not have prevented the Zug massacre. "No gun law will ever stop the crazy man from doing outrageous things," said Ferdinand Hediger of Pro Tell, a gun owners' association.

Anti-gun activists said they were pessimistic about winning major gun-law changes in a country where guns are a commonly accepted part of life. Each spring, more than 200,000 people take part in a national target-shooting competition staged in nearly every village in the country. Hediger of Pro Tell -- named for William Tell, the legendary Swiss character who with bow and arrow shot an apple from his son's head -- said Swiss shooters fire 70 million rounds of ammunition each year, nearly 10 bullets for every citizen.

But a poll published Sunday in a national newspaper, SonntagsBlick, found that 65 percent of 1,200 Swiss surveyed were opposed to storing military guns at home, with 76 percent saying it was not "necessary for the army's mission." Although 54 percent said Switzerland's high rate of gun ownership made the country "less safe," 60 percent said that changes in laws would not stop gun violence in Swiss homes.

No one knows exactly how many guns are in Switzerland -- estimates reach 3 million or more -- in part because military guns have been passed down through generations. The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey estimates that the country has 46 guns per 100 people, which puts it behind only the United States, with 90 guns per 100 people; Yemen, with 61; and Finland, with 56 -- and just ahead of Iraq with 39.

Hediger, of Pro Tell, estimated that at least half of Swiss homes have a gun tucked away somewhere. Marschall, a full-time student and Swiss Army militiaman, said he keeps his rifle in a bedroom closet with "T-shirts and sports equipment" and a sealed canister of 50 military-issued bullets. He was on his way to the annual shooting practice required of all 200,000 soldiers and reservists.

A gun for every man is the basis of a generations-old defense doctrine in the tiny, traditionally neutral country. Swiss officials call it the "porcupine" approach: Switzerland may be small, but weapons in basements and attics in every Alpine village act as millions of quills to deter invaders.

"An army should be ready as soon as possible, so soldiers should have weapons and ammunition at home -- this is our tradition," said Ulrich Schluer, a national legislator who serves on a commission on security. Many Swiss feel the policy served them well during World War II, when their country largely escaped the conflagration that consumed most of Europe.

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