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Brutal killing sparks army gun debate

Meritxell Mir · 9 Nov 2011, 12:30

Published: 09 Nov 2011 16:58 GMT+01:00
Updated: 09 Nov 2011 12:30 GMT+01:00

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Politicians, criminologists and police have called for army-issue weapons to be kept out of the hands of lawbreakers after a young man with a criminal record shot and killed his girlfriend last Friday.

The alleged murderer, a 23-year-old-man had several previous convictions for threatening behaviour and property damage before he shot his girlfriend in the head with his army assault rifle.  

A heated debate has raged for years in Switzerland about firearm control and the appropriateness of militiamen keeping weapons at home during military service.

A referendum in February 2011 resulted in a rejection of proposals to change the current laws, but Friday's killing in Saint-Leonard, in the south of the country, has once again brought the question to the fore.

"If the police have any doubts about how dangerous an individual is, there must be zero tolerance,” said police inspector and Swiss National Party national councillor Yvan Perrin to newspaper Le Matin.

"It's very simple: when someone is involved in a [criminal] case, the police have to determine whether this person is fit to own a gun. Then they must communicate their decision both to justice officials and the army," he said.

Denis Froidevaux, vice president of the Swiss Association of Military Officers, expressed a similar sentiment, saying people convicted on threat charges should not be allowed to possess firearms, “even if it’s just as a precaution.” But he said the decision should be made by justice officials rather than the police. 

"This case raises questions about state responsibility”, criminologist Martin Killias told the newspaper, wondering if authorities have not been “negligent.” “Switzerland is too soft when it comes to weapons,” he said.

There are around 2.5 million firearms in private hands in Switzerland, meaning the Alpine country has one of the highest per-capita rates of gun ownership in Europe. It is estimated that about 30 percent of Swiss households keep revolvers, shot guns and even assault rifles in their cabinets.

The Group for a Switzerland Without Arms says more than half of the weapons belong, or have belonged, to the national army. Swiss defence is in the hands of a militia system, so men between the ages of 18 and 34 must serve in the army for three weeks every year. During that period, they must keep their regulation weapon at home, but they are entitled to hold onto it after they finish their service if they wish.

It's with this in mind that socialist counsellor Geraldine Savary has called for better cooperation between the army and the police.

"When a violent or potentially dangerous individual is arrested, police must inform the army, which must proceed to take away the weapon,” she told the paper, asking for the army to always be kept informed if its soldiers become embroiled in criminal cases.

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“As the owner of the weapons, the army has to make sure that those possessing firearms are trustworthy.”

The issue of trust is key to the debate. “The Swiss system is based on trust,” so “someone who violates the law should not be rewarded with trust and, therefore, should be deprived of his [army] weapon,” said Liberal Party national councillor Isabel Morat.

The problem for inspector Perrin is that “there is still a taboo around army weapons.”  And he added: “They say that every good solider should keep one at home, but above all, it is a weapon that can kill, let’s not forget that.”

Meritxell Mir (news@thelocal.ch)

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