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What you need to know about Switzerland’s crucial gun control referendum

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What you need to know about Switzerland’s crucial gun control referendum
Rates of gun ownership are increasing in Switzerland. Photo: Stefan Wermuth/AFP
11:39 CEST+02:00
On Sunday, Switzerland is holding a referendum to decide whether the country should tighten its gun laws. Here we answer the key questions about the vote – and look at why the referendum is as much about Swiss relations with the European Union as it is about gun control.

Sunday's referendum is to decide whether the country should tighten its gun laws by adopting the European Union’s revised Firearms Directive. Here's what it all means.

What do the new EU rules mean for Swiss gun owners?

In 2017, after a wave of deadly terrorist attacks across Europe, the European Council and Parliament approved changes to EU weapons laws. These changes include a ban on certain types of semi-automatic pistols, revolvers and rifles capable of firing a large number of bullets in a short space of time.

If Swiss voters back the updated EU rules at a referendum on Sunday, the country will not be required to ban all weapons with high-capacity magazines. But it will need to roll out new, more restrictive rules on their ownership (more on that below).

The updated EU directive also calls for all essential weapon components to be clearly labelled and registered electronically to help police establish where weapons are coming from.

As part of the Schengen Area – a group of European countries without border controls – Switzerland is legally obliged to adopt the new EU rules on gun ownership. In fact, the Swiss government and the Swiss parliament have already given their backing to the revised EU Firearms Directive.

So why is Switzerland voting on the issue?

The referendum on the issue is being held because the Swiss Shooting Interest Group, supported by the conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP) launched a popular initiative calling for Swiss voters to reject the EU Firearms Directive.

The committee behind the initiative collected the necessary number of signatures to trigger a referendum under Switzerland’s unique system of direct democracy.

Why do Swiss gun enthusiasts oppose the EU changes?

The planned changes have touched an nerve among gun owners in Switzerland. The country has a strong tradition of marksmanship and its compulsory military service means many people are comfortable around weapons.

The organization Swiss Shooting, for example, boasts over 130,000 members and offers air gun courses for children aged eight and up.

Many Swiss people are comfortable around guns. Photo: AFP

Meanwhile, there are estimated 2,300,000 weapons in civilian possession in Switzerland or just over one gun for every four residents, according to Geneva-based organization Small Arms Survey (although the actual number is, however, notoriously difficult to establish, as many weapons are not registered).

Indeed, buying a weapon is not particularly difficult in Switzerland, and police report that there has been a surge in demand for gun permits across the country.

In this context, the committee that launched the May 19th referendum initiative has described the revised Firearms Directive as an “EU disarmament diktat”, arguing it is an attack on gun owners’ rights.

Opponents of the revised EU rules also say they would do nothing to combat terrorism or criminality. They state that the changes would spell the end of the country’s strong tradition of target shooting by making it harder for people to obtain weapons.

In addition, there are huge concerns over Article 17 of the EU Firearms directive which outlines a mechanism for a reassessment of European gun laws every five years. Gun enthusiasts in Switzerland fear they could gradually see their rights eroded through the automatic application of this article in the future.

What is at stake?

A lot. In the run-up to the referendum, the Swiss government has highlighted the fact that, under the terms of the EU–Swiss Schengen agreement, Switzerland could, in theory, be bundled out of the Schengen family if it fails to adopt the new gun rules.

The government says this could cost the Swiss economy billions of francs a year while the Swiss Federal Office of Police warns that Switzerland would be deprived of key security and crime information accessible via the Schengen Information System.

Losing Schengen status would also have a knock-on effect on immigration because, as a non-Schengen country, Switzerland would cease to be covered by the so-called Dublin Regulation. Under the Dublin rules, asylum seekers can only apply to one EU member state for protection. If Switzerland were no longer covered by these rules, there could be a spike in asylum requests because failed asylum seekers from other EU countries would then be able to apply to Switzerland as a next port of call.

Complicating the picture is the fact that Swiss relations with the EU are already strained because of protracted and often bad-natured negotiations over the future of bilateral relations between Bern and Brussels. Switzerland's bargaining power is unlikely to be given a boost if the country's voters reject the EU's new gun rules.

But how does the Swiss government respond to the concerns of gun owners?

The says that Switzerland’s shooting culture is not threatened by adoption of the EU directive and notes that the county has already been granted a number of key concessions by the EU.

These concessions, outlined in Article 6 of the EU Firearms Directive, mean that Swiss soldiers can continue to take home their service weapons, which have high magazine capacity, at the end of military service.

In addition, anyone in Switzerland who currently owns these types of weapons (specifically the SIG SG 510 and SIG SG 550 assault rifles) can keep hold of them, although they will be required to register the guns with cantonal authorities within three years.

People who want to buy weapons with high magazine capacity for target shooting purposes will also be able to do so in future, although they will need to get an “exemption permit” to use what is essentially a banned weapon in the EU.

To obtain such a permit, owners of these guns will need to prove that they are members of a shooting club or that they are regular sports shooters (with ‘regular’ in this case meaning they have gone target shooting at least five times in the previous five years).

However, shooting enthusiasts say that the new rules are much more restrictive. They will lead to a red-tape nightmare and a decline in the number of sports shooters in Switzerland.

What groups oppose the tougher EU gun control rules?

Apart from the Swiss Shooting Interest Group and the SVP, the referendum is also supported by the Swiss Society of Officers (SOG), the Swiss Non-commissioned Officers Society (SUOV), the hunting association Hunting Switzerland, the pro-gun group Pro Tell and the Swiss Rifle Makers and Sellers Group (SBV).

Who supports Switzerland’s adoption of the Firearm Directive?

The Swiss government, parliament, police and army are all in favour of Switzerland adopting the new EU gun regulations as are all of the major political parties in Switzerland except for the SVP. Major business and industry groups including unions and tourism and hospitality organisations also want Switzerland to adopt the new regulations.

How are people likely to vote?

All indications are that Swiss voters will back the revised EU gun rules.

Close to two thirds of voters (65 percent) say they are “definitely in favour” or “generally in favour” of Switzerland’s adoption of tougher gun laws, according to a survey run by Gfs Bern at the end of April. That is just one percentage point lower than an earlier poll carried out at the end of March.

According to Gfs, the main arguments put forward by people survey are that the rule changes will not have a serious impact on Switzerland’s shooting culture and that a failure to do could endanger the country’s position in the Schengen/Dublin group.

 

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