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EXPLAINED: Understanding Switzerland’s obsession with guns

EXPLAINED: Understanding Switzerland's obsession with guns
Photo: Stefan WERMUTH / AFP
Switzerland has the second-highest gun-ownership rate among developed countries outside the United States. It also has a very low murder rate. Here's what you need to know about Swiss gun culture.

From being the world’s second biggest weapons exporter per capita to having the highest gun ownership rate of any European country, Switzerland has a relatively strong pedigree when it comes to weapons. 

People in Switzerland can legally get their hands on weapons which are illegal in a number of other countries. 

But unlike the United States, people in Europe’s gun capital are not only passionate about pistols and giddy about guns. They’re also strong supporters of gun control regulations – which are some of the strictest in the world. 

Arms across Switzerland

The nation of 8.3 million people has approximately 2.3 million guns, giving it the third highest gun ownership rate in the world after the United States and Yemen. Approximately 48 percent of Swiss households have at least one gun

Contrast this with the US, where the number of guns overtook the number of people in the country in 2009. A study from the Swiss Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies found that there was 393 million guns in the US (2018 figures) for 326 million people. 

READ MORE: Swiss vote to tighten gun laws and safeguard EU relations

READ MORE: Campaign launched for tougher gun laws in Switzerland

Approximately 41 percent of US households have at least one gun

US gun ownership increased significantly under former President Barack Obama due to fears that greater restrictions would be implemented. 

In Switzerland there has not been a mass shooting for almost 20 years. 

Shoppers at a gun store in Switzerland. Photo: Stefan WERMUTH / AFP

In the US, there were more mass shootings in 2019 than there were days in the year, a study found

The US lobby group the National Rifle Association (NRA), frequently credited as the main reason gun control continues to be stifled in the United States, has actually pointed to Switzerland’s widespread gun ownership and low crime rates – the country’s murder rate is almost zero – as a reason for fewer gun control restrictions. 

However, the organisation fails to mention the widespread restrictions across Switzerland when it comes to using and owning weapons. 

While Switzerland does have a higher rate of gun deaths than the European average, these are mainly due to suicide. 

Swiss gun laws

Switzerland’s gun culture is mediated by a strong set of gun regulations on prospective and current gun owners.  

The goal of Swiss gun regulators is to prevent the “violent and the incompetent” from owning guns. Anyone who possesses a “violent or dangerous attitude” will be restricted from gun ownership. 

How comprehensive are Swiss gun laws? Photo by Bo Harvey on Unsplash

There are federal laws which regulate gun ownership, however a large proportion of gun regulation happens at the cantonal level. 

Swiss authorities in each canton keep a log of all gun owners in the region, while cantonal police are also given the power to talk to psychiatrists or talk to representatives from other cantons as part of the vetting process when someone applies for a gun licence. 

People who have been convicted of a crime as well as individuals with substance abuse problems will be prevented from owning a weapon. 

There are also strong restrictions on carrying weapons, with so-called ‘concealed-carry’ permits rare for regular citizens in Switzerland.

Anyone who wants to carry a gun will be required to pass a test which shows they can shoot their weapon, as well as load and unload it. 

While hunters in some cases will be permitted to carry their guns from home to the shooting range or the hunt, they are prevented from stopping off on the way – even just for coffee and donuts – as they need to take the shortest route possible from the range to their residence. 

Switzerland voted in 2019 to strengthen gun control laws to come into line with EU requirements, with restrictions on high-powered semi-automatic rifles. 

Which weapons are legal in Switzerland?

The NZZ am Sonntag in 2019 ran through a list of the types of weapons which were allowed by Swiss authorities – and which weren’t. 

Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

There are three categories of weapons under Swiss law: reportable weapons, arms which require approval and banned weapons. 

While the high ownership rate appears not to be a concern for authorities, it is impossible to determine just how many guns are in circulation in the wealthy Alpine country. 

The military have lost more than 100 high-capacity weapons in each of the past two years, the majority of which have been stolen. 

In addition, the number of unregistered guns is high across Switzerland due to weapons kept by citizens after they complete their compulsory military service. 

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