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EXPLAINED: Understanding Switzerland’s obsession with guns

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.

EXPLAINED: Understanding Switzerland's obsession with guns
Photo: Stefan WERMUTH / AFP

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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OPINION: Switzerland’s rape laws are not fit for purpose and reforms are long overdue

As they stand Switzerland's rape laws are more useful to perpetrators of sex assaults than to the victims, writes Clare O'Dea as she explains why new reforms are long overdue.

OPINION: Switzerland's rape laws are not fit for purpose and reforms are long overdue

It is widely accepted that Switzerland’s current rape law, last revised thirty years ago, is not fit for purpose. Partly in response to international obligations, the Swiss political system is finally addressing the problem and concrete progress is inching closer.

The failings in the current legal model include a too-narrow definition of what sexual act constitutes rape, the exclusion of male victims of rape, the requirement to prove violence or coercion, and the soft sanctions against convicted rapists.

Taken together, these weaknesses make Swiss rape legislation as it now stands a lot more useful to perpetrators of rape than it is to victims.

There were 757 rapes reported in Switzerland last year, and only 77 rapists convicted, some of whom did not receive custodial sentences. The overall number of reported sex offences in 2021 was 6,909. 

But extensive change is coming in all four problem areas, partly thanks to the Istanbul Convention on violence against women. A revision of the Swiss law, compliant with the Convention, is working its way through parliament. The Council of States has just supported the reform positions of the Federal Council, and the National Council is expected to go at least as far when it takes up the debate later this year.

The definition of rape is set to be expanded to include any kind of penetration against the will of the person, not just vaginal penetration by a penis. This means more sexual acts can be prosecuted as rape. Combined with the use of the gender-neutral word ‘person’, it also means that males will be recognised as victims of rape for the first time under Swiss law.

The Council of States also voted to introduce a minimum two-year prison sentence for convicted rapists. This is important because sentences under two years are automatically suspended in Switzerland, which has meant some rapists walk away without serving any time behind bars.

It is hard to imagine the anguish of victims seeing their abusers get off so lightly, without any prison time or even being named and shamed in their community. In ordinary circumstances, the names of convicted criminals are not made public in Switzerland.

These changes, if accepted by the larger parliamentary chamber, will represent a major step forward for victim’s rights, and bring Switzerland into line with most other European countries on rape law.

The final unresolved issue is how to proceed when the use of force is no longer part of the legal definition of rape. We know it is possible to do something to someone against their will without using force. There are many reasons victims may not resist, including the phenomenon of freezing in shock.

There is a growing international movement to reconceptualise rape and other sexual offences as violations of the victim’s sexual autonomy. More and more European countries – 13 and counting – are moving away from the violence-based definition of rape to a broader definition of rape being sex without consent.

Right now in Switzerland, the camps are split into those who advocate for the explicit expression of consent – ‘Only Yes Means Yes’ – as the best legal formula to establish rape, and those who say it’s the refusal of consent that must be expressed – ‘No Means No’. The Council of States opted for No Means No.

Unfortunately, all of this may be academic in a court setting where there is no record of such statements on the part of the alleged victim either way.  The use of force, threats or psychological pressure, is already hard to prove. So what’s the point of the change?

What it will hopefully do is reinforce the message that it is imperative to listen to the person you are about to have sex with and that what they want matters. Even if you don’t care what they want at that moment, the law does.

It tells potential victims that their wishes matter, that consent is not something to be brushed aside to satisfy one person’s demands. It is good to have this spelled out in law. Remember that marital rape, for example, only entered the Swiss criminal code in 1991.

When it comes to giving consent, I don’t think it matters which model you use – say yes or say no – putting consent at the top of the agenda between sexual partners will help make a cultural difference. But a lot more needs to happen outside the legal arena to make this a safer country for women and girls in particular.

Sadly, the unreported incidence of sexual assault and rape is high. Amnesty International commissioned a survey of women in Switzerland in 2019 in which 12% of respondents said they had had non-consensual sexual intercourse. More than one in five (22%) had been subject to unwanted sexual acts in their lives. Only 8% of these victims notified the police.

Could we produce a new generation of women who feel secure enough to say ‘I don’t want this’ and a new generation of men who would listen to them and respect their wishes? We are not there yet, especially not with the ubiquity of porn culture that has become markedly more violent towards women.

There are still some hard questions to be asked about why rape happens. Why is it that a subset of men will disregard the dignity, comfort or safety of another person for their own sexual gratification? How are we as a society contributing to this sense of entitlement?

Ultimately, weeding out rape culture will achieve a lot more than the courts can, even with this better law.