Switzerland has earned its reputation as a safe, neutral nation. Yet it’s hardly pacifist or gun-averse. In fact, the small and stable country has the highest firearm ownership rate in Europe:
That’s the the third-highest ownership rate in the world, outdone only by the U.S. (89) and Yemen (55).
The precise number of privately owned guns is unclear because many are undeclared. Switzerland also has no national centralized register, with records kept only by the 26 cantons. The Small Arm Survey published by Geneva’s Graduate Institute of International Studies (GIIS) estimates it at 3.4 million firearms for a population of nearly 8 million.
This staggering figure is partly explained by Switzerland’s unusual national defense system, which relies mostly on a citizen militia. All Swiss men aged 18 to 34 undergo military service and are issued an assault rifle or pistol to keep at home, in case they are called to protect their homeland. Historians believe the system dissuaded the Germans from invading Switzerland during World War II.
Given how many Swiss have a weapon lying around in their basement or cupboard, Switzerland’s rate of gun-related deaths — 3 per 100,000 people — may seem low compared to the United States’, where it’s 10.3 per 100,000.
Possible explanations? One is strict gun control enforcement. Automatic weapons are banned and gun permits refused if the person has a criminal record, addiction or psychiatric problem. Others could be social or cultural, including a lack of serious drug or poverty issues, coupled with the notorious Swiss concern for safety and regard for rules.
Mass shootings are rare. The most notorious one happened in 2001, when a man walked into the regional parliament of Zug and shot dead 14 people and injured 10 others before killing himself.
After this incident, left-wing politicians and victims associations demanded a nationwide referendum calling for the storage of military firearms in public arsenals, instead of private homes, and the establishment of a national gun registry. The referendum failed in 2011, with 56.3 percent of voters opposing it.
The issue gained momentum again in 2013, after a gunman killed four people and wounded six others in Lucerne, shortly after another man had shot three women dead and wounded two men in a small southern village.
Following these high-profile incidents, the Swiss government vowed to take measured action to increase gun control by augmenting the exchange of information between regional firearm registries. Still, Switzerland’s atypical military system and ingrained gun-friendliness are likely to ensure the country stays locked and loaded for years to come.
This OZY encore was originally published July 7, 2014.
Why you should care
This harmless-looking nation has guns everywhere. It’s still pretty safe.