Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The Swiss and Their Guns

• January 19, 2011 • 5:00 AM

The relationship may be changing in Europe’s best-armed nation, which next month votes on how to store guns for its standing militia.

While the assassination attempt on Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona revived a predictable and unchanging round of gun control debate in the U.S., a referendum in Switzerland — Europe’s best-armed nation — is showing a shift of opinion away from private gun ownership.

Every third household in Switzerland has a firearm, normally government-issued, because every male citizen under about 50 is also a reserve soldier. Instead of a standing professional army, the government maintains a well-armed militia to be called up in case of war.

The tradition goes back to at least 1291, when several regions of what’s now Switzerland rose up against the Austrian empire, starting a war of liberation with citizen-soldiers like William Tell (who may be mythical) wielding private crossbows and hunting bows to defeat a more professional Habsburg army. Legends of Swiss independence have an almost American ring of under-doggedness.

But a referendum on Feb. 13 will decide whether the Swiss should go on keeping their guns at home or store them in public arsenals. Lately, yes votes for the arsenal bill have led public opinion — 45 percent support it versus 34 percent who oppose, plus a wide undecided margin, according to a poll from early January.
[class name=”dont_print_this”]

European Dispatch

EUROPEAN DISPATCH
Michael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

[/class]
If the Swiss tradition of armed domesticity falls, the American gun lobby may lose a prime example of responsible European gun ownership. Nonhunting firearms are rare across Europe; but Switzerland has always struck American gun owners as a shining case of a well-trained and relatively peaceful armed society.

Not that there isn’t violence. The arsenal initiative is led by women fed up with lethal accidents at home, as well as domestic violence, which has a way in Switzerland of ending in gunfire. The rate of death-by-gun in Switzerland in 2005 was 6.2 per 100,000 people — well behind the U.S. rate of 9.4 per 100,000, but still second in the world.

The problems in Switzerland tend to be suicide and family killings, not the sort of random public gun crime — like holdups or mass murder — traditionally seen in America.

U.S. gun advocates put this down to national character. “Cultural conditions, not gun laws, are the most important factors in a nation’s crime rate,” ran the (unchanging) argument in a 1990 issue of American Rifleman. “Young adults in Washington, D.C., are subject to strict gun control but no social control, and they commit a staggering amount of armed crime. Young adults in Zurich are subject to minimal gun control but strict social control, and they commit almost no crime.”

But one main difference in Switzerland is that the swarm of public firearms includes very few automatic weapons. Before the government sends an assault rifle home with a reserve soldier, it removes the automatic or rapid-fire function and leaves the weapon in self-loading, or semi-automatic, mode.

Active-duty soldiers traditionally get to store assault rifles at home; but the arsenal law would only strengthen Swiss restrictions against home storage of “especially dangerous weapons that are designed only to kill, such as automatic or so-called pump-action weapons,” as the Swiss broadcasting network SRF puts it.

The non-radical idea of banning sophisticated military firearms from American streets is, of course, roughly the Obama administration’s position on gun control. But when the president in 2009 tried to extend the assault-weapons ban that expired under Bush in 2004 — the law that would have prevented Jared Loughner from buying that long clip for his Glock pistol — there was a panicked run on assault rifles across the United States; Obama backed down.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Michael Scott Moore
Michael Scott Moore was a 2006-2007 Fulbright fellow for journalism in Germany, and The Economist named his surf travelogue, "Sweetness and Blood," a book of the year in 2010. His first novel, "Too Much of Nothing," was published by Carroll & Graf in 2003, and he’s written about politics and travel for The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, and Spiegel Online in Berlin, where he serves as editor-at-large.

More From Michael Scott Moore

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


Follow us


Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.