May 19, 2019

Swiss voters agreed on Sunday to tighten the country’s gun laws to reach parity with European Union antiterrorism legislation that came into force following attacks in Paris and elsewhere.

The referendum proposition was hotly debated in Switzerland, which has maintained compulsory military service and has a long tradition of marksmanship, including what is billed as the world’s largest annual shooting competition.

The government had warned voters that Switzerland, which is not a member of the European Union but follows many of its rules, could lose its membership in the Schengen area — which allows free movement among 26 European countries — if it rejected stricter gun rules.

Polls closed at midday local time, and the final results showed that almost 64 percent voted in favor of tighter gun controls, in line with what opinion polls had predicted. Only the citizens of the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland rejected the gun initiative.

Turnout was about 43 percent, on a day when the Swiss also voted on other local and federal issues, including on financing their pensions system.

Opponents conceded defeat but warned that the new regulations would undermine traditional values.

“By approving stricter gun control, Switzerland has given in to pressure by the E.U.,” Lukas Reimann of the People’s Party told the local public broadcaster.

But Daniel Jositsch, a Social Democratic senator, was quoted by news outlets as saying that the decision meant improved security for Switzerland and helped relations with Brussels.

Under the new law, Switzerland will strengthen labeling and registration rules for private weapons and for their main components. Anticipating objections, the Swiss government said it had extracted some concessions from the European Union, particularly to continue to allow Swiss soldiers to keep their weapons at home, including army-issued assault rifles, following initial military training. Army reservists are then required to take these weapons to regular shooting practice until the age of 34.

Swiss citizens will also retain the ability to buy semiautomatic weapons, but only if they can show they regularly train with them. Switzerland does not require medical or psychological tests to purchase such weapons.

The law will also leave untouched weaponry and registration procedures for shooting courses and competitions held in Switzerland. In addition to local festivals, Switzerland hosts the annual “Feldschiessen,” or field shoot, which organizers say is the largest marksmanship competition in the world, drawing about 127,000 participants last year.

After terrorists attacked the Bataclan concert hall and other spots in Paris in November 2015, killing some 130 people, and following deadly attacks on the subway and at the airport in Brussels a few months later, the European Union introduced new gun legislation in 2017 to make it harder to purchase the kind of semiautomatic rifles that were used in those attacks, as well as make it easier for the police to track ownership of such weapons.

Switzerland, which is home to 8.4 million people, has a ratio of around 27 firearms per 100 residents, based upon the most recent study from the Small Arms Survey run by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

A display at the 45th edition of the Arms Trade Fair, in Lucerne, Switzerland, in March. The country has about 27 firearms per 100 citizensCreditCreditStefan Wermuth/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

According to the same study, more than a dozen countries have proportionally higher firearm ownership than Switzerland, led by the United States, where there are about 120 firearms for every 100 residents. The European country that ranks highest in the chart is Finland, with about 34 firearms per 100 residents.

The Swiss Parliament approved the new rules last September. But firearms and hunting lobbyists and associations, with the support of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, campaigned to force a national referendum.

One of the arguments made by opponents is that Switzerland has had relatively few mass shootings, compared with the United States and other countries where weapons can also easily be acquired. Last year, 22 homicides were committed with a firearm in Switzerland, down from 43 murders the previous year, according to government statistics.

Switzerland’s worst mass shooting occurred in 2001, only two weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, when a 57-year-old man burst into a regional parliament in Zug and killed 14 people before shooting himself.

The killer, who held a grudge against the local authorities and had been entangled in a lawsuit following a dispute with a bus driver, was armed with several different weapons, including his Swiss Army assault rifle. After the shooting, the Swiss authorities tightened security around both federal and local parliamentary buildings, but the killings did not result in tougher gun legislation.

One of the associations that lobbied against tighter gun ownership laws argued that the European Union was seeking to transform a basic Swiss right to own a weapon into a privilege. The new rules, the association argued, would treat the Swiss like irresponsible citizens and “infants in the playground.”

The government’s arguments went beyond the issue of weapons to portray the referendum as a significant test for Switzerland’s broader relationship with the European Union. Being forced out of the Schengen zone would also have had costly practical consequences, such as having to reinstall border guards. Switzerland also risked being forced out of a separate asylum agreement with the European Union if voters had rejected the new gun rules.

The Swiss are, in any case, renegotiating a number of bilateral agreements with the European Union, at a time when the willingness of Brussels to accommodate outliers is being tested by the tussle between its negotiators and the government of Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain over the terms of her country’s exit from the 28-nation bloc.


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