The Swiss and their Guns

By David B. Kopel and Stephen D'Andrilli

The American Rifleman, February 1990. More by Kopel on guns in Switzerland.

In the right to bear arms debate, pro-gun Americans point to Switzerland, where almost every adult male is legally required to possess a gun. One of the few nations with a higher per capita rate of gun ownership than the United States, Switzerland has virtually no gun crime. Therefore, argue the pro-gunners, America doesn't need gun control.

Yet Handgun Control, Inc. (HCI), in its brochure "Handgun Facts," points to Switzerland as one of the advanced nations with strict handgun laws." The brochure states that all guns are registered, and handgun purchases require a background check and a permit. Gun crime in Switzerland is virtually non-existent. Therefore, concludes Handgun Control, America needs strict gun control.

Who's right? As usual, Handgun Control is wrong, but that doesn't necessarily make the pro-gun side right. Gun ownership in Switzerland defies the simple categories of the American gun debate.

Like America, Switzerland won its independence in a revolutionary war fought by an armed citizenry. In 1291, several cantons (states) began a war of national liberation against Austria's Hapsburg Empire. In legend, the revolution was precipitated by William Tell, although there is no definitive proof of his existence.

Over the next century, the Swiss militia liberated most Switzerland from the Austrians. The ordinary citizens who composed the militia used the deadliest assault weapons the time, swords and bows. Crucial to the Swiss victory was the motivation of the free Swiss troops.

From the very first years of Swiss independence, the Swiss were commanded to keep and bear arms. After 1515. Switzerland adopted a policy of armed neutrality. For the next four centuries, the great empires of Europe rose and fell, swallowing many weaker countries. Russia and France both invaded, and the Habsburgs and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire remained special threats. But Switzerland almost always retained its independence. The Swiss policy was Prévention de la guerre par la volonté de se défendre (Prevention of war by willingness to defend ourselves.)

During World War I, both France and Germany considered invading Switzerland to attack each other's flank. In World War II, Hitler wanted the Swiss gold reserves and needed free communications and transit through Switzerland to supply Axis forces in the Mediterranean. But when military planners looked at Switzerland's well-armed citizenry, mountainous terrain, and civil defence fortifications, Switzerland lost its appeal as an invasion target. While two World Wars raged, Switzerland enjoyed a secure peace.

At home, the "Swiss Confederation" developed only a weak central government, leaving most authority in the hands of the cantons or lower levels of government. The tradition of local autonomy helped keep Switzerland from experiencing the bitter civil wars between Catholics and Protestants that devastated Germany, France and England.

In 1847-48, liberals throughout Europe revolted against aristocratic rule. Only in Switzerland did they succeed, taking control of the whole nation following a brief conflict called the Sonderbrund War. (Total casualties were only 128.) Civil rights were firmly guaranteed, and all vestiges of feudalism were abolished.

Despite the hopes of German reformers, the Swiss did not send their people's army into Germany in 1848 to assist popular revolution there. When the German revolution failed, autocratic Prussia considered invading Switzerland, but decided the task was impossible.

As one historian summarises: "Switzerland was created in battle, reached its present dimensions by conquest and defended its existence by armed neutrality thereafter." The experience of Swiss history has made national independence and power virtually synonymous with an armed citizenry.

Today, military service for Swiss males is universal. At about age 20, every Swiss male goes through 118 consecutive days of recruit training in the Rekrutenschule. This training may be a young man's first encounter with his countrymen who speak different languages. (Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansch.)

Even before required training begins, young men and women may take optional courses with the Swiss army's M57 assault rifle. They keep that gun at home for three months and receive six half-day training sessions.

From age 21 to 32, a Swiss man serves as a "frontline" troop in the Auszug, and devotes three weeks a year (in eight of the 12 years) to continued training. From age 33 to 42, he serves in the Landwehr (like America's National Guard); every few years, he reports for two-week training periods. Finally, from ages 43, to 50, he serves in the Landsturm; in this period, he only spends 13 days total in "home guard courses."

Over a soldier's career he also spends scattered days on mandatory equipment inspections and required target practice. Thus, in a 30-year mandatory military career, a Swiss man only spends about one year in direct military service. Following discharge from the regular army, men serve on reserve status until age 50 (55 for officers).

By the Federal Constitution of 1874, military servicemen are given their first equipment, clothing and arms. After the first training period, conscripts must keep gun, ammunition and equipment an ihrem Wohnort ("in their homes") until the end of their term of service.

Today, enlisted men are issued M57 automatic assault rifles and officers are given pistol, Each reservist is issued 24 rounds of ammunition in sealed packs for emergency use. (Contrary to Handgun Control's claim that "all ammunition must be accounted for," the emergency ammunition is the only ammo that requires accounting.)

After discharge from service, the man is given a bolt rifle free from registration or obligation. Starting in the 1994, the government will give ex-reservists assault rifles. Officers carry pistols rather than rifles and are given their pistols the end of their service.

When the government adopts a new infantry rifle, it sells the old ones to the public.

Reservists are encouraged to buy military ammunition (7.5 and 5.6mm-5.56 mm in other countries-for rifles and 9 and 7.65 mm Luger for pistols, which is sold at cost by the government, for target practice Non-military ammunition for long-gun hunting and .22 Long Rifle (LR) ammo are not subsidised, but are subject to no sales controls. Non-military non-hunting ammunition more powerful than .22 LR (such as .38 Spl.) is registered at the time of sale.

Swiss military ammo must be registered if bought at a private store, but need not be registered if bought at a range The nation's 3,000 shooting ranges sell the overwhelming majority of ammunition. Technically, ammunition bought at the range must be used at the range, but the rule is barely known and almost never obeyed.

The army sells a variety of machine guns, submachine guns, anti-tank weapons, anti-aircraft guns, howitzers and cannons. Purchasers of these weapons require an easily obtained cantonal license, and the weapons are registered, In a nation of six million people, there are at least two million guns, including 600,000 fully automatic assault rifles, half a million pistols, and numerous machine guns. Virtually every home has a gun.

Besides subsidised military surplus, the Swiss can buy other firearms easily too. While long guns require no special purchase procedures, handguns are sold only to those with a Waffenerwerbsschien (purchase certificate) issued by a cantonal authority. A certificate is issued to every applicant over 18 who is not a criminal or mentally infirm.

There are no restrictions on the carrying of long guns. About half the cantons have strict permit procedures for carrying handguns, and the other half have no rules at all There is no discernible difference in the crime rate between the cantons as a result of the different policies.

Thanks to a lawsuit brought by the Swiss gun lobby, semi-automatic rifles require no purchase permit and are not registered by the government. Thus, the only long guns registered by the government are full automatics. (Three cantons do require collectors of more than 10 guns to register.)

Gun sales from one individual to another are regulated in five cantons and completely uncontrolled in all the rest.

Retail gun dealers do keep records of over-the-counter gun transactions; transactions are not reported to or collected by the government. (This is also the policy in the U.S. during those periods the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms feels like obeying the law.) In Switzerland, purchases from dealers of hunting long guns and of smallbore rifles are not even recorded by the dealer. In other words, the dealer would not record the sale of a .30-06 hunting rifle, but would record the sale of a .30-06 Garand.

Thus, Handgun Control's assertion that all Swiss guns are registered is just plain wrong, and its claim that "Switzerland and Israel strictly control handgun availability" is more than a little inaccurate.

Anybody, including this author, can make mistakes about the complexities about foreign gun laws. Nevertheless, even the most careless authors ought to do better than Handgun Control's brochure "Handgun Facts," in which almost every "fact" about Switzerland is wrong.

But Handgun Control's misstatements are no worse than those contained in a highly biased Library of Congress book Gun Control Laws in Foreign Countries (which tax dollars paid for). That book claims that in Switzerland "the policy is not to provide automatic guns and other dangerous weapons to the general population"-an utter untruth, at least if one considers adults to be part of "the general population." The book also asserts that "the sale of handguns to individuals is restricted and reflects a clear Swiss government policy of keeping this strict control." Yet the only individuals who are "restricted" from buying handguns are children, the insane and ex-criminals.

If ever a nation had "a well-regulated militia," it is Switzerland. Nineteenth-century economist Adam Smith thought Switzerland the only place where the whole body of the people had successfully been drilled in militia skills.

Indeed, the militia is virtually synonymous with the nation. "The Swiss do not have an army, they are the army, says one government publication. Fully deployed, the Swiss army has 15.2 men per square kilometre; in contrast, the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. have only .2 soldiers per square kilometre. Switzerland is 76 times denser with soldiers than either superpower. Indeed, only Israel has more army per square kilometre.

Switzerland is also the only Western nation to provide shelters fully stocked with food and enough supplies to last a year for all its citizens in case of war. The banks and supermarkets subsidise much of the stockpiling. The banks also have plans to move their gold into the mountainous center of Switzerland in case of invasion.

The nation is ready to mobilise on a moment's notice. Said one Swiss citizen-soldier, "If we start in the morning, we would be mobilised by late afternoon. That is why the gun is at home, the ammunition is at home. The younger people all have automatic rifles. They are ready to fight." Citizen-soldiers on their way to mobilisation points may flag down and commandeer passing automobiles.

Since 1291, when the landsgemeinden (people's assemblies) formed circles in the village squares, and only men carrying swords could vote, weapons have been the mark of citizenship. As a Military Department spokesman said, "It is an old Swiss tradition that only an armed man can have political rights." This policy is based on the understanding that only those who bear the burden of keeping Switzerland free are entitled to fully enjoy the benefits of freedom.

In 1977, the Münchenstein Initiative proposed allowing citizens to choose social or hospital work over military duty. It was rejected at the polls, and in both houses of parliament (the Bundesversarnmlung's Nationalrat and Ständerat). There are provisions for conscientious objectors, but this group only numbers .2% of conscripts.

In 1978, Switzerland refused to ratify a Council of Europe Convention on Control of Firearms. Since then, Switzerland has been pressured by other European governments, which charge that it is a source for terrorist weapons. As a result, in 1982 the central government proposed a law barring foreigners in Switzerland from buying guns they could not buy in their own countries and also requiring that Swiss citizens obtain a license to buy any gun, rather than just handguns.

Outraged Swiss gun owners formed a group called "Pro Tell," named after national hero William Tell. In 1983, the Federal Council (the executive cabinet) abandoned the restrictive proposal because "the opposition was too heavy" and suggested that the cantons regulate the matter. A few months earlier, the Cantonal Council of Freiburg had already enacted such a law by a one-vote margin. A popular referendum overturned the law the next year, by a 60%-40% vote.

Whatever the effect of Swiss guns abroad, they are not even a trivial crime problem domestically. Despite all the guns, the murder rate is a small fraction of the American rate, and is less than the rate in Canada or England, which strictly control guns, or in Japan, which virtually prohibits them. The gun crime rate is so low that statistics are not even kept.

The suicide rate, though, is almost double the American rate. Guns are used in about one-fifth of all Swiss suicides compared to three-fifths of American and one-third of Canadian suicides.

It is not Switzerland's cultural makeup, or its gun policies per se, that explain that low crime rate. Rather, it is the emphasis on community duty, of which gun ownership is the most important part, that best explains low crime rate.

In Cities With Little Crime, author Marshall Clinard contrasts the low crime rate in Switzerland with the higher rate in Sweden, where gun control is more extensive. The higher Swedish rate is all the more surprising in view of Sweden's much lower population density and its ethnic homogeneity. One of the reasons for the low crime rate, says Clinard, is that Swiss cities grew relatively slowly. Most families live for generations in the same area. Therefore, large, heterogeneous cities with slum cultures never developed.

Proud to have the weakest central government in the West, Switzerland is governed mainly by its 3,095 Einwohrnergemeinde (communes, sub-states of a canton). Several cantons still make their laws by the traditional Landsgemeinden system, whereby all eligible voters assemble in annual outdoor meetings.

Unlike the rest of Europe, the police force is decentralised. Judges and jurors are popularly elected. With less mobility, and more deeply developed community ties, there is less crime.

Most democratic nations impose long prison terms more frequently than does America, but Switzerland does not. For all crimes except murder, the Swiss rarely inflict a prison term of more than a year; most serious offenders receive suspended sentences. As in Japan, the focus of the criminal justice system is on the reintegration of the offender into the community, rather than punishment.

As for the non-criminal Swiss, the saying is that everyone is his own policeman. Foreign visitors are surprised to see Swiss pedestrians always waiting at traffic lights, even when there is no traffic. The mass transit systems successfully depends on voluntary payment.

Clinard infers that strong central governments weaken citizen initiative and individual responsibility. He concludes: Communities or cities that wish to prevent crime should encourage greater political decentralisation by developing small government units and encouraging citizen responsibility for obedience to the law and crime control."

In Nations Not Obsessed With Crime, Freda Adler comes to many of the same conclusions as Clinard. She, too, emphasises the communal system of government-in which all laws are enacted by popular vote-and the stability of residential patterns.

Most Swiss still live in traditional patriarchal families. In fact, Switzerland has the lowest percentage of working mothers of any European country. While America was debating the Equal Rights Amendment, Switzerland was wondering whether women should be allowed to vote. (The long delay in female suffrage may have something to do with the equation of civil rights and militia service.)

Schools are strict, and teenagers have less freedom than in most of the rest of Europe. Studies shows that Swiss teenagers, unlike teenagers in other countries, feel closer to their parents than to their fellow teenagers. Communications between the generations are open.

Among the factors contributing to the inter-generational harmony is military service, which provides an opportunity for all groups of males to interact. Adults and youth share many sports, such as skiing and swimming.

Target shooting is another important shared pastime, with community awards and team trophies often displayed in restaurants and taverns. At the annual Feldschiessen weekend, more than 200,000 Swiss attend national marksmanship competitions.

In the home, writes John McPhee, "while a father cleans his rifle at the kitchen table his son is watching, and 'the boy gets close to the weapon' ". Marshall Clinard explains that because army weapons must be kept in the home much activity associated with the proper care of weapons, target practice, or conversations about military activities become common in the family. All of this, together with the other varied activities carried out in Switzerland across age lines, has served to inhibit the age separation, alienation, and growth of a separate youth culture that has increasingly become characteristic of the United States, Sweden, and many other highly developed countries. Although these factors represent only one aspect of a total Swiss way of life, they play no small part in the low crime rate and the crime trend."

Close analysis of Swiss gun laws also shows how silly it is for Handgun Control to point to Switzerland as a model. If-as Handgun Control claims-Switzerland's lenient licensing system is the reason Switzerland has so little handgun crime, then Handgun Control ought to commit itself to reform of several American laws.

First of all, Handgun Control should oppose the gun prohibition laws in Washington, D.C., and other cities-since Switzerland proves that lenient licensing is all that is needed to stop gun crime.

Second, Handgun Control should work to repeal laws which prohibit Americans from owning howitzers, anti-aircraft guns, and other military weapons. Switzerland allows ownership of these weapons by anyone who can meet the simple requirements for a handgun license. And thanks to the "howitzer licensing" system there is no howitzer crime in Switzerland. Since Swiss-style handgun licensing is the main reason Switzerland has no handgun crime (claims Handgun Control), a Swiss-style system of howitzer licensing would also be a good idea for America.

Lastly, Handgun Control should reverse its policy, and work for repeal of America's ban on the possession of machine guns manufactured after 1986. Handgun Control should push America to adopt the Swiss policy: having the government sell machine guns at discount prices to anyone with an easily obtained permit.

It is not likely, though, that Handgun Control will follow the logic of its advertising, and work to let Americans own licensed machine guns and howitzers. But until Handgun Control does so, it should stop talking about what a good handgun licensing system Switzerland has.

If Handgun Control should stop its rhetoric about Switzerland, what should pro-gun Americans do? They can talk about Switzerland, but they cannot expect to win the American gun argument with the Swiss example.

Analysis of Switzerland does demolish the simplistic notion "more guns, more gun crime." More important than the number of guns is their cultural context. In Switzerland, guns are an important element of a cohesive social structure that keeps crime low.

While Switzerland is clear proof that guns are not in themselves "daemons" (as one Denver priest recently claimed), Switzerland does not by itself prove the ease against gun control in America. Indeed, author Clinard argues that strict gun controls are necessary in the U.S.

Clinard's argument cannot be dismissed out of hand. After all, few readers of this magazine would want America to adopt the lenient criminal sentencing practices of Switzerland. Opponents of lenient sentencing would argue, correctly, that America does not have the stable, integrated community structures of Switzerland. Thus, the American government must take a more coercive, authoritarian role in controlling prisoners, to make up for the lack of community controls.

The same point might be made about guns. Although guns are more available to the Swiss, Swiss gun culture is more authoritarian than America's. Gun ownership is a mandatory community duty, not a matter of individual free choice. In Switzerland, defence of the nation is not a job for professional soldiers or for people who join the army to learn technical skills for civilian jobs. Defence of the nation is the responsibility of every male citizen.

Thus, American gun owners must win the gun control argument based on conditions in America, not conditions in Switzerland. The implicit argument of Clinard (and of most American gun controllers) is that while the Swiss may be responsible enough to own even the deadliest guns, Americans are not.

Before rejecting this argument, American gun owners might wonder if an unmanned American mass transit system could count on payment by the honour code. Further, America obviously has a large criminal class of gun abusers, and Switzerland does not.

If strict gun control could actually disarm that criminal element in America, there might be an argument for gun control. But as Josh Sugarmann, former communications director for the National Coalition to Ban Handguns (NCBH), wrote in The Washington Monthly: "handgun controls do little to stop criminals from obtaining handguns."

Sugarmann and NCBH favour gun control not to disarm criminals, but because they believe that non-criminal Americans cannot be trusted with handguns. The coalition's political affairs director, Eric Ellman, has said that "the majority of gun owners are not responsible." Yet a look at the facts shows that more than 99% of American citizens who are not professional felons are just as suited for gun ownership as any Swiss militiaman.

Ordinary American citizens use guns competently. Every 48 seconds, someone uses a handgun to defend himself against a crime (according to Florida State University's Gary Kleck, using data collected by liberal pollster Peter Hart in a poll paid for by the anti-gun lobby).

Regular American citizens do not shoot each other in moments of passion; the vast majority of such shootings are perpetrated by thugs with a record of violence and substance abuse.

And contrary to the claims of the anti-gun lobby, Americans are not so careless that they cannot be trusted with potentially dangerous objects like guns. Gun accidents account for less than 2% of the nation's 92,000 accidental deaths annually.

Suicides have little to do with gun availability. Japan has no guns, while Switzerland is deluged with every gun in the book, and both nations have the same suicide rate.

Of course the more that U.S. governments can do to make gun use in America even more responsible, the better. Switzerland shows how successful governments can be in promoting responsible gun use.

Elementary schools in America should have gun safety classes which teach children never to touch a gun unless a parent is present, and they should be taught to tell an adult if they see an unattended gun. The NRA actively promotes this idea, and the National Association of Chiefs of Police endorses it. But Handgun Control opposes this reasonable, sensible safety measure. Has HCI gone off the deep end?

High schools and colleges wishing to offer target shooting as a sport should be allowed to do so. Unlike football or swimming, scholastic target shooting has never resulted in a fatality. The anti-gun groups oppose the sensible step of allowing the schools to offer students the safest sport ever invented. Have they gone off the deep end'? Finally, local governments should enact reasonable zoning laws, which allow the construction of indoor shooting ranges (properly ventilated and sound insulated) in urban areas. In some cases, governments should subsidise the building of ranges. At target ranges, Americans can take lessons in gun responsibility, and practice safe gun handling skills. As you might expect, the anti-gunners oppose this simple safety measure too. They've gone off t he deep end.

What have we learned from Switzerland'? Guns in themselves are not a cause of gun crime; if they were, everyone in Switzerland would long ago have been shot in a domestic quarrel.

Cultural conditions, not gun laws, are the most important factors in a nation's crime rate. 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.

America-with its traditions of individual liberty-cannot import Switzerland's culture of social control. Teenagers, women, and almost everyone else have more freedom in America than in Switzerland.

What America can learn from Switzerland is that the best way to reduce gun misuse is to promote responsible gun ownership. While America cannot adopt the Swiss model, America can foster responsible gun ownership along more individualistic, American lines. Firearms safety classes in elementary schools, optional marksmanship classes in high schools and colleges, and the widespread availability of adult safety training at licensed shooting ranges are some of the ways that America can make its tradition of responsible gun use even stronger.

A Couple of Swiss Myths

"There's a full-auto weapon in every Swiss household." Although it's true that all Swiss males are subject to compulsory military service and every soldier is required to keep their service weapon(s) at home, that does not equate to there being a full-auto weapon in every Swiss home.

Let's do the math: Swiss army size: 400,000 (Sources: The Swiss Transportation Troops or The Swiss Army) (In 1995 the size of the Swiss army was reduced to 400,000 from 625,000.). Swiss households: 2.8 million (Source: Swiss Statistics). 400,000 full-auto weapons / 2.8 million households = 14 per cent of Swiss households have a full-auto weapon in them. (With the 625,000 figure, it is 22 per cent.) This represents a maximum figure since a household could contain more than one soldier.

"Sure, Swiss citizens have full-auto weapons, but all ammunition is strictly accounted for and must remain in a sealed container until the reservist reports for duty." Nancy Hwa, spokeswoman for the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence (CPHV), helps to perpetuate this misconception: ""In Switzerland you're given a limited number of bullets in a sealed tin. If [when you report for service] the seal is broken, you're thrown in jail. If the NRA wants to adopt that system, it would be fine with us." (Source: Notre Dame Magazine Online: "Public Enemy No. 1").

The above is true regarding army issued ammunition. However, "Swiss military ammo must be registered if bought at a private store, but need not be registered if bought at a range. The nation's 3,000 shooting ranges sell the overwhelming majority of ammunition. Technically, ammunition bought at the range must be used at the range, but the rule is barely known and almost never obeyed." (Source: What America can learn from Switzerland is that the best way to reduce gun misuse is to promote responsible gun ownership) In other words, Swiss reservists are free to purchase, possess, and use military ammunition outside the context of direct military service.>

Although Ms. Hwa's quote isn't a lie, it is misleading. It is also extremely unlikely that Ms. Hwa means what she says. Would the CPHV really accept the Swiss system and allow National Guardsmen to keep their M-16 rifles at home?

It is absurd to claim Swiss gun control is responsible for that country's low crime rates, or that the Swiss system proves more guns mean less crime. "Gun ownership in Switzerland defies the simple categories of the American gun debate." What America can learn from Switzerland is that the best way to reduce gun misuse is to promote responsible gun ownership

More articles on Swiss gun policy are available here. This article is based on Kopel's book The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy: Should America Adopt the Gun Controls of Other Democracies? (Prometheus Books, 1992).

Share this page:

Kopel RSS feed Click the icon to get RSS/XML updates of this website, and of Dave's articles.

Follow Dave on Twitter.

Kopel's Law & Liberty News. Twice-daily web newspaper collecting articles from Kopel and those whom he follows on Twitter.

Author page on Amazon.

Search Kopel website:

Make a donation to support Dave Kopel's work in defense of constitutional rights and public safety.
Donate Now!

Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action. Please send comments to Independence Institute, 727 East 16th Ave., Colorado 80203. Phone 303-279-6536. (email) webmngr @

Copyright © 2018