Swiss Mess

Homeland defense, the wrong way.

By Dave Kopel, Stephen Halbrook & Carlo Stagnaro

October 30, 2001 12:20 p.m. National Review Online. More by Kopel on Switzerland.

In italiano: Pasticcio svizzero

At about 10:30 A.M. on September 27, a 57-year-old man from Zurich (we won't give the killer publicity by mentioning his name), burst into the regional parliament of Zug — a canton in central Switzerland, near Lucerne — and opened fire, killing 14 people, all of them elected officials. He then appears to have committed suicide.

Fourteen more were wounded. The killer thought he was on a vendetta against government and law enforcement. He had brought charges against public officers seven times; all his accusations were dismissed as frivolous. While shooting, he called his victims "Mafia" and "bastards." A letter was found wherein he referred to a coming "day of reckoning for the Zug mafia."

The killer wore a jacket with the word "Polizei," although the jacket was not an official uniform of Swiss police. He fired several 20-round magazines from a semiautomatic SIG PE 90 rifle. He also had a pump action shotgun, a Sig Sauer 7.65mm pistol, a revolver, and a canister containing gasoline.

In 1970, according to Swiss television, the killer had been sentenced to 18 months in prison for several crimes, including sexual offenses against children. Because his felonies had been legally expunged due to the passage of time, he was allowed to purchase firearms. In the 1980s he was investigated for various offences, including assaults. Finally, in 1998, he used a revolver to threaten a bus driver. In his demented mind, he was fighting his own battle against the local transportation agency "Zugerland" whose chief, Robert Bisig, was also a member of the local parliament, and was wounded in the recent shooting.

The murderer's character was "stubborn and quarrelsome," investigating magistrate Roland Schwyter said. The killer was probably insane. "Such a paranoid usually is an individual who believes [himself] to have strong and mighty enemies. Not carelessly, [the] Zug murderer cried hate and revenge words against a group of people, calling them Mafia," psychiatrist Claudio Rise noted. As in most of Europe, it is much harder in Switzerland than in the United States to have a person legally committed for insanity.

To find a precedent in Swiss history, one must look back to 1992. In Ticino, another Swiss canton, an Italian killer shot six people to death in five different towns. He planned to kill another, but the intended victim was away on vacation. After a few days, the killer gave himself up and, once in prison, hanged himself.

Murders of public officials in Switzerland have been very rare. In 1923, a Swiss citizen shot the Soviet delegate to the Lausanne Peace Conference. Before that, an Italian bum used a sharpened file to stab Austrian Empress Elisabeth in Geneva on September 10, 1898, prompting Mark Twain to write an anguished essay, which he never published.

To find a murder of a politician, one must go back to September 11, 1890, when the liberal state councilor of Ticino, Luigi Rossi, was killed by conservative rivals.

Swiss politicians are now worried about their safety. Regional and federal government ordered metal detectors placed at the entrances of their buildings. But, of course, this won't stop a killer who simply shoots his way past the metal detector.

Switzerland's justice minister has announced that the federal government will introduce new gun-control laws. So let's take a step back, and look at Switzerland's unique gun laws and culture.

"While traveling around Switzerland on Sundays, everywhere one hears gunfire, but a peaceful gunfire: this is the Swiss practicing their favorite sport, their national sport. They are doing their obligatory shooting, or practicing for the regional, Cantonal or federal shooting festivals, as their ancestors did it with the musket, the arquebus or the crossbow. Everywhere, one meets urbanites and country people, rifle to the shoulder, causing foreigners to exclaim: 'You are having a revolution!'" These words were written by General Henri Guisan, commander in chief of the Swiss Militia Army, the year before World War II began.

Having participated in Swiss shooting matches for over a decade, Stephen Halbrook can attest to the continuing validity of this statement. Throughout the country, people are free to come and go for shooting competitions, and competitors are commonly seen with firearms on trains, buses, bicycles, and on foot.

In 1939, just before Hitler launched World War II, Switzerland hosted the International Shooting Championships. Swiss president Philipp Etter told the audience, which included representatives from Nazi Germany:

There is probably no other country which, like Switzerland, gives the soldier his weapon to keep in the home.... With this rifle, he is able every hour, if the country calls, to defend his hearth, his home, his family, his birthplace.... The Swiss does not part with his rifle.

Switzerland won the service-rifle team championship. The lesson was not lost on the Nazi observers.

Halbrook details in Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War II, the Swiss militia policy of a rifle in every home deterred a Nazi invasion. A Nazi attack would have cost far more in Wehrmacht blood than did the easy conquests of the other European countries, whose governments had restricted firearm ownership before the war. Many hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Swiss — and refugees who found sanctuary there — were saved because every Swiss had a rifle, and was prepared to resist.

To this day, every male, when he turns 20, is issued a full automatic military rifle and required to keep it at home. Universal service in the Militia Army is required. When a Swiss is no longer required to serve, he may keep his rifle (converted from automatic to semi-automatic) or his pistol (if he served as an officer).

American Founding Fathers such as John Adams and Patrick Henry greatly admired the Swiss militia, which helped inspire the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — the preference for a "well regulated militia" as "necessary for the security of a free state," and the guarantee of "the right of the people to keep and bear arms." Late in the 19th century, the American military sent observers to Switzerland in hopes of emulating the Swiss shooting culture.

The American Founders also admired Switzerland's decentralized system of government. Switzerland is a confederation in which the federal government has strictly defined and limited powers, and the cantons, even more so than American states, have the main powers to legislate. The citizens often exercise direct democracy, in the form of the initiative and the referendum. The late political scientist Gianfranco Miglio said the Swiss enjoyed the "last, real federalism in the world," as opposed to the "false and/or deteriorated" federalism of Germany or America.

For centuries, the Swiss cantons had no restrictions on keeping and bearing arms, though every male was required to provide himself with arms for militia service. By the latter part of the 20th century, some cantons required licenses to carry pistols, imposed fees for the acquisition of certain firearms (which could be evaded by buying them in other cantons), and imposed other restrictions — albeit never interfering with the ever-present shooting matches.

In other cantons — usually those with the lowest crime rates — one did not need a police permit for carrying a pistol or for buying a semiautomatic, lookalike Kalashnikov rifle. A permit was necessary only for a non-militia machine gun. Silencers or noise suppressors were unrestricted. Indeed, the Swiss federal government sold to civilian collectors all manner of military surplus, including antiaircraft guns, cannon, and machine guns.

In 1996, the Swiss people voted to allow the federal government to legislate concerning firearms, and to prohibit the cantons from regulating firearms. Some who favored more restrictions (as in other European countries) saw this as a way to pass gun-control laws at the federal level; those who objected to restrictions in some cantons saw it as a way to preempt cantonal regulation, such as the former requirement in Geneva of a permit for an air gun.

The result is a federal firearms law that imposes certain restrictions, but leaves virtually untouched the ability of citizens to possess Swiss military firearms, and to participate in competitions all over the country.

The Federal Weapons Law of 1998 regulates import, export, manufacture, trade, and certain types of possession of firearms. The right of buying, possessing, and carrying arms is guaranteed with certain restrictions. It does not apply to the police or to the Militia Army — of which most adult males are members.

The law forbids fully automatic arms and certain semiautomatics "derived" therefrom; but Swiss military assault rifles are excluded from this prohibition. (The exclusion makes the prohibition nearly meaningless.) Further, collectors may obtain special permits for the "banned" arms, such as submachine guns and machine guns.

In purchasing a firearm from a licensed dealer, a permit is required for handguns and some long guns, but not for single-shot rifles, multi-barrel rifles, Swiss bolt-action military rifles, target rifles, or hunting rifles. Permits must be granted provided the applicant is at least 18 years old and has no disqualifying criminal record. Authorities may not keep any registry of firearms owners. Private persons may freely buy and sell firearms without restriction, provided that they retain a written agreement, and that the seller believes the purchaser is not criminally disqualified.

A permit was already required for manufacturing and dealing in firearms, but now there are more regulations still. Storage regulations exist for both shops and individuals. During the Cold War, the government required every house to include a bomb shelter, which today often provide safe storage for large collections of firearms (and double as wine cellars).

Criminal penalties depend on intent. Willfully committing an offense may be punishable by incarceration for up to five years, but failure to comply through neglect, or without intent, may result in a fine or no punishment at all.

Before 1998, about half the cantons (like 33 American states) allowed all law-abiding citizens to carry handguns for protection in public; in some cases, an easily obtainable permit was needed. The new federal law makes permits necessary everywhere, and, so far, permits have been issued restrictively. (Still, one can freely carry a handgun or rifle to a shooting range, and there is one in every village, nook, and cranny.)

Zug, site of the September murders, had always been a difficult place to obtain a handgun carry permit (Waffentragschein). Even if permits had been issued readily, it might not have made a difference on September 27, since, as one of our Swiss friends put it: "the mental climate of Zug was entirely peaceful. While I would — before the outrage — not at all have been surprised to learn that in the Uri or Ticino or the Grisons assembly there were members carrying arms, in Zug I would have been surprised indeed. This is exactly what the mad felon exploited, a state of mind. There are more parallels between the hideous September crimes than first meet the eyes!"

Any proposed new restrictions on peaceable firearm possession and use will be opposed by the Militia Army; by shooting organizations, such as the Swiss Shooting Federation; and by the gun-rights group ProTell, named after William Tell, who shot an apple off his son's head. Their allies are the political parties that support free trade, federalism, limited government, non-interventionism, and remaining independent from international organizations such as the European Union or United Nations.

Supporters of firearm restrictions tend to be socialists and Leftists — including those who wish to abolish the Militia Army, to strengthen the central government to be more like Germany, and to join the European Union. Ironically, the Swiss Socialist Party went through a similar period at the beginning of Hitler's rise. But the Swiss socialists soon recognized the danger, and in 1942 — when Switzerland was completely surrounded by Axis dictatorships — the Socialist Party resolved that "the Swiss should never disarm, even in peacetime."

Since September 27, the European media have been complaining about this "armed country" where every citizen is a "potential sniper." But the fact is, Switzerland is just as safe as countries where firearms are far more restricted. In 1994, the homicide rate in Switzerland was 1.32 per 100,000 in the population. Of those, 0.58 (44 percent) involved firearms. Compare this to Italy 2.25 (1.66 firearms), France 1.12 (0.44), and Germany 1.17 (0.22).

The Swiss household gun-ownership rate is 27 percent excluding militia weapons. Contrast this with the household gun-ownership rates (at least for households willing to divulge gun ownership to a government-affiliated telephone pollster) of 16 percent for Italians, 23 percent for French, and 9 percent for Germans.

The far left has been demanding massive new gun control, and prohibition on keeping militia rifles in the home. The Defence Minister has ruled out such changes, however. The Justice Department will push for an amendment to the federal gun law which would abolish private firearms transfers; all private transfers would require police approval.

While most of Switzerland's less-armed neighbors are as peaceful as Switzerland, danger emanates from the Balkans — the former Yugoslavia and Albania — not to mention from the chaos that's followed the breakup of the Soviet Union. Political terrorists and organized criminals are swamping Europe. Indeed, the same terrorist organizations that murdered Americans on September 11 operate in all European countries, including Switzerland. The new Swiss federal-weapons law is in part a reaction to this turmoil. But given that terrorists may buy black market AK-47s from the former Red Army in all European countries, the Swiss federal law impinges more on law-abiding Swiss than it does on foreign miscreants.

One wonders whether more gun laws will do as much good for Switzerland as would imprisoning people who threaten bus drivers with a gun, or improving supervision of released felony sexual predators against children.

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