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Swiss up in arms over guns in the home

by Staff Writers
Geneva (AFP) Feb 9, 2011
Xavier Schwitzguebel's collection of firearms is apparently so well dispersed throughout his Swiss home that he admitted it would take too long to dig them out and assemble them on a table.

The 21-year-old student sought to demonstrate that there was nothing dangerous or unusual about keeping firearms at home, given that they are not only well hidden but also kept as scattered parts -- as decreed by the Swiss army.

"Even if a child were to come across his father's firearm, it would not be usable," insisted Schwitzguebel, who has been campaigning for a no vote in Sunday's referendum on whether the Swiss should continue to be allowed to keep army-issued weapons at home.

The people's initiative, launched by a coalition of non-governmental groups, the Church and centre-left parties, wants the weapons to be kept in armouries instead.

It is also seeking to abolish the long-standing practice of allowing those on military service to take home their government-issue assault rifles even after they leave the army.

The practice was a core part of the country's defence strategy, which partly aimed to deter invasion with the threat that citizens, mainly men, are combat ready at any sign of trouble.

According to official data, about two million firearms are in circulation in the Alpine country of about seven million inhabitants, whose mythical national hero is William Tell. An estimated 240,000 more weapons are not registered.

The Swiss ease with weapons is betrayed on the street and in railway stations, as young conscripts travel to and from military service nonchalantly carrying their semi-automatic rifle, with barely a glance from passers-by.

Schwitzguebel, an officer in the Swiss army when he is on compulsory military service, pointed out that gun culture is a tradition here.

"If the yes goes through, it really risks destroying the country," he said.

He underlined that Swiss society is built on trust between the citizen and the country.

"If we take away the weapon, which represents this trust, that means that we are breaking the sacred union between democracy and citizen."

"Without weapons, Switzerland would not exist. However, Switzerland exists with weapons and there is very little abuse through the use of weapons, there is really a rapport of confidence between the citizen and the weapons.

Nevertheless, some have been spooked by episodes like the 2001 shooting in central Switzerland's Zug canton, when 14 people were gunned down during a local parliament sitting.

Proponents of the ban believe that the easy availability of weapons poses a "danger" particularly for suicidal people.

"The point of the initiative is to protect families and to protect suicidal people against themselves," said Anne-Marie Trabichet, from Stop Suicide, one of the groups that launched the initiative.

"Reducing accessibility to firearms is a suicide prevention method which has been proven in other countries. It is why we are in favour of this initiative and we think that they are efficient methods," she noted.

Rates of suicide by firearms in Switzerland are three times higher than in the rest of Europe, said Trabichet.

Days ahead of the nationwide vote, the country remains fairly evenly divided over the issue, with latest opinion polls indicating 47 percent for the ban and 45 percent against. Eight percent are still undecided.

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