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Swiss vote to keep army guns at home

by Staff Writers
Geneva (AFP) Feb 13, 2011
Switzerland, which has the highest rate of suicide by firearms in Europe, voted Sunday to hold fast to its long-standing tradition of letting citizens keep army-issue weapons at home.

A referendum, launched by a coalition of non-governmental groups, religious authorities and centre-left parties, pushed to have the weapons stored in armouries instead.

The initiative also aimed to abolish the practice of allowing those on military service to keep their government-issue assault rifles even after they leave the army.

But the coalition failed to secure the votes of both a majority of the population and cantons.

Final results showed that 20 out of 26 cantons were against while 56.3 percent of the population rejected the initiative.

For any initiative to pass, the twin support of a majority of citizens and of cantons is required.

The practice of keeping arms at home was once a core part of the country's defence strategy, which was in part aimed at deterring an invasion with the threat that its citizens are combat-ready at any sign of trouble.

According to official data, about two million firearms are in circulation in this Alpine country of about seven million inhabitants. But there are an estimated 240,000 more unregistered weapons.

The Swiss ease with weapons is seen 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.

Switzerland's biggest political party -- the far-right Swiss People's Party, said the rejection of the initiative is "the Swiss people's affirmation of their proud shooting tradition."

"A disarmed army is a weakened army. The Swiss people have recognised this. With today's no on the weapons initiative, they have clearly rejected those army abolitionists," it added in a statement.

Stop Suicide, which counted among groups that launched the initiative, said however that Switzerland "missed an opportunity to take targetted measures to reduce the number of suicides."

The group believes that the easy availability of weapons poses a danger particularly for suicidal people.

Rates of suicide using firearms in Switzerland are three times higher than in the rest of Europe, noted Anne-Marie Trabichet, from Stop Suicide.

Amnesty International also issued a statement saying that it is "regrettable that the majority of the Swiss population did not find that the place of a weapon is not at home."

Speaking following the results, Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga reiterated the government's position that despite the no vote, "people are nevertheless protected from weapons abuse" through current regulations.

The government had campaigned against the initiative, explaining that "current legislation assures adequate and sufficient protection of the population against the abusive use of weapons."

It noted for instance, that it is no longer possible for citizens to trade freely in these weapons. The army also instructs servicemen to keep their weapons disassembled and not to divulge where they are hidden.

In addition, those who wish to can already store their weapons in armouries.

"I invite the people to use current possibilities, to give your weapons up. On this point, there are no differences between the government and those who launched the initiative -- we agree that with a reduction of available weapons, we can lower the rates of fatal crime and suicide," said Sommaruga.

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