- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 10, 2011

BERLIN | The Swiss are set to vote Sunday on a referendum that would limit the right to bear arms and upend centuries of tradition of civilians keeping military weapons at home in Europe’s most gun-friendly nation.

If approved, the referendum would force military reservists to store their government-issued weapons in secure public arsenals. It also would create a national registry for all guns and ban private ownership of weapons defined as highly dangerous, such as pump-action and fully automatic weapons.

The issue clearly has touched a nerve and set off an emotionally charged debate over what it means to be Swiss.

“Security and neutrality are rooted deeply in our feeling of identity,” said Lukas Golder, a senior project leader at the gfs.bern research institute, which conducts polls before and after elections in Switzerland. “Security and our peaceful history — these elements probably make Switzerland a bit unique. So this [referendum] touches on the very issue of Swiss identity.”

One in every three households in Switzerland has a gun, making it the country with the third highest number of firearms per capita, behind the U.S. and Yemen, according to Small Arms Survey, an independent research project based in Geneva.

Opposition is fierce in a nation that has long cherished and protected fairly liberal weapons laws, in stark contrast to its European neighbors.

“These guns belong to the Swiss people,” said Urban Huppi, who runs a sport-shooting facility called Bruenig Indoor in the village of Lungern. “We’re just like car lovers. We take good care of our weapons. If someone tries to lay a hand on them, we don’t like it. You wouldn’t like it either if it were your car.”

Unlike the United States, Switzerland — a landlocked nation with a population of about 7.6 million — relies on a well-armed militia of reservists for national defense instead of a standing army. Those reservists — all able-bodied male citizens younger than 34 — are allowed to keep their guns at home.

The tradition dates back more than 800 years, but it was cemented in Swiss history during World War II. Then, the fear of attack on neutral Switzerland prompted officials to create a flexible militia, in which every man was responsible for mobilizing quickly.

But referendum supporters say it won’t affect military readiness. “There is no actual scenario now that requires a soldier to have his weapon at home in order to fight the enemy,” said Green Party legislator Josef Lang, a member of the committee pushing the referendum.

Backed by a broad coalition of nongovernmental organizations, center-left and center-right politicians, and women’s groups, the initiative was born in large part in reaction to a series of shooting incidents, particularly the 2001 spree at a government building in Zug that killed 14 people.

Friedrich Leibacher, who killed himself after the massacre, used a commercial version of the Swiss army’s SG 550 assault rifle — a gun still commonly found throughout the country in cupboards or under beds, the Associated Press reported.

Mr. Lang witnessed the Zug shooting. “I always was in favor of the reduction of arms in Switzerland, for more control over weapons,” he said. “What was new for me [after the shooting] was the motivation to do something.”

The movement, fueled by the group Fur den Schutz vor Waffengewalt (“For protection from gun violence”), has grown quickly, mobilizing support through an aggressive public campaign that has included posters, protests and a Facebook-organized smart mob.

A poll conducted by the ISOPublic market research group in early January indicated that 45 percent of those surveyed favor the initiative while 34 percent oppose it.

But opposition to the initiative has picked up steam in recent weeks, led by the Waffeninitiative-NEIN (“Gun initiative-NO”) organization.

The group’s co-president — lawmaker Ida Glanzmann-Hunkeler of the Christian Democratic People’s Party — said Switzerland already has tightened gun laws in the past decade with measures such as giving former soldiers the option of storing their guns in public arsenals.

The referendum, she says, would be impossible to implement because of the sheer number of guns that have been inherited or given as gifts — many of which are not registered.

“I don’t love guns. To me, guns are part of the military,” said Mrs. Glanzmann-Hunkeler. “I don’t want to own my own gun. I just want a good system for dealing with our weapons.”

Mrs. Glanzmann-Hunkeler and other opponents of the referendum have garnered broad support within the political class, as well as from various sport-shooting associations and military groups.

While the referendum’s founders have vowed to address gun-related suicides — one criminologist estimated that about 300 people take their lives using guns every year in Switzerland — and domestic violence through the referendum, the Gun initiative-NO group says more regulation will do little to solve the problem.

“It’s easy to say the weapons are the problem,” said Mr. Huppi, the shooting-range owner. “But it’s not the weapons that are the problem. It’s the people who use them.”

Jurg Ebnother, a 22-year-old militia serviceman, stores his government-issued automatic rifle in a gun cabinet at home. He said the military ensures that anyone who is considered dangerous or psychologically unstable is barred from doing so. He adds that the initiative blurs the line of trust.

“It just puts every soldier under suspicion,” he said.

Regardless, for many, the romanticized image of armed citizens defending nation and pride is uniquely Swiss.

“Weapons definitely don’t have the same significance here that they do in the U.S.,” said Daniel Leupi, the Zurich City Council representative responsible for police matters who says he favors the initiative. “But the fact that the state has that much trust in its citizens, that every citizen is in some way a soldier, too, that has symbolic value here.”

Still, others like Mr. Lang are skeptical: “Like most traditions, it’s an invention.”

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