- Associated Press - Sunday, February 13, 2011

GENEVA (AP) — Swiss voters came out strongly in favor of their right to bear arms Sunday, with a clear majority rejecting a plan by churches and women’s groups to tighten the Alpine nation’s liberal gun laws.

Official results showed more than half of Switzerland’s 26 cantons (states) voted against the proposal to ban army rifles from homes and impose new requirements for buying other guns.

“This is an important sign of confidence in our soldiers,” said Pius Segmueller, a lawmaker with the Christian People’s Party and former commander of the Vatican’s Swiss Guard.

The proposal would have abruptly ended the Swiss tradition of men keeping their army rifles at home — even after completing their military service. Backers of the plan argued the proposal would have reduced incidents of domestic violence and Switzerland’s high rate of firearms suicide.

The government argued ahead of the vote that existing laws were sufficient to ensure some 2.3 million mostly military weapons in a country of less than 8 million people aren’t misused.

Opposition against the proposal was strongest in rural and German-speaking parts of the country, which tend to be more conservative and where shooting clubs are popular.

French-speaking cantons in western Switzerland backed the plan, but woman and young people — who, according to opinion polls, favor more restrictive gun laws — failed to turn out in sufficient numbers when it counted.

“Women in Switzerland have only had the vote for 40 years, and yet they aren’t engaging in politics, even when the issue concerns them,” said Martine Brunschwig-Graf, a national lawmaker with the left-of-center Social Democratic Party.

Doctors, churches and women’s groups launched a campaign four years ago to force ex-soldiers to store their military-issued firearms in secure army depots. They also want the Swiss government to establish a national gun registry and ban the sale of fully automatic weapons and pump-action rifles.

Gun enthusiasts say limiting the right to bear arms in the land of William Tell would have destroyed a cherished tradition and undermined the citizen army’s preparedness against possible invasion by hostile neighbors.

Dora Andres, president of the Swiss Sport Shooting Association, told the Associated Press this week that the measure would have killed off many of Switzerland’s 3,000 gun clubs, which she said are a pillar of community life in many villages.

Both sides used graphic images to make their point, with proponents producing posters showing teddy bears oozing blood below the slogan “Protect families.” Opponents’ posters have featured muscular cartoon criminals threatening the nation’s law-abiding citizens.

About a quarter of Switzerland’s 1,300 suicides each year involved a gun, according to federal statistics. The exact number of military-issued weapons involved is disputed, but those calling for tighter rules claim they account for between 100 and 200 suicides a year, mostly among men.

Advocates for tighter gun control noted that since Switzerland cut the size of its army in 2004, the number of firearms suicides among men ages 30 to 40 has been cut in half.

It is not known how many military-issued guns are involved in homicides each year, though Switzerland’s gun murder rate is relatively low — just 24 in 2009, or about 0.3 firearms homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. By comparison, the U.S. rate in 2007 was 4.2 per 100,000 inhabitants.

While final results were still awaited, a majority in at least 18 of Switzerland’s 26 cantons voted against the measure. Popular referendums in the Alpine nation require a majority of both votes and cantons to pass.

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