Gun ownership is also an issue of concern in Turkey, where civil society organizations recently convinced the government to shelve, at least temporarily, a new weapons law that would have allowed people as young as 18 to legally own firearms (even if a new regulation prevents them from drinking alcohol until the age of 24).
In Switzerland, most of the guns in private hands are actually distributed by the military authorities. In spite of its image as a neutral and peaceful country, Switzerland has a strong military tradition and one of the highest concentrations of privately held firearms in the world.
More than 70 organizations have teamed up to promote a popular initiative that would establish a central gun register and remove an estimated 2.3 million guns currently in private hands in this tiny country of 7.6 million. Some experts, in fact, put the figure even higher. In an interview on Swiss television, gun collector Frank Leutenegger said that based on research he conducted with the help of the police, he believed Swiss citizens legally owned between 4.5 million and 5.5 million guns.
The country may not have been directly involved in a conflict for centuries but, like in Turkey, all able-bodied men are called to serve in the military. Recruits spend an initial few months at boot camp at the age of 20 and they return for several weeks every year until they are at least 30. Unlike in Turkey, however, conscientious objectors have the option to serve in a civilian capacity.
What makes the Swiss militia system highly unusual is that soldiers usually hold on to the service weapon they are issued when they start to serve and keep it at home, although the military authorities no longer distribute ammunition. With their rifle close at hand, the thinking goes, soldiers are ready for any eventuality and can report for duty on short notice.
The people behind the initiative believe all army weapons should be kept under lock and key in military arsenals. Violent incidents are proportionally less numerous in Swiss society than they are in other gun-friendly countries like the US, but firearms still kill some 300 people a year. Switzerland has a high rate of suicide, which accounts for more gun deaths than murders. Up to a quarter of people who killed themselves over a decade in Switzerland used guns.
The need to have a weapon at the ready seems hard to justify in a peaceful modern society, yet this attempt to curb private ownership and reverse a long military tradition is causing strong emotions in Switzerland. Many conservatives view gun ownership as a central element of Swiss identity, and they believe the rifles are needed to defend the homeland, though it is not clear who or what they perceive as a threat.
Before Switzerland became known for its banks, its chocolate and its role as international mediator, its soldiers were famous mercenaries. Today, Swiss guards continue to serve at the Vatican, a last remnant of a long-gone tradition. The legend of 14th century marksman William Tell, who used his crossbow to split an apple on his son’s head and to kill the oppressor, still lives on as one of the country’s founding myths.
Beyond the debate on army-issue weapons, Switzerland is slowly moving toward a more fundamental discussion on its army. Many experts are calling for conscription to be abolished in favor of a professional force but, as is the case in Turkey, many politicians still resist the idea even if most European countries have already moved to volunteer armies. In Switzerland, too, enthusiasm for conscription is dropping rapidly among the young, who no longer see a stint in the army as a defining rite of passage to male adulthood.