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Summary

Switzerland has a comprehensive gun-control regime that is governed by federal law and implemented by the cantons.  This regime may be somewhat less restrictive than that of other European countries, yet since 2008 it has complied with European Union requirements.  The Swiss Weapons Act requires an acquisition license for handguns and a carrying license for the carrying of any permitted firearm for defensive purposes.  Exceptions exist for hunters.  Automatic weapons are banned.

Swiss militiamen may keep their issued personal weapon in their home.  A popular referendum to prohibit this practice was rejected in February 2011.

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Development of Swiss Gun-Control Law

The Swiss practices on the acquisition, possession, and use of firearms are shaped by gun-control legislation that applies to the civilian population[1] and by regulations on the handling of firearms issued to militiamen.[2] These two regulatory systems aim at preventing abuse of firearms while upholding the statutory right to bear arms,[3] which is based on longstanding Swiss traditions.[4]

Until 1999, the handling of weapons suitable for private possession was regulated at the cantonal level and some of the cantons had very permissive gun-control regimes.[5] The cantonal laws were held together loosely by an intercantonal Weapons Concordat that allowed Switzerland to have the most permissive policy on gun control in all of Europe.[6]

Until the late 1980s, this lack of uniformity in gun control worked well for Switzerland.  Crime rates were low and the Swiss were comfortable with private gun ownership because of the militia system.  In the early 1990s, however, the crime rate increased, and Swiss guns were frequently implicated in the European terrorist scene and in the wars that ravaged former Yugoslavia.  These circumstances led to a climate of domestic and international pressure that persuaded the Swiss to abandon their laissez faire attitude toward firearms and start the cumbersome legislative process of enacting a federal weapons law.[7]

The first federal gun-control law (hereinafter the Weapons Act) became effective in Switzerland on January 1, 1999.[8] As originally enacted, the Weapons Act brought a gun-control regime that was similar to the gun-control laws of neighboring countries, albeit less restrictive.  Between 2004 and 2010, several amendments made the Weapons Act more stringent.

A significant revision was occasioned by Switzerland’s accession to the Schengen Agreement, the common border regime of the European Union (EU).[9] This Revision of the Act[10] became effective on December 12, 2008, the day of Switzerland’s accession to the Schengen regime,[11] and its primary purpose was the transposition of the European Union’s Weapons Directive[12] into Swiss law.[13] Among these newly enacted measures was the introduction of the European Firearms Pass.[14] Although Switzerland is not an EU Member State, it has close ties with the EU and many of its laws are harmonized with EU law.[15]

After several incidents in which militiamen killed themselves or others with the issued weapons, reforms were also proposed for a Regulation that allows members of the Swiss militia to keep their assigned personal weapon in their home.[16] In 2010, this Regulation was amended to allow members of the militia to voluntarily deposit their issued firearm in an armory.[17]

On February 13, 2011, a popular referendum was held on a proposal that would have made Swiss gun-control laws stricter in several ways. The proposal called for an end to the practice of letting militiamen keep their weapons at home. In addition, it proposed that gun registration should be carried out by the federation instead of the cantons, and that for a weapons acquisition license, the applicant would have to prove a need for the weapon and the skill and knowledge to handle it.[18]

The Swiss Parliament and the Federal Cabinet advised against the referendum on the grounds that the existing laws were sufficient to protect against gun abuse.[19] The referendum was rejected by 56.3% of those voting, and the voter participation of 49.1% was high as compared to other referenda.[20] It remains to be seen whether the Swiss will change their mind on tougher gun-control laws in the wake of the Daillon massacre of January 3, 2013 in the Canton of Valais, when a thirty-four-year-old militiaman went on a shooting spree, killing three women and wounding two men with his militia weapon.[21] For starters, the incident led to a parliamentary motion urging the Federal Cabinet to create an effective linkage between the cantonal weapons registers.[22]

In September 2012, the Swiss Federal Cabinet recommended a package of measures to the Parliament in response to a parliamentary request for a study on how gun control could be improved.[23] These included the following:

  • The military leadership should be informed if, in the course of a pending criminal investigation, it becomes apparent that a member of the militia may endanger himself or others with a weapon.
  • The Code of Criminal Procedure should be amended to facilitate such communications.
  • The cantonal police should seize weapons as instructed by the courts or prosecutors, or by acting on their own decision in case of an imminent danger.
  • The sharing of information from federal databases on denials of weapons licenses and criminal records should be facilitated.
  • Cantonal and federal databases with pertinent information for cantonal weapons licenses should be linked.

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Statistics

On the occasion of the 2011 gun-control referendum, the Swiss Federal Police compiled statistics on gun-related crimes.[24] These showed that during 2009 the police investigated 236 homicides, of which 55 were allegedly committed with a gun.[25] During the same year, 524 aggravated batteries were reported, 11 of which involved gun use, and 3530 robberies were reported, of which 416 were committed with a gun.[26] Switzerland has a population of 7.9 million.[27]

The Swiss Statistical Office prepared a chart that lists the number of deaths caused by guns during the years 1995 through 2010.[28] According to these figures, 70 to 90% of the reported deaths were suicides. The figures also show a gradual decrease of deaths by gun use from an overall number of 444 deaths in 1998 to 241 deaths in 2010. The Statistical Office also stated that 17% of all suicides reported in 2009 were committed with a gun, and that 9% of the suicides committed with a gun were committed with a military weapon.[29]

Until recently, Switzerland had a reputation for combining high levels of gun ownership with a low incidence of mass shootings.[30] This reputation, however, has been marred by the recent shooting rampage in Dainnon.[31]

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The Militia System

In Switzerland, military service is compulsory for all able-bodied men, and alternative civil service is only available for conscientious objectors.  Those unwilling to serve must pay a fine.[32] Conscription begins at age nineteen,[33] and the duty to serve ends between the ages of thirty-four and fifty, depending on the rank of the militiaman.[34]

Militiamen are issued personal equipment, which includes a personal weapon and ammunition.[35] The militiaman is authorized to keep the weapon in his home,[36] unless he decides to deposit it in his unit’s armory.[37] When the militiaman retires, he may keep the personal weapon,[38] provided it has been properly maintained by the qualified technicians of his military unit.[39]

If there is danger of the abuse or improper handling or maintenance of the weapon, the commandant of the military unit will confiscate the personal weapon.[40] The police, courts, and prosecutors may inform the commandant of circumstances that call for the confiscation of the weapon.[41] The abuse or mishandling of weapons is punishable either by a disciplinary measure or by imprisonment or a fine, depending on the circumstances.[42]

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Current Gun-Control Law

            Overview

The Weapons Act contains a comprehensive regime for the licensing of the acquisition and carrying of permitted weapons; the banning of certain weapons, including automatic firearms; and the production and trade in weapons, including the reporting obligations of dealers and a registration system that covers all privately owned guns, including those acquired by inheritance, but not including hunting rifles. The federal Weapons Act is implemented by the cantons and the cantons also keep registers of privately owned guns.  The provisions on ammunition are in keeping with the principles of the Act, which aims to deter abuse while permitting lawful gunownership.[43]

            Acquisition of Guns

An acquisition license is required primarily for handguns.  Rifles and semiautomatic long arms that are customarily used by recreational hunters are exempt from the licensing requirement,[44] whereas fully automatic guns are banned.[45] An applicant for a weapons license must be at least eighteen years of age, may not have been placed under guardianship, may not give cause for suspicion that he would endanger himself or others with the weapon, and may not have a criminal record with a conviction for a violent crime or of several convictions for nonviolent crimes.[46] The license is issued by the canton of residence of the applicant but is valid throughout Switzerland.  The license is valid for six months, maximally nine months.[47] It is usually valid for the acquisition of one weapon only.[48]

The acquisition license is required only if a weapon is acquired from a dealer.  No license is required for transactions between private individuals.  Instead, these are permitted as long as the seller verifies the identity and age of the buyer by checking an official identification document and as long as he has no reason to believe that the buyer has been or should be disqualified from gun ownership.  The buyer may ascertain these circumstances by requesting information from the cantonal authorities, but only if the buyer consents in writing.[49]

            Carrying of Guns

The carrying of a gun for defensive purposes requires a carrying license, which will be granted only if the applicant is qualified to acquire guns; demonstrates a need for the weapon to protect himself, others, or property against existing dangers; and has passed an exam to test his required theoretical knowledge and practical skill.[50] The theoretical exam tests knowledge of

  • criminal provisions on violent crimes and self-defense, and necessity as a justification or excuse;
  • federal and cantonal weapons law provisions;
  • types of weapons and ammunition; and
  • security measures and proper conduct when carrying weapons.[51]

The practical examination tests the applicant’s skill in handling the weapon, including loading, unloading, operating the safety device, and shooting.[52]

A carrying license permits the concealed carrying of a handgun.[53] No carrying license is required for the transporting of an unloaded weapon for legitimate purposes, such as travel to and from the shooting range or hunting environment, as long as the ammunition is kept separate from the weapon.[54]

Prepared by Edith Palmer, Chief,
Foreign, Comparative, and
International Law Division II
February 2013

 

  1. Bundesgesetz über Waffen, Waffenzubehör und Munition [WG] [Federal Act on Weapons, Weapons Accessories and Ammunition], June 20, 1997, as amended, Systematische Sammlung des Bundesrechts [SR] 514.54, http://www.admin.ch/ch/d/sr/c514_54.html. [Back to Text]
  2. Verordnung des VBS über die persönliche Ausrüstung der Armeeangehörigen [VPAA-VBS] [Defense Department Regulation on the Personal Equipment of Members of the Army], Dec. 9, 2003, as amended, SR 514.101, http://www.admin.ch/ch/d/sr/c514_101.html. [Back to Text]
  3. WG art. 3 provides that “the right to acquire, possess, and carry weapons is guaranteed within the framework of this Act” (translated by author).  The federation has legislative power to prevent the abuse of weapons.  Bundesverfassung [BV] [Constitution] art. 107, translation at http://www.admin.ch/ch/e/rs/c101.html. [Back to Text]
  4. Hans Wüst, Schweizer Waffenrecht 16 (1999). [Back to Text]
  5. Frank Csaszar, Waffenrecht und Schusswaffenkriminalität, Österreichische Richterzeitung 180 (1994). [Back to Text]
  6. Id. [Back to Text]
  7. Bericht der Sicherheitspolitische Kommission des Nationalrats, Oct. 16, 1992, Bundesblatt [BBl.] 625 (1993). [Back to Text]
  8. Bundesgesetz über Waffen, Waffenzubehör und Munition, June 20, 1997, Amtliche Sammlung des Bundesrechts [AS] 2535 (1998). [Back to Text]
  9. Council Decision (1999/435/EC) of 20 May 1999 concerning the definition of the Schengen acquis for the purpose of determining, in conformity with the relevant provisions of the Treaty establishing the European Community and the Treaty on European Union, the legal basis for each of the provisions or decisions which constitute the acquis, 1999 O.J. (L 176) 1, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:31 999D0435:EN:HTML, valid for Switzerland since Dec. 12, 2008.  See Eidgenössisches Justizdepartement, Schengen, http://www.bfm.admin.ch/content/bfm/de/home/themen/schengen_dublin/schengen.html (last modified Oct. 27, 2011). [Back to Text]
  10. Bundesbeschluss, Dec. 17, 2004, art. 3 no. 6, AS 447 (2008), http://www.admin.ch/ch/d/as/2008/447.pdf. [Back to Text]
  11. Verordnung, Nov. 26, 2008, AS 5405. [Back to Text]
  12. Council Directive 91/477/EEC of 18 June 1991 on the control of the acquisition and possession of weapons, 1991 O.J. (L 256) 51, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:31991L0477:EN: HTML. [Back to Text]
  13. Botschaft, Jan. 11, 2006, no. 1.4.4, BBl. 2713 (2006). [Back to Text]
  14. Council Directive 91/477/EEC of 18 June 1991 on the control of the acquisition and possession of weapons, 1991 O.J. (L 256) 51, Annex II, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:31991 L0477:EN:HTML. [Back to Text]
  15. Christian H. Kälin, Switzerland, Business & Investment Handbook 65–76 (3rd ed. 2011). [Back to Text]
  16. Martin Furrer, Heute wird die Ordonnanz-Waffen Initiative eingereicht, Tages-Anzeiger 1 (Feb. 23, 2009). [Back to Text]
  17. Verordnung des VBS über die persönliche Ausrüstung der Armeeangehörigen [VPAA-VBS] [Defense Department Regulation on the Personal Equipment of Members of the Army], Dec. 9, 2003, art. 35a, SR 514.101, as introduced by Verordnung, Dec. 2, 2009, AS 6735 (2009). [Back to Text]
  18. Volksinitiative “Für den Schutz vor Waffengewalt”, http://www.bj.admin.ch/content/ejpd/de/home/doku mentation/abstimmungen/2011-02-13.html (last modified May 1, 2012). [Back to Text]
  19. Press Release, Eidgenössisches Justizdepartement, Bundesrat lehnt Volksinitiative “Für den Schutz vor Waffengewalt” ab (Dec. 16, 2009), http://www.ejpd.admin.ch/content/ejpd/de/home/dokumentation/mi/2009/2009-12-16.html. [Back to Text]
  20. Id. [Back to Text]
  21. Daillon Tragedy Brings Gun-control into Focus, swissinfo.ch (Jan. 4, 2013), http://www.swissinfo. ch/ger/ politik_schweiz/Bluttat_mit_politischen_Folgen.html?cid=34647320. [Back to Text]
  22. Von der Steinzeit bis zur Eiszeit, Neue Zürcher Zeitung (Jan. 25, 2013), http://www.nzz.ch/aktuell/ schweiz/von-der-steinzeit-zum-e-formular-1.17959622. [Back to Text]
  23. Bericht des Bundesrates, Sept. 5, 2012, http://www.bj.admin.ch/content/dam/data/pressemitteilung/2012/ 2012-09-050/ber-br-d.pdf. [Back to Text]
  24. Bundesamt für Statistic, Tatmittel Schusswaffe (Dec. 2010), http://www.bfs.admin.ch/bfs/portal/de/index/themen/ 19/03/02/dos/03.html. [Back to Text]
  25. Id. (click on Excel spreadsheet “Tatmittel Schusswaffe 2009”). [Back to Text]
  26. Id. [Back to Text]
  27. Switzerland Population, Index Mundi, http://www.indexmundi.com/switzerland/population.html (last visited Dec. 21, 2012). [Back to Text]
  28. Bundesamt für Statistic, supra note 24 (click on “Schusswaffentodesfälle 1995-2010”). [Back to Text]
  29. Bundesamt für Statistic, Schusswaffensuizide (Jan. 14, 2011), http://www.bfs.admin.ch/bfs/portal/de/index/news/03.html (click on “Schusswaffensuizide Stellungnahme BFS”). [Back to Text]
  30. In Aftermath of Swiss Shooting, Echoes of U.S. Gun-control Debate, The Washington Post (Feb. 7, 2013), http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/in-aftermath-of-swiss-shooting-echoes-of-us-gun-control-debate/2013/02/07/38457624-6e1d-11e2-ac36-3d8d9dcaa2e2_story.html. [Back to Text]
  31. See supra notes 21 and 22, and accompanying text. [Back to Text]
  32. BV art. 59.  [Back to Text]
  33. Militärgesetz, Feb. 3, 1995, as amended, art. 9, SR 510.10, http://www.admin.ch/ch/d/sr/c510_10.html. [Back to Text]
  34. Id. art. 12. [Back to Text]
  35. Verordnung SR 514.101 arts. 1–7. [Back to Text]
  36. Id. art. 30. [Back to Text]
  37. Id. art. 26. [Back to Text]
  38. Id. art. 44. [Back to Text]
  39. Id. art. 44 in conjunction with art. 12. [Back to Text]
  40. Id. arts. 7, 35–36. [Back to Text]
  41. Id. [Back to Text]
  42. Militärstrafgesetz art. 72 SR 321.0. [Back to Text]
  43. Bundesamt für Polizei fedpol, Schweizerisches Waffenrecht (July 2010), http://www.bj.admin. ch/content/dam/data/sicherheit/waffen/Brosch%c3%bcre/waffenbroschuere-d.pdf. [Back to Text]
  44. Weapons Act art. 10. [Back to Text]
  45. Id. art. 4. [Back to Text]
  46. Id. art. 8(2). [Back to Text]
  47. Id. art. 9. [Back to Text]
  48. Id. art. 9b. [Back to Text]
  49. Id. art. 10a. [Back to Text]
  50. Reglement über die Prüfung für die Waffentragbewilligung [Regulations on the Examination for the Weapons-Carrying License], Sept. 21, 1998, as amended, SR 514.546.1. [Back to Text]
  51. Id. art. 3. [Back to Text]
  52. Id. art. 4. [Back to Text]
  53. Id. art. 27. [Back to Text]
  54. Id. art. 28. [Back to Text]

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Last Updated: 02/28/2014