The following article is the second in a feature of the M1911 Pistols Organization's e-zine: A concise look at the legal and cultural situation pertaining to firearms ownership, use, and the right to keep and bear arms in various countries around the world. Our thanks to M1911.ORG member Luc G. Arles for compiling this report for us.
Firearms culture and politics in the land of cheese, chocolate and watches
Exclusive to M1911.ORG by Luc G. Arles
History and military
The Swiss Confederation (Confoederatio Helvetica) won its independence by a revolutionary war against the Austrian oppressor. This revolution was fought by ordinary citizens who comprised the armed militia. It all begun 1291 as several cantons (states) revolted in concert to break the power of the Habsburg Empire.
Today, Switzerland is defending its existence as a country with an armed neutrality. Military service is mandatory for all Swiss males reaching the age of 20. They have to go through 18 to 21 weeks of Rekrutenschule (recruit training). After this, a Swiss man has to undergo a three-week Fortbildungsdienst (refresher training) at least six or seven times during the course of his military commitment.
- Military service starts no earlier than the age of 17 and, at the latest, at the age of 25.
- Military service is mandatory for men and voluntary for women.
- The Rekrutenschule (recruit training) takes 18 to 21 weeks (in some special units up to 25 weeks).
- Fortbildungsdienste (refresher trainings) are three weeks a year for six to seven years (depending on the services rendered during the recruit training) until the age of 30 (for a total of 39 weeks of service time).
- Since a reorganization of the Army in 2003 (Armee XXI), it is now possible to serve for 300 days of military duty in one session (which is a little more than 39 weeks).
- The above rules will vary slightly for corporals (non-commissioned officers) and officers, depending on the rank.
- Men who are considered unfit for active military service are asked to join the civil protection corps.
This is somewhat similar to the United States National Guard, except that the civil protection corps is not armed. The civil protection corps is an effort to protect the citizens from military attack, the aftermath of a nuclear war, emergencies, calamities, and disasters in general.
A soldier receives an automatic assault rifle "Sturmgewehr 90 / Stgw90" (SIG 550); non commissioned officers and officers will also bear a pistol "Pistole 75" (SIG P220). The P220 superseded the well known SIG P210 in 1975.
Army's SIG 550
Army's SIG P220
Civilian SIG P210
Older and new "Sturmgewehre"
Under the Swiss Constitution, servicemen are given their equipment and arms. After the first training period, they are asked to keep arms, ammunition and equipment at home until the end of their term of service. Since 2010, they can also choose to bring their arms and ammunition to the Zeughaus (state armory) for storage. Because this is a new option, there is no statistics as to how many elect to store their arms at the armory rather than maintain them at their home.
This, and the option that a serviceman withdrawn from service can take possession of his personal firearm, is one of the reasons why Switzerland has a very high number of guns per capita.
Gun control laws were for a very long time left to the jurisdiction of the individual cantons. Since 1999, the law has been regulated on the federal level. All cantons are subject to the same regulations. Firearms are still registered separately in each canton.
The right of Swiss citizens to private gun ownership is guaranteed by law and permitted under license. Applicants for a gun owner’s license are required to give a reason to own a firearm (if not for hunting, collection or target shooting). The license fee is CHF 50 (USD $55) for 1 to 3 firearms. All firearms allowed in a given license have to be purchased from the same source.
The preconditions for people to own a firearm are:
- Swiss citizens and foreigners with residence permit (special conditions will apply for foreigners without residence permit).
- Citizens of certain countries are not allowed to own or buy firearms
(Albania, Algeria, Sri Lanka, Kosovo, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Serbia and Turkey).
- No relevant criminal records present.
- At least 18 years old.
- Not under disability.
- A valid reason to own the firearm if not for hunting, collection or target shooting.
Self defense is usually not accepted as reason for owning a firearm. Not giving any reason is considered the same as claiming to apply for hunting, collection or target shooting.
Civilians are not allowed to possess or use automatic firearms, automatic firearms converted into semi-automatic firearms, or mortars. There are no restrictions on the number of firearms one person can own. All firearms have to be kept at home in a secure place not "accessible to third parties". All firearms are centrally (canton) registered. The transfer of each privately held firearm also has to be retained in this official register.
The penalty for transgressing the gun laws is up to 5 years prison or/and a fine of up to CHF 100,000 (~ USD $109,000).
Some of the transgressions are:
- Without authorization: acquire, sell, import, export, produce or modify weapons.
- Import or export of weapons without the necessary approvals, or give wrong information to obtain approvals.
- Careless storage of weapons.
- Transport of a firearm without separating it from the ammunition.
- Counterfeiting of documents (weapon related).
- Breach of duty of care.
- Manipulation or false drawing up of contracts (weapon related).
- Not immediately reporting a firearm loss to the police.
- Not carrying an existing carry permit along with the firearm.
Only people owning a firearm are allowed to buy ammunition, and the ammunition must correspond to a firearm owned by the purchaser.
Prohibited types of ammunition are:
- Expansive projectiles.
- Concrete piercing bullets.
- Explosive or incendiary projectiles.
- Made for military launchers with explosive effect.
- With propagation of electroshocks (e.g. taser).
The law does not mention any restrictions for a specific type of caliber. The most widely used caliber is the 9 mm Luger in full metal jacket versions.
Reloading is allowed. Ammunition and reloading equipment are easily available.
Costs of common ammunition (as of November, 2012: one Swiss Franc „CHF" is 1.09 US Dollar „USD"):
- 50 x 9 mm, CHF 15
- 50 x .38 Special, CHF 23
- 50 x .357 Magnum, CHF 26
- 50 x .45 ACP, CHF 24
There is no ballistic fingerprinting technology to trace ammunition but dealers must record the sale of ammunition. Such written records must be kept for ten years by the dealer and then for another ten years by the responsible authorities.
It is forbidden to use or own:
- Night-vision aiming device.
- Laser targeting device (however, red dot targeting devices are allowed).
Carrying and transportation
Carrying a concealed firearm is "theoretically" allowed. The same preconditions as for ownership will apply. Additionally, in order to carry a concealed handgun someone needs:
- Proof of justified need and substantial danger.
- Blank criminal record, good background checks and mental health.
- Passing an examination in firearm law and safety.
In current practice the authorities only give such a permit to persons (e.g. guards) working for a security service company. Working with valuable objects (gold, jewels, large amount of money, etc.) and the necessity to carry them is widely not accepted as a proof of a justified need and substantial danger. The carry permit has a validity of five years and applies only to the firearm for which it was issued.
The transportation of firearms (not to be confused with carrying) is only allowed on a direct route with no intermediate stops to/from a place which has an official approval (e.g. range, gunsmith, event/gun show, army warehouse) or on relocation. Ammunition and firearms have to be transported in different packages. It’s not allowed to transport a firearm loaded with ammunition nor a magazine removed from the firearm loaded with ammunition (the magazine is seen as a part of the firearm).
Importing firearms is also allowed under license. The prerequisites and laws are the same as for owning firearms. An import license for 1 to 3 firearms costs CHF 50 (USD $55). The import of firearms accessories is partially allowed without permit. Some parts will require a permit (e.g. for a pistol: barrel, slide, frame).
The 1999 Gun Act and the 2008 Schengen Treaty
Most of the restrictive firearms regulations were made in 1999. Two big changes were:
- Strong restrictions for carrying firearms.
- Federal laws instead of many different cantonal laws.
Because in 2008 Switzerland joined the Schengen treaty, it had to adapt some of its laws to the common Schengen standard. The noteworthy changes were:
- Illicit possession of firearms will be punished.
- Firearms trade between individuals requires a permit (firearms acquisition license).
- All firearms have to be serialized and registered.
- Firearms imitations and airsoft guns are subject of the new law. Thus "free" guns can be purchased without permit but have to be registered.
- It’s only allowed to buy ammunition for someone owning the corresponding firearm.
Manufacturing of small firearms
One of the best-known Swiss firearms companies was SIG (Schweizerische Industrie-Gesellschaft). The SIG P210 (formerly used by the Swiss military) is still one of the most accurate pistols ever produced. Meanwhile, the former SIG pistols are produced by SIG-Sauer Germany and the SIG rifles are now produced by Swiss Arms. The Swiss army SG 550 rifle is also supplied by Swiss Arms. Sphynx Systems is a worldwide known (KRISS USA) manufacturer of very nice, modern, high quality pistols. Sphinx pistols are widely used by the Swiss police. Astra Defence made in 2008-2010 a nice 1911A1 clone. Unfortunately, they stopped its production and now sell only rifles.
Astra Arms 1911A1
Astra Arms 1911A1
Competition, recreational shooting
Range practice with guns is a widespread hobby in Switzerland and it’s encouraged by the Swiss government (a well-trained militia is an advantage for the Swiss military system). There are many shooting sport associations. One of the biggest worldwide rifle competitions is the traditional annual "Feldschiessen" ("field shoot"). In 2012 more than 180,000 active shooters attended this event. Another very traditional shooting event is the Knabenschiessen (boys’ shooting) — which is no longer limited to boys — held in Zurich. The 2012 contest was won by a 17-year-old girl.
In the last 13 years, Switzerland followed the common European trend to tighten the gun ownership regulations. The first change was in 1999, with the biggest revision of the gun laws following in 2008 with the acceptance of the Schengen treaty, and the last time in 2010 with some more modifications given by a further development of the Schengen regulations.
A referendum in February 2011 which called for stricter gun control was rejected by the Swiss voters.
In spite of today’s stronger regulations, Switzerland remains one of the most liberal European countries when it comes to gun rights. This is also thanks to an old shooters’ culture, political support, and activism of some local or national organizations like proTELL.
M1911.ORG member Luc G. Arles is a resident of Switzerland with a close-up knowledge of that country's unique and much-admired tradition of the citizen/soldier. We are grateful to Luc for the extensive effort he put into compiling this report for our readers.