Swiss vote to tighten gun laws, safeguard EU relations

A rifle with a Swiss flag is pictured during a competition, ahead of a May 19 referendum on proposals to tighten weapon ownership laws in line with EU steps. (Reuters pic)

GENEVA: The Swiss voted on Sunday to toughen their gun laws and bring them in line with EU legislation, heeding warnings that rejecting the move could have threatened relations with the bloc, early results showed.

Exit polls and preliminary results released shortly after polls closed at noon indicated that voters overwhelmingly supported reforming Swiss gun laws.

According to projections by the gfs.bern polling institute, the reform received 66% backing in Sunday’s referendum.

A demand from the neighbouring European Union that the Swiss toughen their gun laws has prompted a rare national debate over firearm ownership in the wealthy Alpine nation, which has a deeply-rooted gun culture.

While the government has cautioned that the new legislation is crucial to the non-EU country maintaining its treaties with the bloc, the proposal sparked a fierce pushback from the gun lobby and shooting enthusiasts, who gathered enough signatures to trigger a vote under Switzerland’s famous direct democratic system.

Brussels changed its own weapons laws two years ago following a wave of deadly terrorist attacks across Europe, slapping bans on certain types of semi-automatic firearms.

While not an EU member, Switzerland is bound to the bloc through an array of intricately connected bilateral agreements.

Bern had cautioned that a “No” vote would lead to Switzerland’s exclusion from the visa-free Schengen travel region and also the Dublin accords regulating Europe’s asylum-seeking process.

This would have far-reaching consequences for security, asylum and even tourism, and would cost the country “several billion Swiss francs each year,” it said.

The shooting enthusiasts behind Sunday’s referendum meanwhile claim the government warnings are “exaggerated”.

“It is a shame that the people fell for the scare-tactics over Schengen,” Olivia de Weck, a Swiss army captain and the vice president of the ProTell gun lobby, told the ATS news agency after the first projections landed.

‘Exceptional authorisation’

The strong gun culture in Switzerland is partially tied to its tradition of national defence service, as most Swiss men undergo obligatory military service between the ages of 18 and 30 and are allowed to keep their assigned weapon when they are done.

It is difficult to know exactly how many firearms are in circulation in Switzerland, since guns are registered regionally and there is no national registry.

But according to a 2017 report by the Small Arms Survey, the country boasts the world’s 16th highest rate of gun ownership, with some 2.3 million firearms in civilian hands – nearly three for every 10 inhabitants.

Under the new gun law, which has already been approved by legislators, semi-automatic weapons with high-capacity magazines would be listed as “banned”.

Collectors and sports shooters could still purchase such weapons, but would need to jump through more hoops to obtain an “exceptional authorisation”.

Another issue put to a national referendum on Sunday – a government proposal to overhaul the country’s corporate tax system and pump more cash into its pension system – also appeared to have garnered significant support.

Since most people in Switzerland vote in advance, the final results are usually tallied by mid-afternoon.