Allow fully automatic firearms in any condition
The Swiss government has a clear message to the voters: The approval of the gun law reform leads to better protection of the population against the misuse of dangerous weapons. But is it really like that?This content was published on May 10, 2019 - 11:00 am
Geraldine loves details and came to swissinfo.ch for the first time in 2014 to investigate rumors about social media as part of a collaborative research project called Pheme. Today she coordinates swissinfo.ch's fact check dossier, which investigates any (incorrect) statements about Switzerland and checks the facts, and continues to follow the trail of incorrect information on the Internet.
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On May 19, the electorate will decide whether to adopt the new EU weapons directive, which was tightened after the terrorist attacks in some EU countries.
The revised legislation would ban semi-automatic weapons (with certain exceptions), improve the tracing of weapons, improve the exchange of information between the Schengen states and ensure further measures in the fight against the illicit trade in weapons. (Although Switzerland is not a member of the EU, it is part of the Schengen AgreementExternal Link, which regulates the free movement of people in large parts of Europe.)
Circles and organizations opposed to gun law changes reject the government's security argument, insisting that tightening current legislation would be useless in the fight against terrorism and other crimes.
The opposition might not be entirely wrong under certain circumstances. Although research suggests that gun control laws are generally associated with lower rates of gun crime, the effects of further tightening laws are less evident when strong controls are already in place - as is the case in Switzerland.
There is an interaction
With almost 28 weapons per 100 inhabitants, Switzerland has one of the highest rates of weapons density among Western countries. The rate of deaths from firearmsExternal Link is also relatively high (2.84 per 100,000). However, homicides made up only a small fraction of those deaths (0.17 in 100,000), and mass shootings are rare, with only two in the past 20 years.
Who owns the most weapons?
In contrast, in the USA, the country with the highest gun ownership rate in the world, there are statistically 4.5 homicides with guns for every 100,000 people, in addition to many mass shootings every year.
Given the high number of gun crimes in the United States, researchers tried to find out whether gun control laws, which are known to be weak there at the federal level, could reduce gun violence.
A study published in 2018, External Link, examining individual states that regulate the buying and selling of guns found that stricter legislation was linked to lower rates of homicides by firearms. However, since few states have really strict gun control laws, the study's authors were unable to prove cause and effect.
Firearms homicides in an international comparison
An analysisExternal Link by economist Richard Florida published in 2011 came to a similar conclusion. While admitting that the sample size was small, he noted that the correlations seemed substantial, with "significantly fewer gun fatalities" in states tightening their legislation by banning assault rifles, safekeeping and locking had.
A much more comprehensive systematic reviewExternal Link, which analyzed 130 studies from ten countries, also concluded that gun control laws are, in certain cases, linked to a reduction in gun deaths.
This correlation could well apply to Switzerland. In contrast to the USA, there are strong national gun laws here. The country prohibits fully automatic firearms and semi-automatic weapons that were once fully automatic; A license is required to own a handgun, as well as to carry a firearm in public in secret. Firearm owners must keep ammunition and weapon separate and safe.
The 26 cantons also keep arms registers. When the current gun law was introduced in 1999, there were nearly 400 deaths from firearms in the country, including 46 homicides. By 2016, the number of gun fatalities fell to 229 (17 of them were homicides).
Around the world
The interaction between strict gun laws and lower firearm kill rates can be seen elsewhere as well. For example, handguns are banned in Japan, and anyone who wants to own a rifle or shotgun must pass a rigorous background check and a test in the shooting rangeExternal link.
Experts speaking to British broadcaster BBC said the low density of gun ownership and shootings in the country could be at least partially due to strict gun laws, although other factors like culture are likely to play a role - which makes the Japanese ideal of post-war pacifism Arms taboo.
The effects of strict legislation can also be seen in Iceland, where gun ownership per capita is high, but there has been no gun homicide since 2007.
The case of Australia could be even more relevant for Switzerland. Investigations into the effects of a new weapons lawExternal Link, which banned semi-automatic weapons after a mass shootout in 1996, suggests homicides involving firearms have decreased significantly.
The downward trend had already started in the 1980s, so that the 1996 legislation did not have any statistically perceptible additional effect on the number of homicides.
According to Michael Siegel, Professor of Community Health Sciences (research focus: Tobacco Control, Alcohol Abuse and Gun Violence) at Boston University, one possible explanationExternal link for this is that most of the Australian states already had strict gun laws, with background checks and licensing and licensing systems.
While evidence from observational studies suggests a reciprocal relationship between stringent gun laws and low firearm homicide rates, further tightening of existing stringent laws may have little further discernible impact on human safety.
A ban on semi-automatic weapons, as proposed by the Swiss government, "should not have any major impact on homicides or suicides, because most deaths from firearms are not due to such weapons and because ultimately every firearm is potentially fatal is, "explains Siegel.
The question is who, not what
The proposed weapon law reform also provides for a better exchange of information with EU countries, for example about people who have been refused permission to buy a weapon for safety reasons.
This type of cooperation is likely to prove vital if, as Siegel argues, control of access to weapons has an impact on gun deaths rather than a ban on certain types of weapons.
A study concludedExternal Link that the Connecticut state law - requiring a permit to buy a gun in addition to a background check - has been linked to a 40% decrease in homicides involving firearms.
But not all of the External Link studies that address this issue have been this conclusive. Experts say more research is needed to evaluate the effectiveness of legal restrictions on gun ownership.
The Swiss government also explains why cooperation with the EU on the issue of gun law is important: Switzerland's continued membership in the Schengen / Dublin system depends on whether voters accept the proposed gun law reformExternal link.
And she argues that the Schengen Agreement and the Dublin Agreement, a cornerstone of asylum policy in Europe that Switzerland has applied more than any other member state, would help maintain security in the Alpine country.
Certain supporters of the gun law reform go so far as to declare that if Switzerland does not adopt the new gun legislation in lockstep with the other Schengen states, there is a risk from the external link that the country will become a haven for criminals.
It is unclear whether the reform of Swiss gun law proposed by the government and parliament will lead to more public security. Studies show that there is a link between gun control legislation and lower rates of firearm fatalities, including homicides.
A further tightening of the already existing strict requirements, such as a ban on certain types of semi-automatic weapons, is unlikely to have any significant impact on the extent of the violence. Control over who has access to dangerous weapons could also reduce the incidence of firearm homicides, but more research is needed in this area.
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