Switzerland isn’t part of the European Union, but that hasn’t stopped Brussels from trying to force the country to comply with a new set of stricter gun control measures.
Brussels is using Switzerland’s membership in the European open-border system to assert control over the tiny country. But the Swiss have a long history of gun-friendly policies, and they’re not giving up without a fight.
“With our direct democracy, Swiss people are accustomed to having the last word,” said Dominik Riner, spokesman for Switzerland’s grassroots gun lobby ProTELL. “We’re opposed to any and all efforts to make current weapons laws more restrictive.”
Switzerland has near-universal conscription, which means nearly every male serves in the military and learns how to use a rifle. The Swiss also have a long tradition of allowing their soldiers to keep their rifles after they leave the service, provided they are modified for semi-automatic fire.
These customs—combined with a “long tradition of self-defense”—have resulted in a per-household gun ownership rate of 48 percent, which is among the highest in Europe. (For comparison, only about 32 percent of households in the United States own at least one firearm.)
The EU’s new restrictions would prohibit former members of the Swiss military from keeping their rifles and severely restrict gun ownership across the country. The proposed rules would, for example, classify semi-automatic rifles in the same category as automatic rifles, making semi-automatics nearly impossible for average citizens to own.
Reuters reported last week that Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga travelled to Brussels earlier this year to negotiate with EU officials. She returned to Switzerland saying she had successfully negotiated against the rifle ban, but Swiss gun owners were dismayed to learn what that victory had cost: EU members demanded concessions including psychological tests and club membership.
Now the grassroots are jumping into action, led by gun lobby ProTELL, to keep foreign gun restrictions from imposing on Swiss sovereignty. Their plan is to secure enough signatures to put the matter up for a vote, which the Swiss system of direct democracy allows them to do.
Christopher Blocher, a leading voice of the Swiss right, told Reuters that Switzerland should end its participation in the system of passport-free travel if the tighter gun restrictions are defeated in a referendum.
Such a move could hurt Switzerland economically, but it would also remove the EU’s final means of leverage.
“When conflicts arise, Switzerland must put its sovereignty first,” said Blocher, a businessman and vice president of the SVP, the country’s biggest party. “In an emergency, Switzerland should be ready to exit (the cross-border agreements).”