ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, May 6, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 49

Will suicidal Swiss stick to their guns?

By Douwe Miedema

A man checks his personal army rifle at his house in Luetzelflueh village near Bern in this April 27, 2007 photo. Switzerland is one of the world's richest and most tranquil countries, but it also has more suicides than most. This may show that money doesn't buy happiness, but some Swiss also blame the guns. Reuters

ZURICH, (Reuters) - Switzerland is one of the world's richest and most tranquil countries, but it also has more suicides than most. This may show that money doesn't buy happiness, but some Swiss also blame the guns. Guns are omnipresent in this Alpine country -- some estimates run to at least one for every three of its 7.5 million inhabitants. Many are stored in people's attics, a legacy of its famed policy of arming its men to defend its neutrality.

Now the country is debating whether it should continue to arm its citizens, a practice which has helped it escape the need for a large standing army but flooded the country with weapons. "Compared to countries abroad, a large number of suicides involve firearms ... And that's of course because it is easier to get hold of guns here," said Boris Banga, a socialist member of parliament who wants stricter laws.

Using his army pistol, private banker Gerold Stadler last year put an end to his own life, after killing his pregnant wife -- World Cup ski champion Corinne Rey-Bellet -- and her brother, in the French-speaking Swiss hamlet of Les Crosets. Just as parliament was discussing arms legislation, a random shooter emptied his rifle in a bar in Baden, killing one and wounding four. Weeks earlier, a young man had shot his girlfriend. Both cases involved army guns.

A survey by Blick the popular newspaper last month showed 66 percent wanted guns out of Swiss attics, while 77 percent said there was no need to store both guns and ammunition at home in order to defend the country.

Europe’s top 10

The Swiss suicide rate stands at 19.1 suicides per 100,000 inhabitants, a 2005 study by the country's Federal Health Office said, well above the World Health Organisation's global average of 14.5 and of 14.1 in the European Union. That figure may be inflated by assisted suicides -- about 10 percent of suicides are through the suicide-assistance groups for which the country has built up some fame.

It ranks Switzerland among the 10 countries with the highest suicide rates in Europe, together with a group of former communist countries and Austria, Finland and Belgium. So why are the affluent Swiss more prone to take their own lives than other nations?
One often-heard explanation highlights a link to religion, noting that Switzerland's predominantly Protestant areas have more suicides than Catholic cantons.

"The second reason is certainly easy access to suicide methods, in this case firearms in Switzerland, which contributes to a high rate," said Vladeta Ajdacic, a sociologist at a psychiatric hospital at Zurich's university. Army recruits often buy their rifle or pistol when they leave the service and a large portion of the country's private weapons comes from the military -- though numbers are hard to get, because guns are not registered.

A quarter of suicides involved firearms in the 1969-2000 period, according to the Federal Health Office study. Member of parliament Banga estimates there are 2.5 million guns in Switzerland, making the Alpine nation one of Europe's most heavily armed together with Austria, Germany and Finland.

Geneva-based pressure group Small Arms Survey puts the consensus estimate for Switzerland between 2.3 and 4.5 million firearms, making the number given by Banga -- himself an ardent marksman -- look conservative.

William Tell
Banga's party and others are preparing a popular vote in favour of stricter laws for later this year.
So far, the law has been changing only slowly. Parliament has recently confirmed that conscripts should keep weapons at home. Only the practice that ammunition is also stored at home may now change.

Gun proponents say a militia army is still the best way to defend neutrality -- a concept that defines Swiss identity just as much as its snow-capped mountains and luxury watches and is supported almost unanimously by the population.

"With a weapon in hand, Switzerland has won and kept its liberty over the centuries, because the individual citizen as a soldier took responsibility for himself and his kin," says Willi Pfund, who heads the country's Pro-Tell guns lobby.

Named after Switzerland's mythical founder William Tell -- who famously hit an apple placed on his son's head before turning his crossbow against the country's Austrian rulers -- the group may be an equally formidable opponent.

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