Switzerland, which has the highest rate of suicide by firearms in Europe, voted yesterday on whether to abolish its long-standing tradition of letting citizens keep army-issued weapons at home.
Polls were set to close at midday. As most have already voted by correspondence, partial results were expected to be unveiled shortly after.
The referendum, launched by a coalition of non-governmental groups, the Church and center-left parties, wants the weapons to be kept in armories instead.
The people’s initiative seeks to abolish the practice of allowing those on military service to take home their government-issue assault rifles even after they leave the army.
The practice was once a core part of the country’s defense strategy, which was in part aimed at deterring invasion with the threat that citizens, mainly men, are combat-ready at any sign of trouble.
According to official data, about 2 million firearms are in circulation in the Alpine country of about 7 million inhabitants. However, there are an estimated 240,000 more unregistered weapons.
The Swiss ease with weapons is betrayed on the street and in railway stations, as young conscripts travel to and from military service nonchalantly carrying their semi-automatic rifle, with barely a glance from passers-by.
Xavier Schwitzguebel, an officer in the Swiss army when he is on compulsory military service, says that gun culture is a tradition in Switzerland.
“If the ‘yes’ goes through, it -really risks destroying the country,” he said.
Swiss society is built on trust between the citizen and the state, he said.
“If we take away the weapon, which represents this trust, that means that we are breaking the sacred union between democracy and citizen,” he said.
The government has also called on the population to vote against the initiative, explaining that “current legislation assures adequate and sufficient protection of the population against the abusive use of weapons.”
Nevertheless, some have been alarmed by episodes such as the 2001 shooting in central Switzerland’s Zug canton, when 14 people were gunned down during a local parliament sitting.
Proponents of the ban believe that the easy availability of weapons poses a danger particularly for suicidal people.
Rates of suicide using firearms in Switzerland are three times higher than in the rest of Europe, said Anne-Marie Trabichet, from Stop Suicide, one of the groups that launched the initiative.
The latest opinion polls carried out days ahead of the nationwide vote found the country fairly evenly divided over the issue, with 47 percent for the ban and 45 percent against. Eight percent were undecided.