Which factors have contributed to the gun culture in Switzerland?

Conventional weapons

According to the definition, small arms are not considered “weapons of mass destruction” because this term is reserved for large chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared in 2006: "Because of the slaughter they wreak, small arms could indeed be aptly described as 'weapons of mass destruction'."

An estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people are directly killed by small arms each year. This is mainly due to their enormous spread, both in conflict areas and outside. The number of small arms worldwide is estimated at 850 million pieces. However, this number is difficult to verify, since the production and trade in small arms are by their very nature very opaque. The terrible "effectiveness" of small arms is related to some of their characteristics. They are relatively inexpensive and readily available; easy to transport, smuggle and hide. They are resistant to dirt and corrosion, extremely low-maintenance and durable, so they can still be functional even after several decades.

But people are also indirectly victims of armed violence in which small arms are used. Armed conflicts have infrastructural consequences; they make access to medical care more difficult or cause shortages of food, water and shelter. The higher the number of victims, the weaker the infrastructure was even before the conflict began. It is estimated that for every direct death in areas affected by armed violence there are four indirect fatalities, i.e. at least 200,000 per year.

While small arms themselves do not naturally cause conflict, their widespread presence alone can contribute to heightened armed violence in four ways:

It is therefore not surprising that between 60 and 90 percent of the estimated 740,000 deaths from armed violence each year can be traced back to small arms. It should be emphasized, however, that small arms themselves do not cause any damage as long as there is no human being who uses them. Conflicts are extremely complex and their emergence and escalation are always the result of many factors - small arms are just one of them. In this context, critics of small arms control often cite Switzerland as an example of a country that has a very low rate of weapon misuse despite the extremely high availability of small arms.

The debate about small arms control is partly ideological and cultural. Different societies evaluate weapons and armaments differently and this evaluation also has an impact on the international discussion about the need for and the extent of weapons regulation. In the US, the right to individual gun ownership is enshrined in the constitution and there is social consensus. For example, defending one's own home is accepted as a legitimate reason for gun ownership. Semi-automatic weapons with larger magazines are readily available in much of the United States. In Germany, on the other hand, the population is very critical of private gun ownership, as the public discussion about its regulation after the various rampages of recent years made clear. In parts of the Middle East, on the other hand, even fully automatic weapons are a normal part of everyday life, for example when volleys of salute are fired at celebrations or funerals.

Such culturally influenced views and practices primarily concern national regulation of gun ownership, but they also have an impact on the debate on international small arms control, which is primarily about the international trade in war weapons. The United States, for example, is mostly negative or critical of international agreements on small arms control, while other regions, such as West Africa, which are or have been particularly affected by armed violence, want to strictly regulate the production, trade and transfer of small arms.

Sources and further information:

BICC 05/2012