The Swiss own millions of guns, but have barely any gun deaths -- here's what they do differently from the US

Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesNina Christen of Switzerland shoots in a 10m Rifle ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on August 4, 2016 in Brazil.
  • The Swiss celebrate hundreds of years of precise target shooting and gun ownership.
  • Most Swiss men have to learn how to use a gun, but the majority of Swiss people do not own firearms.
  • Militiamen can bring their guns home while serving, but they aren’t required to do so.

Switzerland is a country of chocolate, cheese, cuckoo clocks, and lots of guns. Right? Not quite.

The Swiss have often been touted by the National Rifle Association (NRA) as a standout example of a country with little gun control and a homicide rate near zero.

Citizens of the country have even developed a reputation for having their guns ready in the closet at a moment’s notice, which has led some people to wonder if the Swiss are all required to own arms in order to protect their state.

The short answer is no

In 2007, the international Small Arms Survey estimated that Swiss civilians owned about 3.4 million guns, more than almost any other country in the world (except the United States and Yemen). But there are signs that the number of armed Swiss is dropping: its now estimated there are roughly 2 million privately owned guns in the country – about one for every four Swiss people.

The Swiss do, however, have a long history of cherishing hunting rifles and practicing target shooting. In Zurich, an annual festival even celebrates youngsters’ burgeoning efforts to learn to pull the trigger responsibly and accurately, with a centuries-old shooting contest open to girls and boys as young as 13.

Switzerland is home to a largely citizen-sourced militia that supports the stance of “armed neutrality” – the country has stayed neutral and out of armed conflict since 1815.

The country also requires all “fit” Swiss men to participate in its mandatory military service. Women can volunteer to be in the state militia too, but they don’t have to. And anyone who objects to fighting in the national ranks can instead volunteer in the country’s civilian service, which might include more pacifist-friendly tasks like providing social services or fixing up Swiss cultural sites.

Men who serve in the militia are trained and handed a weapon that they can keep until they’re done serving. But recent estimates suggest only 11% actually keep their rifles at home when they’re not working. Military ammunition is always kept separately at local armories.

Former militiamen are offered the chance to buy their service weapons when they’re done serving, but they have to get a permit for those state-issued guns. In fact, with the exception of hunting rifles and semiautomatic longarms, any private gun owner in Switzerland has to get a permit for their gun. And if they have got a criminal record, a history of violence, or are struggling with mental health or addiction, local authorities won’t issue one.

Gun deaths in Switzerland have plummeted in recent years, as the country has written stricter rules to align itself with the European Union. But the country still has one of the highest rates of gun violence in Europe – with over 200 firearm deaths a year – most of which are suicides. In the US, the per capita gun death rate is roughly four times that of Switzerland and rising, with over 33,800 people killed by firearms in 2016.

You can read about the history of Swiss gun ownership and how Switzerland has beefed up its gun laws here.

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