Switzerland, long the neutral party of Europe with a deeply rooted gun culture, was recently confronted with a referendum to align its guns laws with the European Union. As one might expect, EU gun laws are very stringent and not at all in line with traditional Swiss gun laws. Unfortunately, the referendum passed, and Switzerland now faces the prospect of ever increasing gun laws mandated by the EU, at the risk of destroying its gun culture.
Switzerland, as a neutral country is not part of the European Union. The Swiss “Feldschiessen,” or “Field Shoot,” is the world’s largest shooting competition, with as many as 128,000 people participating. According to some reports, an estimated 48% of households own a firearm, resulting in an estimated 2.3 million firearms owners in the country with a population of 8.5 million. Many of the owners are collectors, with multiple firearms. Swiss Army soldiers have historically been allowed to take their service rifles home, even if fully automatic. Fully automatic firearms were legal to own by civilians until the new laws were put into effect.
How did this happen? In 2008, Switzerland signed onto the Schengen Agreement, which was originally meant to increase trade and free movement of people throughout the EU. When passing from Germany into Switzerland, there are no border controls, and no passport examination is required. In terms of free trade, trucks laden with goods travel freely between the EU and Switzerland. Most European countries have signed onto the Schengen Agreement, with the exception of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Poland, Norway and Iceland have signed on to the agreement, even though they, like Switzerland, are not part of the EU.
In a move to force Switzerland to change its gun laws, the EU threatened to remove free passage between the EU and Switzerland, eliminate free trade, eliminate law enforcement cooperation and eliminate shared intelligence resources involving terror threats. In response, the Swiss parliament acquiesced and passed the new EU-based laws. Immediately after passing the laws, gun owners sought a referendum to take the issue directly to the voters. 50,000 verified signatures were needed within 100 days; more than 125,000 signatures were gathered. On May 19, the referendum passed with more than 60% in support of the new laws.
Now what? The basics do not change. Swiss citizens and permanent residents over the age of 18 can purchase a gun in Switzerland, but they must first apply for a permit and present a copy of their legal (Or criminal) record. These types of basic firearms possession licenses are “shall” issue—that is, there is no prohibition, as long as the applicant has no criminal record. After that, the situation gets complicated.
Most private sales between individuals were unreported and unregulated. The new laws seek to change that. If a pistol were possessed prior to August 15, 2019, no permit is needed to possess, and standard capacity magazines up to and exceeding 20 rounds may be purchased and used. Pistols purchased after August 15, 2019, require a “small exceptional” permit to possess and are neutered to a maximum of 20-round magazine capacity.
In terms of rifle possession, the August 15 possession date is again important. Recall that most private sales were not regulated or registered. Rifles possessed prior to August 15, 2019, may utilize a standard capacity magazine exceeding 10 rounds, but they must be registered. Rifles that accept a detachable magazine purchased after August 15, 2019, require an exceptional permit. In addition, all semiautomatic rifles and rifles with an overall length less than 60cm require an exception permit. Standard capacity magazines exceeding 10 rounds will still be allowed but must be locked and secured in a separate location. It is now illegal to insert a standard capacity magazine into an “unregistered” rifle. It is difficult to know exactly how many firearms are currently in circulation, since guns are registered regionally, and there is no national registry. The new laws will change that by making most firearms subject to registration and licensing.
Exceptional licenses are exactly that—exceptional. They are issued at the regional level and are “may” issue. Standards for issuance vary by locale. As one might imagine, rural Cantons are typically more lenient, while urban Cantons (like Zurich) have more stringent requirements. In general terms, an exceptional permit will be granted if the applicant is a good citizen, has no criminal record, has no known drug abuse, has no history of mental illness and is at least 18 years old. Some jurisdictions require an applicant to be a “collector,” but there are no statutory definitions of what constitutes a “collector.” In some regions, a licensing officer may require possession of five firearms, while other licensing officers may require 10 or more firearms to meet the local standard. Once an application is submitted for an exceptional permit, it may be denied for no reason—a denial could be as basic as the issuing officer having a bad day or not approving of the applicant’s personal appearance.
Possession of a service weapon has been a basic right of the Swiss military for hundreds of years. As a nod to Swiss custom and history, service members will continue to possess service weapons outside of training, as long as they are in national service. Once out of military service, the former soldier would need to apply for an exceptional permit to allow continued possession of the service weapon.
Shooting clubs are a popular pastime in Switzerland, with dozens located throughout the country. Under the new law, membership within a shooting club becomes required in 2024, as in most of Europe. At this time, there are no standards or requirements on what constitutes a “shooting club.” It is likely that shooting clubs will become more defined within the law over time, as the new law requires a re-evaluation of the applicable laws every five years, with the next evaluation occurring in 2024.
Finally, the new EU-based laws require extensive marking requirements. Under the old law, the receiver, barrel and bolt needed to be engraved with a serial number. Under the new law, AR-15 lower receivers become regulated parts, and all “relevant parts” must be marked with a serial number, name of the manufacturer and country of origin. Unfortunately, what constitutes a “relevant part” has not been defined. Under the new law, it is possible that an upper receiver, lower receiver, trigger housing, barrel, bolt, bolt carrier, trigger and trigger assembly could require serialization and marking.
There is currently a global fight against the right of self-defense and firearm possession. Switzerland, long a stalwart of firearm rights, has been neutered, with the prospect of unlimited restrictions being implemented every 5 years at the whim of the European Union. Domestic U.S.-based readers may wonder why Swiss gun laws matter, or why one should care about the laws of a foreign country. The answer is simple: if it can happen in Switzerland—a country with massive firearms ownership and pro-gun culture—it can happen anywhere including the United States. Individual U.S. states are taking positive actions against domestic possession of firearms. One need only look to the new laws passed in Washington State, the increased gun-grabbing frenzy in California and the continued rhetoric of the 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates to see the looming domestic threat.
Foreign-based readers (particularly those in New Zealand or the United Kingdom) may already recognize the path that Switzerland has undertaken. The global fight against the right of self-defense and firearm possession continues unabated. All readers, regardless of citizenship or nationality, must be vigilant and take action now, before all is lost.