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On May 19, 2019, Swiss voters approved a new set of gun control restrictions. This newly-approved gun control measure would put Switzerland’s gun control laws in line with European Union standards. Under this new law, military-style, semi-automatic weapons would be heavily restricted, while also tightening up gun registration standards. A few exemptions were made for participants in shooting sports who will still be able to nominally exercise their right to own arms without going through many more hurdles.
Those in the international gun community expressed concern after this vote, where Swiss voters resoundingly cast their ballots in favor of these new regulations by a 64-36 percent margin. Switzerland is commonly viewed as having relatively pro-gun laws similar to countries like the United States, so it’s generally used as an international example for the feasibility of civilian firearms ownership. Proponents of the right to self-defense have every reason to be worried, but this vote has implications that go beyond gun rights.
The European Firearms Directive
According to Claudio Grass, a frequent contributor at Mises based in Switzerland, and Dimitrios Papadopoulos, an officer in the Swiss militia, 80 percent of shooters in Switzerland use semi-automatic weapons, which will effectively be prohibited under this new directive. The only way people can acquire the newly prohibited weapons is through an exemption where the prospective gun owner declares himself to be a sports marksman. The only proof that he needs to provide is that he was shooting at least five times within a five-year timespan. Whether this exception will be maintained in the future is unknown, as the EU announced further restrictions and the Swiss law will have to adopt these, too, according to the Schengen treaty.
The Militia Origins of Switzerland’s Gun Culture
Switzerland has a militia tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. Unlike other European countries during the period, Swiss cantons did not have nobility systems. Thus, defense and security were provided by villages and citizens themselves. One caveat to note is that military service is compulsory in Switzerland for healthy Swiss male citizens.
Servicemen in Switzerland receive a SIG550 assault rifle or a SIG P220 pistol and are required to keep their firearms at home as long as they are enlisted. After serving, veterans can keep these weapons, however, the automatic and burst-fire functions of the SIG550 must be disabled. Military service in Switzerland is inextricably tied to marksmanship, with servicemen having to go to the shooting range once a year to demonstrate their shooting chops. The SIG550 and SIG510 are the preferred rifles of choice for shooting sports and also for civilians in Switzerland. However, under the new EU Directive, the SIG550 and SIG510 have been reclassified as “prohibited” weapons even though the Swiss government issues about 20,000 of these weapons to recruits every year.
The Decentralized Approach to Gun Control in Switzerland
Cantons still handle all weapons permitting in Switzerland, and in fact, there is no centralized bureaucracy for guns in Switzerland. Even though the firearms law is federal, certain cantons have stricter permitting requirements than others. (Although not libertarian, this system does show the benefits of decentralization, where people can choose between competing jurisdictions.)
In the past, to attain a weapons license in a Swiss canton, one did not have to give local authorities a special reason for why they’re acquiring a firearm. It was only a matter of asking the police of the canton an individual is residing in for a permit — a “Waffenerwerbsschein.” Authorities are obliged to grant a permit unless the person applying has a glaring criminal record, mental health issues, or other pertinent indicators of being dangerous. Once obtained, the firearm cannot be confiscated except for extreme circumstances in which the person presents an immediate threat to others.
However, this new EU directive now requires that all military-style, semi-automatic weapons used by Swiss marksmen and serviceman be re-classified as “prohibited weapons.” In other words, these semi-automatic firearms fall under the same category as machine guns and fully automatic weapons which require an “Ausnahmebewilligung” (exception permit) to attain. In these cases, authorities have more discretion in rejecting potential applicants. A prospective gun owner would have to justify his reasons for owning a gun and fully document that they are not criminals.
This New Gun Control Scheme Threatens Swiss Sovereignty
Grass and Papadopoulos highlight that the EU directive could lead to potential gun control micromanagement by the EU, as it now will be confident in knowing that Swiss voters will comply with any of its threats when it decides to pressure the country into accepting its pet policies.
Papadopoulos makes a candid assertion that strikes at the heart of this debate:
What is particularly scary is that the whole argument for the new law was not really about saving lives or reducing gun violence, but rather focused on Brussels ordering Switzerland to modify gun laws to comply with EU gun control standards. Failure to do so could lead to a potential expulsion from the Schengen Agreement. We did not vote on a subject but on avoiding potential punishment by Brussels.
The Swiss value neutrality as evidenced by their decision to stay out of the EU. However, Switzerland is a member of the Schengen Area which was established by the Schengen Agreement in 1985. Countries within the Schengen Area have abolished all passport and border controls at their mutual borders. Given their membership in the Schengen Area, non-EU members such as Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein must comply with certain EU Laws. In 2017, when the EU expanded firearms restrictions in light of mass shootings in Paris, it became clear that this standard was about to be extended to the non-EU members of the Schengen Area.
Switzerland was originally given an August 2018 deadline to implement these changes, which the Swiss parliament decided to implement. This decision generated backlash among gun and other right-wing groups such as the Swiss People’s Party. In response, they immediately wanted to take this issue to the ballot. One of the most outspoken figures in right-wing politics in Switzerland, Christoph Blocher, went on record saying that Switzerland should consider leaving the Schengen system of passport-free travel if Swiss voters reject this gun control proposal at the polls.
The European Union was clever in dangling the carrot of the Schengen Agreement while also wielding the gun control stick, which was enough to get Swiss voters to comply with EU gun regulations. Had voters not approved this ordinance, the EU may have taken more punitive alternatives to break Swiss sovereignty.
Switzerland Should Resist the Temptation of Centralization
What has made Switzerland truly exceptional among countries, is its decentralized approach to governance, which has effectively depoliticized it, unlike other traditional states in the EU and North America, which are mired in identity politics, welfarism, or militarism of some sort. Switzerland offers a pragmatic alternative that many of Europe’s budding separatist movements can look at as an example.
More than just Switzerland capitulating to gun control, this referendum demonstrates the EU’s universalistic vision for the European continent. There’s a good reason to believe that this won’t be the last time that the EU will coax Switzerland into accepting other top-down schemes. If Switzerland wants to remain Europe’s most decentralized state, it will have to stand up against Brussels in future battles. Not doing so, will put it on the path of being another lifeless political appendage of the EU superstate.
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