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Thursday, 27 September, 2001, 13:19 GMT 14:19 UK
Switzerland and the gun
Swiss troops
Switzerland has long maintained its armed neutrality
Guns are deeply rooted within Swiss culture - but the gun crime rate is so low that statistics are not even kept.

The country has a population of six million, but there are estimated to be at least two million publicly-owned firearms, including about 600,000 automatic rifles and 500,000 pistols.

This is in a very large part due to Switzerland's unique system of national defence, developed over the centuries.

Instead of a standing, full-time army, the country requires every man to undergo some form of military training for a few days or weeks a year throughout most of their lives.

Between the ages of 21 and 32 men serve as frontline troops. They are given an M-57 assault rifle and 24 rounds of ammunition which they are required to keep at home.

Once discharged, men serve in the Swiss equivalent of the US National Guard, but still have to train occasionally and are given bolt rifles. Women do not have to own firearms, but are encouraged to.

Few restrictions

In addition to the government-provided arms, there are few restrictions on buying weapons. Some cantons restrict the carrying of firearms - others do not.

The government even sells off surplus weaponry to the general public when new equipment is introduced.

Guns and shooting are popular national pastimes. More than 200,000 Swiss attend national annual marksmanship competitions.

But despite the wide ownership and availability of guns, violent crime is extremely rare. There are only minimal controls at public buildings and politicians rarely have police protection.

Mark Eisenecker, a sociologist from the University of Zurich told BBC News Online that guns are "anchored" in Swiss society and that gun control is simply not an issue.

Some pro-gun groups argue that Switzerland proves their contention that there is not necessarily a link between the availability of guns and violent crime in society.

Low crime

But other commentators suggest that the reality is more complicated.

Switzerland is one of the world's richest countries, but has remained relatively isolated.

It has none of the social problems associated with gun crime seen in other industrialised countries like drugs or urban deprivation.

Despite the lack of rigid gun laws, firearms are strictly connected to a sense of collective responsibility.

From an early age Swiss men and women associate weaponry with being called to defend their country.

See also:

30 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Switzerland
16 Jan 01 | Europe
Timeline: Switzerland
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