Switzerland: Peaceful, with guns

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Switzerland has earned its reputation as a safe, neutral nation. Yet it's hardly pacifist or gun-averse. In fact, the small and stable country has the highest firearm ownership rate in Europe:

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That's the the third-highest ownership rate in the world, outdone only by the U.S. (89) and Yemen (55).

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The precise number of privately owned guns is unclear because many are undeclared. Switzerland also has no national centralized register, with records kept only by the 26 cantons. The Small Arm Survey published by Geneva's Graduate Institute of International Studies (GIIS) estimates it at 3.4 million firearms for a population of nearly 8 million.

See history of their strict gun enforcement:

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Switzerland: Peaceful, with guns
People walk by a poster urging people to vote against the anti-firearms initiative in order to keep status quo in Geneva, Switzerland, Jan 6, 2011. Swiss gun culture meets grassroots democracy Sunday in a referendum dividing those who hope to cut the country's high rate of firearms suicides and those who fear tighter rules may kill off village shooting clubs and even cripple Switzerland's legendary citizen militia. Poster reads: "Monopoly on weapons just for criminals? No!" (AP Photo/Frank Jordans)
TO GO WITH STORY BY FRANK JORDANS - A man trains with a softair pistole on the shooting range of the village's shooting club in Bueren an der Aare near Bern, Switzerland, Tuesday, Feb 8 , 2011. Swiss gun culture meets grassroots democracy Sunday in a referendum dividing those who hope to cut the country's high rate of firearms suicides and those who fear tighter rules may kill off village shooting clubs and even cripple Switzerland's legendary citizen militia. (AP Photo/Frank Jordans)
Pully, SWITZERLAND: A semi-automatic army service weapon is stored 25 September 2006 in a walk-in closet in Pully. A Swiss women's magazine, Annabelle, is taking aim at an ancient military-bred love of guns in Switzerland that allows semi-automatic army service weapons to be kept in thousands of homes countrywide. Annabelle is spearheading a renewed gun control campaign in the seemingly peaceful Alpine nation with full-page advertisements in major newspapers portraying a clean-cut middle class couple and their children. The magazine delivered a 17,400-signature petition from its readers on September demanding the creation of a national gun register and a ban on army firearms in the home. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
Geneva, SWITZERLAND: A full-page advertisement made by Swiss women's magazine, Annabelle, is displayed 26 September in Geneva. Annabelle is taking aim at an ancient military-bred love of guns in Switzerland that allows semi-automatic army service weapons to be kept in thousands of homes countrywide. Annabelle is spearheading a renewed gun control campaign in the seemingly peaceful Alpine nation with full-page advertisements in major newspapers portraying a clean-cut middle class couple and their children. The only incongruity in the standard happy family snapshot is the grinning husband, who is brandishing an assault rifle. The slogan: 'Guns have no place in the family!' The magazine delivered a 17,400-signature petition from its readers on September demanding the creation of a national gun register and a ban on army firearms in the home. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
SWITZERLAND - SEPTEMBER 26: Rouwen Howald poses with his government-issued rifle, in Bern, Switzerland, on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2007. A series of killings involving Army guns, including last year's shooting death of Alpine skier Corinne Rey-Bellet by her husband, has fueled a national debate about a World War II requirement that every soldier completing basic training keeps 50 rounds of ammunition in a sealed box at home. (Photo by Adrian Moser/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
SWITZERLAND - SEPTEMBER 26: Rouwen Howald poses with his government-issued rifle, in Bern, Switzerland, on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2007. A series of killings involving Army guns, including last year's shooting death of Alpine skier Corinne Rey-Bellet by her husband, has fueled a national debate about a World War II requirement that every soldier completing basic training keeps 50 rounds of ammunition in a sealed box at home. (Photo by Adrian Moser/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
A sign which reads 'destroying Swiss values? - no to the usesless guns initative' is pictured in Alt St. Johann on February 13, 2011. Switzerland, which has the highest rate of suicide by firearms in Europe, voted today on whether to abolish its long-standing tradition of letting citizens keep army-issued weapons at home. AFP PHOTO / Sebastian Derungs (Photo credit should read SEBASTIAN DERUNGS/AFP/Getty Images)
LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND - 2009/05/08: 'Non Violence' Sculpture by Carl Fredrik Reutersward at the Le Parc Olympique. (Photo by Olaf Protze/LightRocket via Getty Images)
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This staggering figure is partly explained by Switzerland's unusual national defense system, which relies mostly on a citizen militia. All Swiss men aged 18 to 34 undergo military service and are issued an assault rifle or pistol to keep at home, in case they are called to protect their homeland. Historians believe the system dissuaded the Germans from invading Switzerland during World War II.

Given how many Swiss have a weapon lying around in their basement or cupboard, Switzerland's rate of gun-related deaths — 3 per 100,000 people — may seem low compared to the United States', where it's 10.3 per 100,000.

Possible explanations? One is strict gun control enforcement. Automatic weapons are banned and gun permits refused if the person has a criminal record, addiction or psychiatric problem. Others could be social or cultural, including a lack of serious drug or poverty issues, coupled with the notorious Swiss concern for safety and regard for rules.

Within Europe, Switzerland holds the second-highest rate of gun-related deaths after Finland, three times that of Germany and over 10 times that of the United Kingdom.

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Mass shootings are rare. The most notorious one happened in 2001, when a man walked into the regional parliament of Zug and shot dead 14 people and injured 10 others before killing himself.

After this incident, left-wing politicians and victims associations demanded a nationwide referendum calling for the storage of military firearms in public arsenals, instead of private homes, and the establishment of a national gun registry. The referendum failed in 2011, with 56.3 percent of voters opposing it.

The issue gained momentum again in 2013, after a gunman killed four people and wounded six others in Lucerne, shortly after another man had shot three women dead and wounded two men in a small southern village.

Following these high-profile incidents, the Swiss government vowed to take measured action to increase gun control by augmenting the exchange of information between regional firearm registries. Still, Switzerland's atypical military system and ingrained gun-friendliness are likely to ensure the country stays locked and loaded for years to come.

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