Bloodbath forces Switzerland to question its Wild West gun culture

Switzerland prides itself on its eccentric ways, especially the unique combination of immediacy in politics, a low crime rate and a gun culture straight out of the Wild West.

Switzerland prides itself on its eccentric ways, especially the unique combination of immediacy in politics, a low crime rate and a gun culture straight out of the Wild West. In the wake of Thursday's massacre at the cantonal assembly in Zug, all these essential ingredients of the "Swiss way of life" are now being called into question.

The bare facts of the bloodbath in the centre of Switzerland's richest town suggest that something must give. Friedrich Leibacher, the weedy 57-year-old salesman who had a grudge against his local authority, struck at the heart of the system. The Swiss President, Moritz Leuenberger, described the events as "an attack on our democratic institution".

Politicians have warned against panic measures but airport-style security is going up at the federal parliament in Berne and elected representatives are getting bodyguards. The public's path into the debating chamber, one newspaper reported, "will be flanked by policemen". But at least one member of the federal government has already pledged to defy the new climate of fear: Ruth Dreifuss, the Interior Minister, will continue to travel to work by bus.

But Switzerland must certainly change its gun laws. There are an estimated half a million semi-automatic weapons stashed in Swiss homes, most of them placed there by the government in case of a foreign invasion. A quick glance at the map shows Switzerland borders peaceful democracies, all members of the EU. The one exception is Liechtenstein – an absolutist monarchy with no army.

Yet the Swiss unquestionably put up with the inconveniences of belonging to a "civic army" because of their history. The mountains are perforated by bunkers built at huge cost and maintained at great effort. Those who have been conscripted in the army will remain on duty until their old age, obliged once a year to dust off their weapons and take them for target practice.

With so many official fire-arms freely in circulation, it is not surprising the gun laws are extremely liberal. This has always been the problem at the heart of any effort by anti-gun groups to tighten the rules. Whether public perception has changed will be seen in December, when an anti-gun organisation's initiative is put to a national referendum.

Leibacher was an unusual gun fan. Unlike the majority of gun-loving Swiss men, he did not belong to a shooting club. He used the gun for the first time to settle an argument in 1998. He waved his revolver during a bar-room row with the bus driver in Zug who, it now turns out, unwittingly triggered Thursday's tragedy. Leibacher did not fire his weapon and there was nothing more physical to this encounter than his snapping off the bus driver's car antenna. But the incident, reported in the minutest details to the authorities as the two men fought their war through the courts, should have set off alerts.

"We did not have enough grounds for confiscating the weapon," said Ronald Schwyter, the judge investigating the massacre. "We did not know whether it was loaded or not." The negligence of the authorities brought tragedy upon themselves. It is a lesson from which all of Switzerland is now trying to learn.

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