Switzerland upheld its reputation for having one of the most liberal yet lethal firearms laws in Europe yesterday after voters overwhelmingly rejected proposals that would have obliged some two million gun owners in the country to keep their weapons in public arsenals rather than at home.
Official results from a national referendum on gun control showed that more than half of Switzerland's 26 cantons voted against an initiative which aimed to ban army rifles from households in an attempt to reduce domestic shootings and a record number of suicides involving firearms.
Swiss soldiers have been encouraged to keep their rifles at home after leaving the forces under a national defence policy introduced during the Second World War. The practice is seen as a symbol of the trust the state invests in the Alpine country's largely conscript army.
Yesterday Switzerland's conservative politicians welcomed the outcome, saying it demonstrated the nation's reluctance to end a practice that upheld the traditions of its folk hero, William Tell. "This is an important sign of confidence in our soldiers," said Pius Segmüller, a Christian Democrat MP and a former member of the Swiss Vatican Guard.
A gun ban was strongly opposed by the populist, right-wing Swiss People's Party, which organised a referendum last year banning minaret building at mosques. Shooting club owners had complained that the law would have destroyed many of the country's 3,000 gun clubs, which function as key social centres in hundreds of villages.
The result amounted to a serious blow to Switzerland's nascent gun control lobby. It had banked on a high turnout by women voters to get its initiative approved. But results showed that only the cities of Basel and Geneva and a few French-speaking cantons bucked the national trend.
Social Democrat and Green women MPs said that they were disappointed by the low turnout among women. "Women in Switzerland have only had the vote for the past 40 years, but they aren't getting involved in politics even when it concerns them," complained Martine Brunschwig-Graf, a Social Democrat politician.
The gun control lobby, which includes doctors, churches and suicide prevention groups, launched their "weapons initiative" campaign four years ago in an attempt to make it illegal for ex-soldiers and reservists to keep guns at home. Their aim was to ensure that the weapons were kept in arsenals and retrievable only for training or in case of war.
Switzerland has the highest rate of gun suicide in Europe, with around 300 self-inflicted deaths each year involving a firearm. There have also been a number of high-profile killings. Swiss skiing star Corinne Rey-Bellet was shot dead by her estranged husband in 2006. One mass shooting involved a commercial version of the Swiss army's SG 550 semi-automatic assault rifle.
There is no national firearms register in Switzerland. However unofficial estimates suggest there are between 2 million and 3 million guns kept in Swiss households.
Gun-control campaigners had argued that a ban on guns in the home would lead to a dramatic reduction in gun suicides and in the number of guns being used in domestic disputes. "If you make guns less accessible, then there will be fewer suicides involving guns, it is as simple as that," said Elsa Kurz, spokeswoman for Switzerland's Stop Suicide campaign.
The government banned gun owners from keeping live ammunition at home in 2008. In the run up to the vote it argued that in a country with a population of eight million, existing laws were sufficient to ensure that military weapons were not misused.