ISSN 2330-717X

Switzerland: Shooting Deaths Reignite Army Guns Debate

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By Sophie Douez

Calls are growing for tighter regulations governing the keeping of army weapons at home following two shooting deaths in separate incidents this month.

In both cases the victims, aged 21 and 23, were killed using army-issue weapons.

In the first case, the gunman had prior convictions for issuing threats and damaging property, while in the second the shooter was unaware he was handling a real – and loaded – gun when he pointed it at his friend’s chest and pulled the trigger in jest.

In the wake of the incidents, cantonal police and judicial authorities together with the army have established a working group to examine ways of sharing information about criminal investigations involving active service members, with a view to confiscating guns held by people considered a threat.

Other options being mooted would include preventing people who have only army-issue guns from purchasing ammunition at gun shops or clubs, and beefing up controls and security of ammunition stocks held by the army.

Men on active service in Switzerland’s militia army are allowed to keep their army-issue weapons at home but most are not allowed to keep army ammunition at home. Police have not revealed how the ammunition in both cases was obtained.

But with the Swiss having in February voted against a proposal that would have banned army weapons from the home, it is unlikely that major changes can be made in this respect.

Hands tied

On Wednesday a parliamentary commission for security policy acknowledged that in many cases, the army does not receive pertinent information from police or judicial authorities about members who might pose a threat until well after a case has been closed.

However perhaps in recognition of the difficulty of acting, the commission voted by a narrow majority of 12-11 not to take immediate action, preferring instead to consult cantonal judicial authorities and the federal privacy commissioner early in the new year.

“The commission has been informed by the defense ministry of measures taken by the army since summer 2010 aimed at reducing the risks related to the abuse of army-issue weapons,” the commission said in a statement.

“The commission is unanimous in its opinion that these latest tragic incidents should never have happened.”

A spokesman for the army, Daniel Reist, told swissinfo.ch that it would be up to politicians to decide if changes to the law were needed to increase information sharing or restrict the sale of ammunition.

“In the end, the Swiss people have voted and a huge majority have said that they should keep their weapons at home,” Reist noted.

“It is a problem for the army and we are very concerned and extend our sympathies to the victims, but we can’t really do more than show people that they are responsible for their weapon and instruct them on what keeping and holding a weapon means.”

Reist said that if it was shown that the ammunition used in the two shootings was army-issue, it would surely have been stolen.

Privacy versus security

Lawyer Victor Györffy, a spokesman for the non-governmental organisation Fundamental Rights, told swissinfo.ch that moves to allow more sharing of information between the army and cantonal police authorities would require changes to the law.

For changes to happen he said it would be imperative that the public interest in sharing the information outweighed the privacy interests of the person involved.

“The issue that comes to mind is what information do the police actually have and how accurate is it? Would they share information when somebody is suspected of having committed a crime, or after they have been sentenced. And what details would go along with it?” questioned Györffy.

Reist agreed that defining cases in which the police should share information would be “very difficult”.

“We will have to define a limit between protection of the person and privacy, and from the other side, the interest we having in knowing who could be a danger to society,” he said. “It’s very difficult to draw this line.”

Such decisions would be open to interpretation and would necessarily involve sharing information about other people who were involved but not charged with committing a crime, said Györffy.

“It’s really a complicated matter to say whether somebody should have a weapon or not and whether he is charged or convicted of a crime, that’s just one aspect.

“You may have people who have never been charged with a crime who are a danger, and you can say it’s too late then,” he said.

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SwissInfo

swissinfo is an enterprise of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC). Its role is to inform Swiss living abroad about events in their homeland and to raise awareness of Switzerland in other countries. swissinfo achieves this through its nine-language internet news and information platform.

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