Leaflets to vote 'no' in the May 19 referendum at a shop in Geneva, Switzerland. Picture: REUTERS/DENIS BALIBOUSE
Leaflets to vote 'no' in the May 19 referendum at a shop in Geneva, Switzerland. Picture: REUTERS/DENIS BALIBOUSE

Zurich — Switzerland on Sunday backed new restrictions on semi-automatic firearms, choosing to avoid a potential standoff with the European Union.

While Switzerland has declined to join the 28-country bloc, it is a member of the open-border Schengen area and therefore must harmonise its weapons laws. Nearly two-thirds of voters backed the change in a referendum on Sunday. It means civilians using and owning large-magazine semi-automatic guns will need special permission and additional checks.

“We’re taking care of the safety and security of people in Switzerland without undermining the traditional shooting culture,” said justice minister Karin Keller-Sutter.

Opponents of the measure, including members of rifle clubs, had feared the country’s tradition of shooting for sport was under threat. Those in favour, including the government, cited the importance of Schengen and said the new rules would not  end the culture of shooting matches — such as the annual Zurich event called Knabenschiessen.

Switzerland ranks high in Europe for civilian ownership of firearms on a per capita basis, as there is mandatory military service and former soldiers may keep their weapons. Gun crime is rare, however, and the last mass-fatality shooting took place in 2001.

In a separate referendum, the Swiss also backed an overhaul of the corporate tax regime.

According to a 2017 report by the small arms survey, the country boasts the world’s 16th highest rate of gun ownership, with about 2.3-million firearms in civilian hands — nearly three for every 10 inhabitants.

‘Exceptional authorisation’

Under the new gun law, which has already been approved by legislators, semi-automatic weapons with high-capacity magazines would be listed as “banned”.

Collectors and sports shooters could still purchase such weapons, but would need to jump through more hoops to obtain an “exceptional authorisation”.

Bloomberg, AFP