Firearms regulation in Switzerland allows the free acquisition of semi-automatic, but not fully automatic firearms by Swiss citizens and foreigners with permanent residence. The laws pertaining to the acquisition of firearms in Switzerland are in many respects more liberal than most nations. Permits for concealed carrying in public are issued sparingly. The acquisition of fully automatic weapons, suppressors and target lasers requires special permits issued by the cantonal firearms office. Use of hollow-point and soft-point ammunition is limited to hunting.
The applicable federal legislations are SR 514.54 Federal Law on Weapons, Weapon Equipment and Ammunition (German: Waffengesetz, WG, French: Loi sur les armes, LArm, Italian: Legge sulle armi, LArm) of 20 June 1997 (current edition of 15. August 2019, revised 15.08.2019), and SR 514.541 Ordinance on Weapons, Armament Accessories and Ammunition (German: Waffenverordnung, WV, French: Ordonnance sur les armes, OArm, Italian: Ordinanza sulle armi, OArm) of 2 July 2008 (current edition of 15. August 2019, revised 15.08.2019). The Weapons Law recognises a qualified "right to acquire, possess and carry arms".
Swiss gun culture has emerged from a long tradition of shooting (tirs), which served as a formative element of national identity in the post-Napoleonic Restoration of the Confederacy, and the long-standing practice of a militia organization of the Swiss Army in which soldiers' service rifles are stored privately at their homes. In addition to this, many cantons (notably the alpine cantons of Grisons and Valais) have strong traditions of hunting, accounting for a large but unknown number of privately held hunting rifles, as only weapons acquired since 2008 are registered. However, in a 2019 referendum voters opted to conform with European Union regulations which restrict the acquisition of semi-automatic firearms with high-capacity magazines. An exemption permit for high-capacity magazines is issued to members in a shooting club, a citizen who shoots at least once a year which needs to be proven after five years and ten years, or a weapons collector.
Number of guns in circulation
Switzerland thus has a relatively high gun ownership rate. There are no official statistics, and estimates vary considerably.
The 2017 report from Small Arms Survey has estimated that the number of civilian-held firearms in Switzerland is of 2.332 million, which given a population of 8.4 million corresponds to a gun ownership of around 27.6 guns per 100 residents. Other estimates place the number of privately-held firearms upwards to 3.400 million, giving the nation an estimate of 41.2 guns per 100 people.
When Switzerland joined the Schengen Information System in 2008, it was forced to introduce a central registry for firearms. Only firearms which changed hands since 2008 are registered. The number of registered firearms in this database was reported as 876,000 as of August 2017.
Switzerland's Weapons Law (WG, LArm) and Weapons Act (WV, OArm) has been revised to accede to the Schengen Treaty effective 12 December 2008. The Act on Personal Military Equipment (VPAA, OEPM) governs the handling of military equipment, and in particular the handling of personal weapons by military personnel.
The law is applied to the following weapons:
- Firearms, such as pistols, revolvers, rifles, pump guns (German: Vorderschaftrepetierer), lever-action rifles, self-loading guns (shotguns and rifles).
- Air and CO2 guns with a muzzle energy of at least 7.5 joules, or if there is risk of confusion with a firearm.
- Imitation, blank firing guns (German: Schreckschuss) and air-soft guns when there is risk of confusion with a firearm.
- Butterfly knives, throwing knives, switchblade or automatic knives with total length greater than 12 cm and blade length greater than 5 cm.
- Daggers with a symmetrical blade less than 30 cm.
- Devices that are intended to hurt people such as batons (German: Schlagrute), throwing star, brass knuckles, slings with armrest.
- Electric shock devices and spray products with irritants in Annex 2 weapons ordinance (WV/OArm), except for pepper spray.
Generally prohibited arms are:
- Automatic firearms such as machine guns.
- Automatic knives when the blade more than 5 cm and total length of more than 12 cm.
- Butterfly knives when the blade more than 5 cm and total length of more than 12 cm.
- Throwing knives; regardless of the shape and size.
- Symmetrical daggers where blade length is less than 30 cm.
- Brass knuckles.
- Shock rods or stun guns.
- Throwing Stars.
- Buttstock-equipped slingshots (German: Schleudern mit Armstütze).
- Hidden firearms that imitate an object of utility, such as shooting phones.
In order to purchase most weapons, the purchaser must obtain a weapon acquisition permit (art. 8 WG/LArm). Swiss citizens and foreigners with a C permit over the age of 18 who are not under a curator nor identified as being a danger for themselves or others, and who don't have a criminal record with a conviction for a violent crime or of several convictions as long as they haven't been written out can request such a permit. Foreigners with citizenship to the following countries are explicitly excluded from the right to possess weapons: Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Algeria and Albania. The following information must be provided to the cantonal weapon bureau together with the weapon application form:
- valid official identification or passport copy.
- residence address.
- criminal record copy not older than 3 months.
For each transfer of a weapon or an essential weapon component without weapons acquisition permit (art. 10 WG/LArm), a written contract must be concluded. Each Party shall keep them at least ten years. The contract must include the following information (art. 11 WG/LArm):
- Family name, first name, birth date, residence address and signature of the person who sells the weapon or essential weapon component.
- Family name, first name, birth date, residence address and signature of the person who purchases the weapon or an essential weapon component.
- Kind of weapon, manufacturer or producer, label, caliber, weapon number, and date and place of transfer.
- Type and number of the official identification of the person who acquires the weapon or the essential weapon component.
This information must be sent within 30 days to the cantonal weapon registration bureau, where the weapon holders are registered (art. 9 WG/LArm).
Some weapons do not need a weapon acquisition permit (art. 10 WG/LArm):
- Single-shot and multi-barreled hunting rifles and replicas of single-shot muzzle loaders.
- Hand bolt-action rifles, which are commonly used in off-duty and sporting gunnery recognized by the military law of 3 February 1952 and shooting clubs for hunting purposes in Switzerland.
- Single-shot rabbit slayer.
- Compressed air and CO2 weapons that develop a muzzle energy of at least 7.5 joules, or their appearance may be mistaken for real firearms.
In order to purchase ammunition, the buyer must fulfill the same legal rules that apply when buying guns. The buyer must provide the following information to the seller (art. 15, 16 WG/LArm; art. 24 WV/OArm):
- a passport or other valid official identification (the holder must be over 18 years of age) (art. 10a WG/LArm).
- a copy of their criminal record not older than 3 months, or a weapons acquisition permit which isn't older than 2 years, if asked by the seller (art. 24 § 3 WV/OArm).
- Further, they must not be a citizen of the following countries (art. 12 WV/OArm): Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Algeria and Albania).
The possession of the following ammunition is generally prohibited:
- Armor-piercing bullets.
- Ammunition with projectile containing an explosive or incendiary device.
- Ammunition with one or more projectiles releasing substances which damage the health of people in the long run, particularly those mentioned in annex 2 of the WV/OArm.
- Ammunition, missiles and missile launchers for military explosive.
- Ammunition with projectiles for transmitting electric shocks.
- Ammunition for handguns which may cause deformations.
To carry a firearm in public or outdoors (and for a militia member to carry a firearm other than his issued weapons while off-duty), a person must have a gun carrying permit (German: Waffentragbewilligung, French: permis de port d'armes, Italian: permesso di porto di armi; art. 27 WG/LArm), which in most cases is issued only to private citizens working in occupations such as security. It is, however, quite common to see a person in military service to be en route with his rifle, albeit unloaded. The issue of such exceptional permits are extremely selective (see #Conditions_for_obtaining_a_Carrying_Permit).
However, it is permissible to carry firearms in public or outdoors if the holder (art. 27 § 4 WG/LArm):
- Has a valid hunting license and is carrying the firearm for hunting.
- Is participating in a demonstration and is carrying the firearm in reference to a historical event.
- Is participating in a shooting competition for air-soft guns, provided that the competition has a secure perimeter.
- Is an airport security officer for an authorized country, a border patrol officer, or a game warden, who is carrying the firearm in the course of their employment.
Furthermore, any licensed holder of a gun may transport an unloaded firearm for special situations (see #Transporting guns).
There are three conditions (art. 27 § 2 WG/LArm):
- fulfilling the conditions for a buying permit (see section above).
- stating plausibly the need to carry firearms to protect oneself, other people, or real property from a specified danger.
- passing an examination proving both weapon handling skills and knowledge regarding lawful use of the weapon.
The carrying permit remains valid for a term of five years (unless otherwise surrendered or revoked), and applies only to the type of firearm for which the permit was issued. Additional constraints may be invoked to modify any specific permit. (art. 27 § 3 WG/LArm).
Guns may be transported in public as long as an appropriate justification is present. This means to transport a gun in public, the following requirements apply (art. 28 WG/LArm):
- The gun must be unloaded and transported separately from any ammunition, with no ammunition being transported in a magazine.
- The transport must be by a reasonable route and requires a valid purpose: To or from courses or exercises in marksmanship, hunting or for military purposes. To or from an army warehouse. To show the gun to a possible buyer. To or from a holder of a valid arms trade permit. To or from a specific event, e.g. gun shows. During change of residence.
A 2017 amendment to the European Firearms Directive, known as the "EU Gun Ban", introduces new restrictions on firearms possession and acquisition, especially on semi-automatic firearms, personal defense weapons, magazine capacity, blank firing guns and historical firearms. The restrictions must be introduced into the Swiss legal system by August 2018 due to its membership of the Schengen area.
The Directive also includes an exemption covering a specific Swiss issue – it allows possession to a target shooter of one firearm used during the mandatory military period after leaving the army, provided it was converted to semi-automatic only (art. 6(6) of the Amendment Directive). This part of the Directive specifically was however challenged by the Czech Republic before the European Court of Justice due to its discriminatory nature. The Czech Republic seeks nullification of the "Swiss exemption" as well as of other parts of the Directive.
Civil rights organizations planned to hold a referendum to reject the amended EU directive. According to Swiss People's Party vice-president Christoph Blocher, Switzerland should consider abandoning EU's borderless Schengen Area if the Swiss people reject the proposed measures in a referendum.
In a referendum held on 19 May 2019, voters supported the stricter EU restrictions on semi-automatic and automatic weapons, as recommended by the government.
Army-issued arms and ammunition collection
The Swiss army has long been a militia trained and structured to rapidly respond against foreign aggression. Swiss males grow up expecting to undergo basic military training, usually at age 20 in the recruit school, the basic-training camp, after which Swiss men remain part of the "militia" in reserve capacity until age 30 (age 34 for officers).
Prior to 2007, members of the Swiss Militia were supplied with 50 rounds of ammunition for their military weapon in a sealed ammo box that was regularly audited by the government. This was so that, in the case of an emergency, the militia could respond quickly.
In December 2007, the Swiss Federal Council decided that the distribution of ammunition to soldiers would stop and that previously issued ammo would be returned. By March 2011, more than 99% of the ammo has been received. Only 2,000 specialist militia members (who protect airports and other sites of particular sensitivity) are permitted to keep their military-issued ammunition at home. The rest of the militia get their ammunition from their military armory in the event of an emergency.
When their period of service has ended, militia men have the choice of keeping their personal weapon and other selected items of their equipment. However, keeping the weapon after end of service requires a weapon acquisition permit (art. 11-15 VPAA/OEPM).
The government sponsors training with rifles and shooting in competitions for interested adolescents, both male and female. The sale of military-issued ammunition, including Gw Pat.90 rounds for army-issued assault rifles, is subsidized by the Swiss government and made available at the many Federal Council licensed shooting ranges. That ammunition sold at ranges must be immediately used there under supervision (art. 16 WG/LArm).
The Swiss Army maintains tightened adherence to high standards of lawful military conduct. In 2005, for example, when the Swiss prosecuted recruits who had reenacted the torture scenes of Abu Ghraib, one of the charges was improper use of service weapons.
Recreational shooting is widespread in Switzerland. Practice with guns is a popular form of recreation, and is encouraged by the government, particularly for the members of the militia.
Prior to the turn of the century, about 200,000 people used to attend the annual Eidgenössisches Feldschiessen, which is the largest rifle shooting competition in the world. In 2012 they counted 130,000 participants. For the 2015 Federal Shooting (Eidg. Schützenfest) 37,000 shooters are registered. In addition, there are several private shooting ranges which rent guns.
Gun culture in Switzerland
Switzerland has a strong gun culture compared to other countries in the world. Groups like ProTell lobby for the preservation of Switzerland's gun rights. Additionally, the Schweizerischer Schützenverein, a Swiss shooting association, organizes the Eidgenössische Schützenfeste, every five years and the Eidgenössisches Feldschiessen is held annually. Every person with a Swiss citizenship, aged 10 years or older, can take part at any federal ranges and will be able to shoot for free with the ordinance rifle.
Another possibility for the children to shoot is the Young Shooters: the SAT (lit. shooting and off-duty activities) oversees lessons in which Swiss children can learn how to shoot using the SIG SG 550 starting at 15 years old for the regular course. This activity is free and the Young Shooters are able to take home the rifle in-between the lessons if they are 17. For security reasons however, the breech has to stay at the range in which they attend the lesson. This training takes place over a span of 6 years within a 3-4 month period each year and, if wanted, they can become instructors for the new generation of Young Shooters.
Traditionally liberal Swiss gun legislation has, however, been somewhat tightened in 2008, when Switzerland has complied with European Firearms Directive. Throughout the modern political history of Switzerland, there have been advocates for tighter gun control.
The vast majority of firearm-related deaths in Switzerland are suicides. The suicide method of shooting oneself with a firearm accounted for 21.5% of suicides in Switzerland in the period of 2001–2012 (with significant gender imbalance: 29.7% of male suicides vs. 3.0% of female suicides).
By contrast, gun crime is comparatively limited. In 2016, there were 187 attempted and 45 completed homicides, for a homicide rate of 0.50 per 100,000 population. These rates are some of the lowest in the world. Of the recorded homicides (attempted or completed), 20.3% were committed with a gun (47 cases, compared to an average of 41 cases in the period of 2009–2015). In addition, there were 7 cases of bodily harm and 233 cases of robbery committed with firearms.
There were 16 completed homicides with a firearm in 2016. Of these, 14 were committed with a handgun, one with a long gun and one case marked "other/unspecified". None of the involved weapons were ordinance weapons issued by the Swiss Armed Forces. Similarly, out of 31 attempted homicides with firearms, 25 were committed with handguns, two with long guns and four "other/unspecified", with no use of ordinance weapons on record. For the period of 2009–2016, on average 16.5 out of 49.4 completed homicides were committed with a firearm, 13.8 with handguns, 1.9 with long guns and 0.9 "other/unspecified"; an average 0.75 cases per year (6 cases in eight years) involved ordinance weapons.