S3E30 / What the Swiss Can Teach Us / Josef Lang, Nora Markwalder, Thomas Reisch

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Switzerland has one of the highest gun ownership rates in the world. The United States is the only other developed country with more guns per capita than Switzerland. And yet, Switzerland has one of the world’s lowest crime and gun homicide rates in the world. Is there a way to have a strong gun culture without gun violence?

Note: This season of American Diagnosis was originally published under the title In Sickness & In Health. 

This podcast was created by Just Human Productions. We’re powered and distributed by Simplecast. We’re supported, in part, by listeners like you.

Celine Gounder: Hi, everyone. Dr. Celine Gounder, here. I’m the host of “In Sickness and in Health.”

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Nora Markwalder: In the U.S. there’s a lot of people using guns that or having guns that actually say for my self-protection. In Switzerland, that’s absolutely not a reason to own a firearm.

Josef Lang: …after this massacre… to create a registration of weapons 

Thomas Reisch: This all will help, but of course it will much more help if there is no gun at all at home.

Celine Gounder: Welcome back to “In Sickness and in Health,” a podcast about health and social justice. I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This season we’re looking at gun violence in America.

* yodel *

Celine Gounder: Switzerland: the land of chocolate, “neutrality,” yodelling and… guns. Lots of guns. Switzerland has one of the highest gun ownership rates in the world. The United States is the only other developed country in the world with more guns per capita than Switzerland.

Nora Markwalter: Yeah, Switzerland is a bit of a special case in Europe since we do have quite a high rate of gun ownership.

Celine Gounder: Yet, Switzerland also has one of the lowest crime and gun homicide rates in the world. Considering all this, it’s no wonder American gun-rights advocates love Switzerland. It’s an example of a country where high gun ownership can coexist with low crime rates.But in this final episode on mental health and guns, we’re going to take a deeper look at the Swiss story. We’re going to see how a country with a strong tradition of gun ownership can still find ways to combat gun violence… like gun-related suicides.

Thomas Reisch: Their idea was not really to do some kind of suicide prevention… more to modernize the Army.

Celine Gounder: …and have a gun registry…

Nora Markwalder: Revolvers or pistols, you need to have a license in order to get such a gun.

Celine Gounder: …safe storage laws… and a response to mass shootings.

Josef Lang: This fact is very important for the discussion we have now in Switzerland about reducing the magazine.

Celine Gounder: In this episode of “In Sickness and Health”: what Switzerland can teach us about guns.

Celine Gounder: So what is the gun culture in Switzerland? It has a lot to do with the military—the “famous” Swiss Army. Switzerland has compulsory military service. It’s a militia system where everyone is expected to serve. They’ve got a small number of professional soldiers. The rest of their armed forces are conscripts that rotate through tours of duty. Historically, this meant that all able-bodied Swiss men between the ages of 18 and 43 had to serve in the militia. Swiss soldiers are issued a personal service rifle. They’re expected to keep it at home. They have regular drills. And, when soldiers complete their service, they have the option to buy their service rifle from the government. As a result, roughly a third of all Swiss households have a gun. Switzerland also has relatively lax gun laws for people not in the military. They have a strong tradition of sports shooting and hunting. But, over the last 20 years, Switzerland has started to make some big changes to how soldiers are allowed to keep their guns at home… and how privately owned guns are viewed.

Celine Gounder: In 2001, a gunman walked into the parliament building in the Swiss city of Zug and opened fire.

La polymeutrière à Zug en Suisse. Un homme équipé d’un fusil d’assault a fait irruption dans le parelement local. Quinze mort au totale. Rien avoir avec le terrorisme. Il s’agit, apparemment, d’un désespéré.

Celine Gounder: There were about ninety people in the room. Journalists, bystanders, and members of the canton’s parliament, including Josef Lang.

Josef Lang: And at more or less ten in the morning. We heard the killing first outside the room we were sitting, and then the killer entered the parliamentary room.

Celine Gounder: The gunman used a shotgun to kill his first victim. When the shotgun jammed, he started to fire his Swiss Army-issued assault rifle.

Josef Lang: …he began to shoot on us. That lasted two and a half minutes, but evidently for us, it was an eternity.

Celine Gounder: Josef ducked for cover under a desk. He was so close to the gunman that at one point, bullet shells rained on his head. The gunman even set off a hand grenade before police arrived.

Celine Gounder: How did you manage to escape being shot and wounded? 

Josef Lang: There were no logic if you were killed or not. How do you call it in English?

Celine Gounder: Luck? 

Josef Lang: Luck. Yes. Yes. Yes. Hmmm. Luck.

Josef Lang: I had luck.

Josef Lang: …if the police had come thirty seconds later, I’m not sure if I could speak now with you.

Celine Gounder: Fourteen people were killed before the gunman turned the gun on himself. Another eighteen were injured. It remains the deadliest attack of its kind in Switzerland.

Josef Lang: This massacre was a big shock in Switzerland…

Celine Gounder: Switzerland has relatively lax gun laws. Yet the law requires people to register their weapons when they buy them at a gun store. They also need a permit. But as long as you don’t have a criminal record, you can usually get a gun.

Celine Gounder: The shooter had a history of threatening public workers in Zug. The shooter was also able to buy several guns in different cantons, including a shotgun.

Josef Lang: This man had bought all his weapons legally, and he had bought it in different cantons. These different cantons didn’t know that he had bought weapons also in another canton.

Celine Gounder: So the Swiss changed their laws. One of the results of the Zug Massacre was the creation of a national gun registry.

Josef Lang: Today, the police… automatically all these cantons that this man has brought this weapon. And this man has bought weapons in others three, four cantons. There is something going on. Something strange is going on. That would have been the reaction of the Canton of Zug ten days before the massacre.

Josef Lang: They would have found all his weapons at his home. …and so the police would have avoided these fourteen killings.

Celine Gounder: The creation of such a registry seems impossible here in the United States. But the Swiss did it. And they still have their guns.

Celine Gounder: Not long after the Zug Massacre, there was another big change in Switzerland. But to understand that… we first need to jump back… to 1989.

Josef Lang: I’m also, I didn’t mention before, member of the Pacifist Movement in Switzerland.

Celine Gounder: Back then, pacifists like Josef were pushing an idea that might sound crazy: a referendum to abolish the army.

Josef Lang: I’m still in the leadership of that movement…

Celine Gounder: Josef didn’t think their chances were all that great.

Josef Lang: We knew that we would lose but we made a result of thirty-six percent of “yes,” that was a big sensation, and after all more than seventy percent of the soldiers voted for the abolition of the army, and this fact had a big impact on Army reforms.

Celine Gounder: The referendum failed. But it also was a wake up call. The Cold War was over. People’s attitudes were changing… about maintaining such a big standing army… for such a small country. So, the Swiss Armed Forces started to reorganize. Switzerland introduced civil service as an option for people who didn’t want to serve in the military. And the Armed Forces started to get smaller. A lot smaller.

Celine Gounder: Switzerland went from about four hundred thousand soldiers in 2003… to about two hundred thousand in 2004. They cut their armed forces… in half. And that created an interesting opportunity to study… of all things?… suicide.

Thomas Reisch: My name is Thomas Reisch. I’m medical head of psychiatric inpatient unit, and I’m doing a lot of research on suicide and suicide prevention.

Celine Gounder: See, Switzerland has a gun-involved suicide rate that is almost three times higher than the rest of Europe. Most of the guns used in these suicides… were soldiers’ military-issued rifles.

Thomas Reisch: First of all, It’s a real lethal method. So there is no way back. … If you pull the trigger it’s over.

Celine Gounder: So, with the Swiss military cutting its ranks so dramatically, so quickly, it also meant there were a lot fewer people bringing guns home.

Thomas Reisch: They didn’t have the intention to do it like an intervention, but it was the possibility to test… whether after this Army reform you find less suicide by shooting, and because of this abrupt change, you can easily measure it.

Celine Gounder: For a researcher like Thomas, this policy change was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was the closest thing to a national randomized controlled trial on firearms and suicide.

Thomas Reisch: And we were able to show first that…. that there was a… total decrease in suicide numbers, which was mostly related to a cut to a reduction of suicide by shooting

Celine Gounder: So where was the biggest drop in suicides? People between the ages of 18 and 43. The same group that would’ve been serving in the military before the 2003 reforms.

Thomas Reisch: And all the other age groups, so older men, women, you didn’t see any change at all. … So it seemed quite clear… that this reduction of suicide by shooting and the reduction of the total number of suicides are really related to this Army reform.

Celine Gounder: Now, many gun rights groups will say that if someone is intent on suicide, they will find the means, and if they don’t have access to a firearm, they’ll just turn to other means. What is your research show on this point and was there a substitution effect?

Thomas Reisch: Twenty-two percent used another method, but seventy-eight percent didn’t use any other methods… So in fact when somebody says, well, they will use another method, this is true for twenty-two percent, but not for seventy-eight percent, and so it’s quite clear. This reform is saving a lot of lives of young men. 

Celine Gounder: Starting in 2007, Swiss soldiers faced new restrictions on where they could store their weapons. Military weapons could stay in the home… but not the ammo. This is… in part… because of a particular kind of crime that was happening in Switzerland. One of the highest profile cases of its kind involved a famous Swiss skier.

Corinne Rey-Bellet. A place on the podium.

Celine Gounder: Corrine Rey-Bellet. Corinne was a champion skier and…  in 2006… she separated from her husband. Soon after that, Corinne’s husband went to her parents’ chalet and killed both Corrine and her brother. Corinne was 3-months pregnant. Corrine’s husband used his military-issued gun to commit the murders. Then… he killed himself.

Celine Gounder: This kind of family murder-suicide is the most common form of homicide in Switzerland.

Nora Markwalder: So everything that relates to domestic disputes, intimate-partner homicides, but also homicides within the family. But if you just look at domestic homicide as a total category, within that the intimate-partner homicides are the most prevalent type that we have.

Celine Gounder: This is Nora Markwalder.

Nora Markwalder: I’m assistant professor at the University of St. Gallen for criminal law and criminology.

Celine Gounder: This kind of crime is called “family drama” in Switzerland. In the U.S. it’s known as “family annihilation.”

Nora Markwalder: It’s mostly male offenders that kill parts or even their entire family. …this is quite regularly happening still in Switzerland that you have a family man that shoots… wife or children or both and then commits suicide.

Celine Gounder: It’s important to note that Switzerland has one of the lowest homicide rates in the world. It’s low even compared to other European countries. Switzerland also has a very low crime rate… and a very low rate of intimate partner violence… butit has a relatively high rate of intimate partner homicide. And often… those homicides… have been committed… with military-issued weapons.

Nora Markwalder: The gun ownership rate is correlated to a high amount of female homicides within the family and also a homicide followed by a suicide.

Nora Markwalder: We do have much more family homicides as a share of the total number of homicides than has the U.S. but also other countries like Finland or Canada or the Netherlands. So this is quite interesting factor. We do have a very low rate of homicide in total, but the share of the family homicides is quite high in Switzerland.

Celine Gounder: The killing of Corinne Rey-Bellet shocked the country. So, in 2007, the Swiss government banned soldiers from keeping ammunition at home.

Celine Gounder: Today, Swiss militia members are required to follow many of the safe storage rules we’ve talked in previous episodes: don’t keep the gun loaded in the home… ammunition should be stored away from the weapon… and the gun should be someplace where kids can’t get to it. Nora thinks that the best way to stop these family annihilations is to keep all the weapons in arsenals. But there’s a tradeoff.

Nora Markwalder: Well, this is the old discussion in Switzerland.

Nora Markwalder: …this is a question of priorities, I would say.

Nora Markwalder: What I know is that less and less military personal want to have the weapon at home, and they have a possibility to store it in an arsenal, and also less and less soldiers want to purchase the the weapon after their active duty. So there we do already have a decline in these rates, but finally, it’s a decision to choose from whether you want to take the risk of having these homicides within the home for military tactics reasons or whether you want to say, “no,” we will keep them in arsenals and make it less attractive to have them at home.

Celine Gounder: One of the reasons why this kind of homicide happens in the home is because… well… that’s the only place you can keep a gun in Switzerland.

Nora Markwalder: You are not allowed to carry guns with you. Only if you’re a military personnel and you have to carry it from your home to your military base, of course, but for every other situation you’re not allowed to carry a gun.

Celine Gounder: In the U.S., for example, handguns are the most lethal kind of firearm. They’re small, easy to carry, and deadly. But Switzerland doesn’t allow concealed carry. So many situations that might turn deadly in the U.S. … road rage… a bar fight… just don’t happen in Switzerland.

Nora Markwalder: …the gun is not readily available there these types of offenses are obviously less likely to be committed by firearms.

Celine Gounder: This also gets to the heart of how Swiss gun culture is different from ours in the U. S. of A. Gun ownership in the U.S. these days… is often framed… in terms of self-defense. But self-defense is not the reason to have a gun in Switzerland.

Nora Markwalder: Self-defense is also a bit generally accepted in in the U.S. also in regard to the use of deadly force. You have different doctrines like “my home is my castle” and “Stand My Ground.” These do not apply in Switzerland.

Josef Lang: …self-defense is not a Swiss Concept.

Celine Gounder: Josef Lang.

Josef Lang: In Switzerland the ownership of arms is historically linked to the defense of the community, of the country, not to defend your private interests or your family or your person. That is a big difference to the United States.

Celine Gounder: But Josef says this might be changing. He calls it the “Americanization” of Swiss gun culture. As fewer and fewer Swiss people sign up for military service… more and more are buying guns for self-protection.

Josef Lang: More and more and more civilians buy weapons. The number of weapon buying has tripled in the last ten years, and more and more people who buy weapons say, “I buy it to defend myself against strange people… against, refugee, dangerous refugees, or against criminals.”

Celine Gounder: Switzerland is already a very safe country. Like many countries, including the U.S., it’s seen a drop in crime since the 1990s. But people think crime is getting worse… even when the statistics show otherwise.

Celine Gounder: I asked everyone I interviewed for this episode the same question. Why is Switzerland so popular with gun rights activists in the U.S.?

Josef Lang: Well, they use it because in Switzerland you have also a lot of weapons… I think they want to create the impression that… the number of weapons is not linked to the number of killed people. That’s not totally wrong, but not totally right.

Nora Markwalder: Well, because they see a country with quite a liberal weapon law and with a low amount of homicides. So therefore they jump to the conclusion that you can have low homicides and high gun ownership and that they somewhat are not related.

Thomas Reisch: I think a lot of people love the idea that is part of the culture to have a weapon, and it’s easy to say, “well others have it too, so we can do it do it as well.” I think this is a very easy form of argumentation.

Celine Gounder: I think there’s another way to look at the Swiss and guns. Switzerland shows that there’s a way to have a vibrant gun culture… but also have gun training, background checks, and when necessary a way to change the laws to save lives.

Celine Gounder: If someone you know is in crisis or thinking of hurting themself:

  • Do not leave them alone.

  • Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.

  • Take them to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.

  • Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

  • Or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

  • Another resource for LGBTQ youth is the Trevor Project’s Lifeline at 866-488-7386.

Celine Gounder: “In Sickness and in Health” is brought to you by Just Human Productions. Today’s episode was produced by Zach Dyer and me. Our theme music is by Allan Vest. Additional music by The Blue Dot Sessions. If you enjoy the show, please tell a friend about it today. And if you haven’t already done so, leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps more people find out about the show! You can learn more about this podcast and how to engage with us on social media at insicknessandinhealthpodcast.com. That’s insicknessandinhealthpodcast.com. I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This is “In Sickness and in Health.”

Josef Lang Josef Lang
Nora Markwalder Nora Markwalder
Thomas Reisch Thomas Reisch
Dr. Celine Gounder Dr. Celine Gounder