If I end up owning a weapon, what does Swiss law say?
I have just inherited a gun that I want to keep. What should I do? Or if I don’t want to keep it, what can I do? These questions become all the more pertinent following the latest amendment to the Weapons Act, which became effective on 15 August 2019. This is an important issue, especially in Switzerland – a country with more than 3 million firearms in circulation. In this document, we discuss the background information and latest developments.
In a referendum on 19 May 2019, the Swiss approved a partial revision to the Weapons Act, with 63.7% voting in favour. Changes to the existing legislation are minor but may still call for some extra paperwork depending on the firearms you have at home.
First of all, it should be noted that the majority of firearms in circulation within Switzerland are not affected by the amended law. Nothing will change for service weapons,which remain governed by military provisions.
Changes to the Weapons Act in detail
This amendment aims to bring Swiss legislation into line with European rules. Consequently, semi-automatic firearms will change category, and acquiring them will require special authorisation. This will concern:
- Semi-automatic long guns with a large-capacity magazine (more than 10 cartridges)
- Semi-automatic handguns with a large-capacity magazine (more than 20 cartridges)
- Semi-automatic long guns with folding or telescopic butts, whose total length can be shortened to less than 60cm without effecting performance.
Owners of these types of guns will not have to take any action if these weapons have already been registered with authorities in the canton of residence. The list of the various cantonal firearms offices is available on the Fedpol (Federal Police Office) website.
If these guns have not been registered, you have three years from when the amended law takes effect in which to do so. Declaring a firearm is free of charge.
If in doubt, the easiest procedure is contacting the cantonal firearms offices directly to find out whether a gun has been registered or otherwise.
Existing permits to acquire firearms remain valid after 15 August, when the amended law enters into force, for a period of six months. During this time, these permits will not be subject to the new rules.
For recreational gun users, acquiring a weapon affected by the law will not really be all that more complicated. Simply, the person acquiring the weapon must be a member of a gun club or prove that it is regularly used for recreational purposes (minimum of five shooting sessions in five years).
This kind of proof must be provided five and ten years after purchasing the weapon in question, by submitting a special form and the service book or the military performance booklet to the cantonal firearms office.
The law does not make life difficult for beginners or young people wanting to take part in recreational shooting activities, as nothing changes for these groups. People wishing to take up shooting as a hobby should obtain information from the shooting ranges near their home, while marksmen who have not finished their military service remain subject to military law.
Finally, given that the amendment to the law primarily aims at improving the traceability of weapons and their various components, it stands to reason that collectors and museums are those most affected.
These persons or institutions will still be able to acquire weapons affected by the amended law. However, they must prove that they will be stored and put on show in a secure manner. An inventory of the various weapons must also be kept. Collectors or museums that have unregistered weapons affected by the amended law must inform the cantonal firearms office.
If the first part of this document does not seem to apply to you because you do not own any weapons, please read on. Leaving aside the amended law, we will go over the basics so that you can properly understand what can happen and what you must do with any firearms that you inherit.
‘The Weapons Act for Dummies’
Two texts establish the legal framework governing firearms in Switzerland for non-service personnel: the newly revised Federal Act on Weapons, Accessories and Ammunition (Weapons Act) and the Federal Ordinance on Weapons, Accessories and Ammunition (Weapons Ordinance). Furthermore, the circulation of weapons is regulated by the competent cantonal offices.
First, let’s take a look at what the law classifies as weapons and how they are categorised:
- Firearms (pistols, revolvers, rifles, semi-automatic weapons)
- Compressed-gas and CO2 guns
- Replicas, alarm pistols and airsoft guns
- Knives longer than 12cm, with a blade at least 5cm long (butterfly knives, throwing knives, knives with stop-notches)
- Daggers with a symmetrical blade shorter than 30 centimetres
- Other devices that are intended to injure such as truncheons, throwing stars, brass knuckles and slings with armrests
- Tasers and spray products (e.g. sprays containing irritants with the exception of pepper sprays)
Older weapons (firearms manufactured before 1870 and knives manufactured before 1900) are subject to special provisions, except in terms of carrying permits and transportation.
Who can own a weapon in Switzerland?
Any Swiss citizen may acquire a weapon provided they:
- Have reached adulthood
- Are not under the control of a guardian or covered by an active power of attorney because of incapacity
- Give guarantees of safe use for the weapon, on behalf of themselves or others
- Do not have a criminal record showing violent or dangerous acts or repeated crimes and misdemeanours.
Minors using guns for recreational purposes may be loaned a weapon if they meet the final three criteria and the legal representative gives their consent in writing.
Foreigners residing in Switzerland who wish to acquire a weapon – except those holding a C permit – must hold a permit and an official certificate, in both cases from their country of origin.
Foreigners living in Switzerland
Nationals of some countries, specifically those from Albania, Algeria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, Sri Lanka and Turkey, cannot under normal rules acquire weapons.
The Swiss government’s explanation for this is that these countries are conflict zones and confrontations relating to these conflicts have occurred or could occur in Switzerland. In addition, according to the government, firearms acquired in Switzerland have been illegally exported to these countries.
Specific forms and certificates are required for importing and exporting arms (for weapons in transit), either permanently or temporarily. The complexity of the procedures depends on the countries concerned (Schengen or otherwise), the type of weapon and the reasons for its transport (relocation, shooting competition or hunting).
Different types of firearms
The procedure for acquiring a firearm depends on its category. Three categories exist:
- Weapons that must be registered
Single-shot rabbit guns, alarm guns and single-shot rifles
- Weapons requiring authorisation
Pistols, revolvers, shotguns, semi-automatic rifles with small-capacity magazines
- Prohibited weapons requiring special authorisation
Automatic firearms, heavy machine guns, semi-automatic weapons with large-capacity magazines (over 10 shots for rifles and over 20 for pistols) and semi-automatic long guns with folding or telescopic butts, auxiliary devices (laser or night sight, grenade launcher)
Which procedures for which weapons?
If you wish to acquire a weapon that must be registered (from a store or a private individual), a contract must be signed, containing information about the person selling or giving away the weapon, the acquirer and the weapon itself.
A sample of this contract is available from Fedpol.
As the cantons are responsible for enforcing the law, a copy of the contract must be submitted to the competent firearms office within 30 days after acquiring the weapon. If applicable, an extract from the acquirer's criminal record must be enclosed with the document.
Weapons subject to authorisation can be purchased if an acquisition permit is held. This can be obtained from the cantonal offices using this application form. The paperwork must be completed before acquiring the weapon.
Finally, prohibited weapons require special authorisation. A written request must be sent to the cantonal firearms office, stating why you wish to acquire a prohibited weapon. These special authorisations are issued to sports marksmen, collectors and museums.
As with weapons subject to authorisation, prohibited weapons require the paperwork to be completed beforehand.
The various cantonal firearms offices are listed on the Fedpol website.
Other key provisions under the Weapons Act
It should be noted that specific restrictions apply after a weapon has been acquired:
- A carry permit is necessary to carry a weapon in public. However, the person must prove that they need a weapon to protect themselves or others. A theoretical and practical examination must be taken.
- The carry permit is not necessary for shooting events, or when travelling to or from a military barracks, an arsenal, a shooting range, a weapons store, a weapons event or to a new home. The weapon and its ammunition must be kept separately.
- It is forbidden to shoot firearms in public places, i.e. outside a shooting range and special events.
- Certain types of ammunition (hard core, explosive or incendiary) are prohibited.
- Weapons must be stored with care and must not be accessible to persons other than the owner.
Given the information we’ve just gone over above, let’s now look at inheritance-related issues.
Inheriting a weapon in Switzerland
In the eyes of the law, inheriting a weapon is like acquiring a weapon. The process is the same. The guidelines set out above can therefore be applied.
If you want to keep the weapon after inheriting it
If there are several heirs, the cantonal firearms office will ask whomsoever wants to keep the weapon for a certificate signed by the co-heirs to certify that they renounce possession. If the inheritance includes several weapons, an inventory should be drawn up.
Once these issues have been resolved, the heir must distinguish the category of weapon so that they know which procedure to follow. For firearms that must be registered, there is obviously no way a contract can be signed with the deceased. The heir must therefore simply declare it to the cantonal firearms office. Here are the procedures:
Registration required = register with cantonal firearms office
Authorisation required = apply for a permit to acquire the weapon
Prohibited weapon = obtain special cantonal authorisation
The same restrictions as stated above also apply. For example, someone under guardianship will not be able to inherit a weapon. A foreign national who does not have a C permit will have to provide a certificate from his or her country of origin, while a Sri Lankan national, for example, cannot inherit a weapon.
As stated above, the law requires that weapons be stored with caution. They must not be accessible to persons other than the owner. This is an especially important reminder if we assume that the heirs have never owned weapons before. Those with children must ensure that they are aware that there is now a weapon in the household.
This kind of awareness will limit the risk of accidents.
When inheriting a firearm, heirs have six months to submit the paperwork with their cantonal firearms office.
Disposing of an inherited firearm
If the heirs do not wish to keep an inherited firearm, they have six months to sell it or give it away. Of course, they must ensure that the person to whom the ownership of the weapon is transferred is authorised to acquire it.
It should be noted that if a weapon is sold or donated after this six-month period, the heirs must take the necessary steps to comply personally before disposing of this property.
It is also possible to hand in any weapon with the cantonal police, who will destroy it or transmit it to a museum if the piece has some kind of value.
Finally, it should be noted that if a weapon is found in the home of the deceased after the six-month period and the heirs were unaware of its existence, it must be registered with the cantonal firearms office. According to the programme On en parle, as seen on French-Swiss TV, the heirs do not run a huge risk in legal terms, as the cantonal firearms offices are first and foremost satisfied that an unregistered weapon has been declared.
CHECKLIST: Preparing inheritance arrangements for a weapon
To avoid surprises like the ones outlined above, a few simple measures can be taken:
- Inform your family and close friends about the weapons you own
- Keep an up-to-date inventory of your weapons, stored with your other important documents (e.g. your will and advance directives)
- Think about whom you wish to leave your weapons to
- Inform this person
- Ensure that inheriting this weapon will not be a burden
- Explain the safety precautions (use and storage) that need to be taken
- Inform the person of the steps that need to be taken to comply with the law
- If none of your descendants wish to be given the firearms, think of another way of passing them on
- Sell or donate the weapon to a museum or a collector, or another individual
- Hand in the weapon to the police
History of weapons in Switzerland
One could say that between Switzerland and its guns, it’s a match made in heaven. According to various estimates, there are between 2.5 and 3.4 million firearms currently in circulation in our country. Depending on which number you use, Switzerland is either 18th or 3rd in the world ranking of the number of firearms held per capita. This is a surprising finding for a neutral country, but can be explained by the existence of its militia army, established in the late 18th century. Under this system, most young men are conscripted into the army, swelling its ranks and historically making the Swiss army large relative to the size of the country.
In addition, all these reservists are armed and must train in marksmanship when not actively serving. As a consequence, they take home and store their weapons when returning from the army, each time they serve.
That is one of the reasons why there are so many firearms in circulation in Switzerland.
“Switzerland has no army; it is an army”
Although this adage remains rooted in the collective imagination, the relationship of Swiss people with military service has changed considerably over time. As soon as the Cold War ended, the idea of a ‘strong’ army was seen as less of a need by the general population.
A few years later, in 2003, the people accepted the Armée XXI reform, which reduced the army's strength by more than half. At the same time, more and more soldiers are deciding to leave their weapons in arsenals instead of taking them home. This was the case for 90% of them in 2017, for example. However, the army is not the only connection that Swiss people have with weapons.
Historically fond of firearms
Shooting has long been a national pastime, whether this is hunting or recreational shooting – which became extremely popular in the 19th century. Today, shooting is reportedly practised as a leisure activity by more than 130,000 members of gun clubs. In addition to the Federal Shooting Festival, there are several events such as Knabenschiessen in Zurich or the Grand tir des abbayes in the canton of Vaud.
While these customs were popularised shortly after the advent of the militia army, they now exist separately from the military framework.
Criminologist Martin Killias summed up the profile of people who have firearms in Switzerland in the column of the French-language daily, Le Temps: “The overwhelming majority of people with firearms in Switzerland are active soldiers or people who believe in the value of the army, or they are recreational shooters or hunters”.
How the situation contrasts with the US
When talking about firearms, we often compare Switzerland and the US – one of the most heavily armed populations in the world.
Despite a large number of weapons in circulation in both countries, there are – proportionally – more gun-related deaths in the US than in Switzerland. Even though the Zug parliament shooting has left its mark, this is the only mass murder that has taken place within Switzerland in recent years.
Each year, slightly over 200 deaths are caused by firearms in Switzerland, but about 90% of these are suicides.
Meanwhile in the US, several tens of thousands of people are dying from guns as a result of mass shootings or other accidents. In 2015 alone, the Federal Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 36,252 such deaths in the country. In the same year, ‘only’ 231 people died from gunshot wounds in Switzerland.
This extremely low figure even prompted the Daily Show (a satirical news programme in the US) to report on firearms in Switzerland.
Elsewhere in the world
But Switzerland and the US are not the only countries to score high based on the number of firearms for every 100 inhabitants.
Although rankings places vary according to which estimates are used, Yemen is regularly on the podium. The civil war that has blighted the country since 2014 explains why there are 54.8 firearms for every 100 inhabitants in that country.
The Scandinavian countries (Finland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland) are also on the list. Loose firearms laws combined with a strong hunting tradition explain why there are between 30 and 45 firearms per 100 inhabitants.
In Serbia, the number is 37. Millions of weapons are still in circulation since the Balkan wars of the 1990s. The country is believed to be a hub for arms trafficking into Western Europe.
Cyprus is another heavily armed country, boasting 36.4 firearms per 100 inhabitants. While it is difficult to know exactly why, this seems to be connected with the popularity of hunting and the fact that reservists and army veterans may keep their weapons at home.
A recipe for avoiding gun-related deaths
Looking at the different countries in the ranking, the rate of firearm-related homicides is relatively low, except in the US or in countries mired in conflict and other forms of unrest (e.g. Iraq and Yemen).
According to the GunPolicy website, which focuses on international firearms policy, all these states have restrictive gun laws. Unlike in the US, getting one’s hands on a firearm is not easy, even if required for personal protection.
While many socio-economic factors need to be considered when analysing gun-related homicides, the law is a key component of firearms management.
Perhaps that is why every time a referendum is held on the issue of firearms in Switzerland, two opposing sides clearly emerge.
PROTELL, the representative of the Swiss arms lobby
On the one hand, there is PROTELL, a body that "defends the interests of all citizens who own and carry guns”. PROTELL takes a liberal stance on the issue and systematically opposes arms restrictions.
PROTELL – and those upholding the right to bear arms in Switzerland – are not necessarily politicised or affiliated to any one political party. However, if we consider the desire for minimal state intervention in the issue of firearms and their rather conservative values (as illustrated by their use of William Tell's symbol and warlike rhetoric and concern for safety), we can safely place them on the right of the political chessboard. In elections, candidates supported by PROTELL are often from right-wing parties (SVP and PLR). Moreover, its president, Jean-Luc Addor, is a member of the SVP.
Supporters of firearms in Switzerland tend to be supporters of national sovereignty and traditions.
This vision was widely broadcast during the campaign for the referendum on the amended Weapons Act held on 19 May 2019, when those in favour of firearms (and therefore opposed to the restrictions) spoke of an EU diktat. Their website accordingly had the URL “eu-diktat-nein”.
GSoA, the anti-gun lobby
At the other end of the spectrum lies the GSoA (Group for a Switzerland without an army), which represents those opposed to the ownership of firearms in Switzerland. The GSoA was created “with the aim of launching a popular initiative to abolish the Swiss army”, but today it is known as the anti-gun lobby.
The GSoA can be described as a pacifist organisation that does not see the need for an internal security apparatus and which gradually wants to rid Switzerland and its citizens of all their guns.
The GSoA supported the latest revision of the Weapons Act. Although the text was not very restrictive in its opinion, it represented a step in the right direction for the group: “In practice, gun owners will be able to keep their arms, while the community will benefit from better protection against gun violence”.
With close ties to left-wing circles, the GSoA likens its struggle to other progressive causes such as the abolition of slavery and the introduction of female suffrage.
What future do firearms have in Switzerland?
As the world moves towards an ecological shift that could profoundly change society, it is difficult to predict future political trends. Underlying currents may move society in a given direction in the name of progress, but can be followed by a conservative counter-reaction.
In Switzerland, where the main political party remains the SVP, tapping into the population's commitment to Swiss traditions, weapons will not be banned any time soon. However, the number in circulation could fall as a result of changes affecting the army.
Will the army's loss of influence spell a ban on firearms?
In recent years, it has been easy to do civilian service, leading to a decline in the importance of the army. Fewer and fewer young Swiss people want to do their military service. To counter this, the Federal Council has chosen to make civilian service less attractive. This strategy has left some observers nonplussed, while a referendum could be launched against the government's measures.
If the GSoA's dream of a Switzerland without an army seems utopian (all initiatives calling for this have been defeated by whopping majorities), it is not impossible that the army will run out of soldiers, as it is no longer seen as an attractive option.
One could therefore imagine, in the medium to long term, that the army will further reduce its numbers and become more based on career soldiers. Without reservists, the number of firearms in circulation would therefore tend to decrease, as weapons in Switzerland are closely linked to the militia army, as we mentioned previously. The most important point is that, “The overwhelming majority of people with firearms in Switzerland are active soldiers or people who believe in the value of the army...”
If this hypothesis proves to be correct, however, it would not occur for several decades.