Heidi Get Your Gun

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Vittoriano Rastelli / Corbis

A civilian woman carries a rifle on a motorcycle in Switzerland.

Each September the hills around Zurich are alive — with the sound of gunfire. Nobody is alarmed, however, because they know it emanates from a bunch of teenagers doing what comes naturally to nearly every Swiss: sharpshooting. And there's nothing random about it: The 12- to 16-year-olds are participating in Knabenschiessen, the world's largest youth rifle competition, which blends the jarring report of rifle fire with the melodious ringing of cow bells.

There's a paradox in this peaceful and neutral country that would make the NRA drool with envy: Firearms are as ubiquitous as chocolate and edelweiss. Weapons and ammunition — not multitasking pocket knives — are routinely issued to, and kept at home by, all able-bodied Swiss men for their annual military service. This custom is tied to the long-held belief that enemies could invade tiny Switzerland fairly quickly, so every reservist had to be able to fight his way to his regiment's assembly point.

The Swiss learn to shoot from an early age, and develop a deep sense of responsibility toward their firearms. Every summer, hundreds of thousands of military arms are retrieved from closets and attics, slung over shoulders, and taken on bikes, buses and trains to compulsory shooting practices held in nearly every village and town. In fact, firearms are so anchored in Swiss society, and the crime rate so low, that gun control has never been an issue. "We feel it's our patriotic and civic duty to use the guns wisely," explains Felix Endrich, a spokesman for the Swiss Armed Forces. "We respect this tradition."

A 1999 law regulates the sale and licensing of private guns, including a ban on carrying concealed weapons, but the tradition allowing military rifles and 50 rounds of ammunition in private homes — dispersing an estimated 2 million firearms and millions of rounds of ammunition throughout a country of 7.4 million people — has mostly gone unchallenged. Until now, that is. Some political and pacifist groups are planning to force a nationwide vote to end the cherished custom of "a gun in every closet."

Murmurs of discontent have been reverberating since 2001, when a disgruntled citizen opened fire with his army rifle inside the chamber of a regional parliament, killing 14 and injuring 14 others. Opposition to the guns-at-home tradition gained momentum last year when a ski champion was shot to death by her husband. And, in the past few weeks, discontent has grown more vociferous following reports of a man brandishing his army rifle in a hotel, killing one person and injuring four others. "Keeping guns at home is outdated, useless and dangerous," says Chantal Gallardé, a socialist parliamentarian who is spearheading the fight for stricter arms legislation.

Gallardè's argument is bolstered by statistics showing 300 gun-related deaths — mostly suicides — every year. "These deaths are impulsive decisions taken in the heat of the moment," says Hans Kurt, who heads the Swiss Society of Psychiatrists and Psychotherapists, and supports tougher gun-control laws. "Take away an easy access to a gun, and these tragedies are preventable."

Supporters of the status quo say anyone intent on committing a crime or suicide will find a way regardless of the availability of firearms. "There is always that risk, but the majority of our people are law-abiding," says Ferdinand Hediger, head of international relations for Pro Tell, Switzerland's gun lobby, aptly named after the country's legendary apple shooter, William Tell, who used a crossbow to target enemies long before firearms were invented.

Seventy five million rounds of ammunition are fired every year, Hediger says, yet only a tiny number are used in killings. "Every death is one too many, but statistics have to be put in perspective."

The Swiss Parliament recently threw out a plan to tighten the gun law. Still, acting on the outrage over the recent shootings and the mounting pressure from left-wing groups, politicians vowed to reconsider the issue in June. Ultimately, under the Swiss system of direct democracy, the citizens might have the last word. But for now, the crack of rifle fire is the sound of springtime in the hills around Switzerland.