Swiss Vote on Gun Control Fires Up Spirit of William Tell

(Bloomberg) -- In the eyes of rifle lover Andre Maury, centuries of tradition are under threat.

The 63-year-old is president of Geneva’s historic shooting club, housed in a gray stone building at the center of town. Sporting a blue sweatshirt emblazoned with the founding year -- 1474 -- he says shooting is a sport that requires autonomy and a willingness to stick to the rules. Those qualities are emblematic for Switzerland, whose folk hero William Tell, an expert marksman, launched a rebellion against foreign rule.

So it’s little surprise that Maury and his compatriots are up in arms about new restrictions, initiated by the European Union, on large-magazine semi-automatic guns. They’re looking to challenge them via a referendum on Sunday.

“It’s a bit like if we were to say today we’ll make it tougher to get a drivers’ license to prevent people from driving without a permit,’’ he said in an interview, before giving a tour of the club’s red damask-covered great hall.

Swiss Vote on Gun Control Fires Up Spirit of William Tell

The EU, of which Switzerland isn’t a member, has changed its gun laws in the wake of a series of deadly terrorist attacks. As a member of the open-border Schengen area, it also needs to act or face the prospect of repercussions from the bloc. The reform would mean special permission and additional checks for owning and using semi-automatic guns with a large magazine for sport.

Because there’s mandatory military service and ex-soldiers may keep their guns, Switzerland ranks high in Europe for civilian gun ownership on a per capita basis. Yet gun crime is rare, and the last mass-fatality shooting happened in 2001.

Swiss Vote on Gun Control Fires Up Spirit of William Tell

The government says the measure improves safety, only changes administrative procedure, and won’t put an end to the tradition of shooting matches for sport -- such as the annual Zurich event called Knabenschiessen.

The price to pay for autonomy in firearms may be high. Switzerland’s government has warned that rejection of the change would result in loss of Schengen membership, as well as the Dublin system for refugees.

Swiss Vote on Gun Control Fires Up Spirit of William Tell

That could saddle the 300,000 people who commute daily to Switzerland for work from neighboring EU countries with passport checks, and lessen the country’s appeal to tourists, who might have to apply for a separate visa.

“What’s important is a cost-benefit analysis,” said Daniel Jositsch, a member of parliament’s upper house for the Social Democrats. “If you weigh the security you get on the one hand and the small restrictions on the other,” one should vote ‘yes,’ he said in a television debate last month.

Polls suggest the electorate will back the reform by a comfortable margin. But the proposal has fired up critics -- notably the anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party -- who are skeptical of the EU and its bid to control every aspect of life in a country that has declined to join the bloc.

In the eyes of critics, the gun control is another genuflection before Brussels, following concessions on immigration and trade. They argue the restrictions won’t make Switzerland any safer, since criminals don’t typically buy guns legally, and that a provision allowing the law to be made even more restrictive in five years will eventually choke off shooting clubs and contests.

“If ever there’s a stiffening of the rules, we’re dead,” said Maury.

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