In 1444, at a small river in northern Switzerland known as
Saint Jacob on the Birs, some 1,400 Swiss Confederates wielding bows and
arrows, polearms, and swords attacked 44,000 French invaders, some of whom
were armed with a new technology -- firearms. After four hours, 900 Swiss
were killed, but the remnant defiantly refused to surrender. They were
promptly massacred and thrown into mass graves. The audacity of the small
Swiss force to assault a massive, seasoned army served to deter further
invaders. European tyrants of the day must have thought, "Don't mess with
the Swiss -- they're crazy!"
....Switzerland, Europes's most peaceful country, has no standing army. Instead, the country is defended by a militia composed of virtually all male citizens. The government issues rifles to these citizens, and the rifles are kept at their homes.
Such also was the intent of the founders of the United States and the intent of the Constitution for the United States; that the executive could not raise armies, that responsibility resting solely with Congress and then only for periods not exceeding two years; that standing armies should be minimized in times of peace; and that defense of the nation should rest with the armed citizen militia. Such is the intent of the Second Article of amendment. Exemplifying the slogan, "What if they gave a war and no one came?" Switzerland avoided both World War I and World War II. Though Switzerland was surrounded by the Axis powers, even Hitler was afraid to invade this country of riflemen.
Winston Churchill wrote in 1944: "Of all the neutrals, Switzerland has the greatest right to distinction....She has been a democratic State, standing for freedom in self-defense among her mountains, and in thought, in spite of race, largely on our side."
The Swiss call their rifles "assault rifles" to add to the mystique and convince foreign rulers that these people mean business. These rifles have never been used for criminal purposes, although they would certainly be used against any invader. Instead, they are used for essentially one purpose: to shoot as many bull's-eyes on paper targets as quickly as possible at sporting competitions...
The Swiss have the reputation of being the world's foremost bankers. The fact that many are regular shooters and presumably better able to protect their stashes can't hurt their reputation for protecting your gold. In Switzerland, firearms in the hands of the citizenry are considered wholesome and a civic duty. Newspapers and cosmetics are advertised in shooting programs I picked up at the rifle range. Can one imagine the New York Times placing an advertisement in a program for a U.S. pistol shooting event?
....The backbone of Swiss defense and independence is the individual citizen with his assault rifle, which he keeps at home and with which he stays proficient by entering matches such as today's Historisches St. Jakobsshiessen.
....The St. Jacob's historical shoot exemplifies aspects of Swiss culture which explain why none of the belligerent countries invaded Switzerland in World War I or II. This country has a centuries-old tradition of bloody and stout resistance to the most powerful European armies. Its people have continued into the twentieth century to be an armed citizenry whose members regularly exercise in weapon handling and practice.
....My friends listened in disbelief as I explained that the then pending "Crime Bill" in America would make it a five-year felony to possess a firearm magazine holding over ten cartridges if the magazine had been made after 1994. They laughed contemptuously at the anti-gun claim that "assault rifles" have but a sole purpose: to kill as many people as quickly as possible. To these Italian Swiss, a fucile d'assalto (assault rifle) has only one purpose in peacetime: to shoot as many bull's-eyes as quickly as possible.
These Swiss saw this disarming of the American people, denying them the right to possess assault rifles, as contrary to the rights of the citizen. Indeed, the rifles to be banned by the Crime Bill were not real "assault weapons," they were semi-automatic sporters. The Swiss pointed out that for centuries, no European power has dared aggress against Switzerland, a nation in arms. An armed citizenry in Alpine terrain has never been very inviting. If Switzerland were to be invaded, the invaders would face assault rifles in the hands of skilled shooters -- the Swiss citizenry.
After shooting, we sat in the festival tent drinking Ticino Merlot wine mixed with a clear Sprite-like soda, a regional favorite for a hot day. Locals excitedly told me the history of the Mesocco region, and explained the broader Swiss ideal of freedom. Swiss Freedom & Liberty The idea, but not the reality, of liberta (liberty) existed in medieval Milan and spread abroad, including to the Mesocco valley. The people were poor and uneducated, but yearned for freedom. Mesocco freed itself from Milan in 1478, but economics and political power continued to make it difficult for peasants to own weapons. The three independent communities of Mesocco in that century are represented today by the blue, white, and gray on the ribbons on which the shooters' medals are pinned.
Machiavelli's 16th Century political writings called Switzerland "most armed and most free." Within parts of what is now the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, however, there was an ever-present struggle between the ruling classes and the peasants. The commoners were allowed to have "hunting weapons" under the Articles of 1524, issued from Llanz by powerful lords in northern Italy. However, it would be naive to suppose that peasants did not own arms before that date, or that their arms would not be used for the imperatives of personal security and liberty, if not for rebellion against the elite.
The Swiss Confederation began in 1291 when three cantons united. (Austria's ruling family, the Hapsburgs, had tried to send a judge to rule the three Swiss cantons, but the Swiss promptly killed the would-be foreign ruler, united and have remained unmolested ever since). The Confederation grew over the centuries to include more cantons -- it had 13 when the United States was founded with 13 states. Switzerland did not, however, remain unaffected by the European social revolution in 1848. Elsewhere, the forces of progress were crushed. In Switzerland, the populace won. The Confederation, among other things, abolished any cantonal prohibitions on possession of arms by requiring every man to be armed.
The country had no firearms regulations until after World War II, when a few cantons passed some gun control regulations. The voters rejected giving the Confederation power to legislate on firearms until 1993, when the claim was made that "something had to be done about foreigners buying firearms" in Switzerland. Yet no law would be passed until 1997. To the surprise of the citizens, in early 1996 stringent gun control regulations over law-abiding citizens were proposed in the Swiss Parliament. These did not pass, largely due to the resistance of the Swiss shooting societies; had they passed, the shooting societies immediately would have mounted a referendum campaign to repeal them. I published an article in Neue Zuercher Zeitung, Switzerland's largest newspaper, entitled "Avoiding the Mistakes of the United States" in opposition of the proposed law. As it turned out, in 1997 the Confederation passed a relatively innocuous federal firearms law that requires a permit to carry a handgun in some instances but exempts carrying to shooting ranges. However, the law also allows all Swiss citizens, male and female, to purchase surplus Sturmgewehr 57 assault rifles (converted to semi-automatic only) for about $50 each.
The Swiss have, through referenda, consistently rejected membership in the United Nations and the European Community. The majority of the Swiss felt U.N. membership was inconsistent with independence, and that the EC would impose German-style gun controls. ....Lawyers, judges, bankers, cheesemakers, and watchmakers -- all seem to have firearms. Armed and disciplined, the Swiss people have what Machiavelli called civic virtue. In a world seemingly manipulated by the goddess fortuna (the banking cartels), the tradition of having a heavily-armed civilian populace has been this small nation's guarantee of freedom and self-determination.
Stephen P. Halbrook, Ph.D., J.D., is the Fairfax, Virginia attorney who successfully argued the Brady case, Printz v. U.S. in the U.S. Supreme Court. Author of "That Every Man Be Armed", Halbrook's latest book is "Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality In World War II" (1998, Sarpedon Publishers, Dept. AG, 49 Front St., Rockville Centre, NY 11570).
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