Parliamentarians around the world should press for urgent action on gun control, particularly in view of recent tragedies, the head of a global body representing lawmakers said on Monday.
Anders Johnsson, secretary general of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, was speaking after the launch of a handbook aimed at guiding legislators in the area of gun control.
‘We are pushing parliamentarians to act on this,’ he said by telephone from the resort island of Bali where the IPU, which claims 148 affiliated national parliaments, is meeting.
The handbook has been jointly launched by the IPU and the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Geneva-based think tank.
‘The statistics are damning. There are currently an estimated 640 million small arms and light weapons in circulation, from handguns and assault rifles to shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles,’ Johnsson and Martin Griffiths of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue said in a joint statement.
‘Most of this arsenal, or about 60 percent, is in the hands of civilians. Recent dramatic events have proved the urgent need for action,’ they added, noting that parliamentarians had a key role in gun control through drawing up national laws, improving implementation and enforcement, and leading public debate.
The statement said small arms and light weapons took between 200,000 and 270,000 lives a year in countries that were at peace, through homicide and suicide.
The gun control issue was thrown into the spotlight again in April by the massacre of 32 people at Virginia Tech in the United States by lone gunman Cho Seung-Hui.
The Democratic-led Congress has ignited fresh talk about tightening U.S. gun laws, but many politicians are reluctant to take on the nation’s numerous gun owners or the powerful gun lobby.
Johnsson said that no U.S. lawmakers were able to attend the meeting this week in Bali.
Switzerland and the gun
Guns are deeply rooted within Swiss culture – but the gun crime rate is so low that statistics are not even kept. The country has a population of six million, but there are estimated to be at least two million publicly-owned firearms, including about 600,000 automatic rifles and 500,000 pistols.
This is in a very large part due to Switzerland’s unique system of national defence, developed over the centuries.
Instead of a standing, full-time army, the country requires every man to undergo some form of military training for a few days or weeks a year throughout most of their lives.
Between the ages of 21 and 32 men serve as frontline troops. They are given an M-57 assault rifle and 24 rounds of ammunition which they are required to keep at home.
Once discharged, men serve in the Swiss equivalent of the US National Guard, but still have to train occasionally and are given bolt rifles. Women do not have to own firearms, but are encouraged to.
In addition to the government-provided arms, there are few restrictions on buying weapons. Some cantons restrict the carrying of firearms – others do not.
The government even sells off surplus weaponry to the general public when new equipment is introduced.
Guns and shooting are popular national pastimes. More than 200,000 Swiss attend national annual marksmanship competitions.
But despite the wide ownership and availability of guns, violent crime is extremely rare. There are only minimal controls at public buildings and politicians rarely have police protection.
Mark Eisenecker, a sociologist from the University of Zurich told BBC News Online that guns are “anchored” in Swiss society and that gun control is simply not an issue.
Some pro-gun groups argue that Switzerland proves their contention that there is not necessarily a link between the availability of guns and violent crime in society.
But other commentators suggest that the reality is more complicated.
Switzerland is one of the world’s richest countries, but has remained relatively isolated.
It has none of the social problems associated with gun crime seen in other industrialised countries like drugs or urban deprivation.
Despite the lack of rigid gun laws, firearms are strictly connected to a sense of collective responsibility.
From an early age Swiss men and women associate weaponry with being called to defend their country.