GENEVA – Neutral Switzerland is among the best-armed nations in the world, with more guns per capita than almost any other country except the United States, Finland and Yemen.
At least 2.3 million weapons lie stashed in basements, cupboards and lofts in this country of less than 8 million people, according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey.
On Sunday, Swiss voters made sure it stays that way, rejecting a proposal to tighten the peaceful Alpine nation's relaxed firearms laws.
The decision was hailed as a victory by gun enthusiasts, sports shooters and supporters of Switzerland's citizen soldier tradition.
"This is an important sign of confidence in our soldiers," said Pius Segmueller, a lawmaker with the Christian People's Party and former commander of the Vatican's Swiss Guard.
In Switzerland, where all able-bodied men are required to perform military duty, many choose to take their army-issued rifle home with them even after completing military service.
Gun clubs, too, remain a popular feature of village life in rural parts of the country, with children as young as 10 taking part in shooting competitions.
Doctors, churches and women's groups tried and failed Sunday to require military-issued firearms to be locked in secure army depots. They also wanted the Swiss government to establish a national gun registry and ban the sale of fully automatic weapons and pump-action rifles, arguing this would help cut incidents of domestic violence and Switzerland's high rate of firearms suicides.
The clear defeat of the proposal — 56.3 percent of voters rejected it — may seem surprising for a peaceful nation that hasn't been at war with its neighbors since Napoleon invaded two centuries ago. But this is a country that cherishes the myth of William Tell and its soldiers' supposed defiance of Nazi Germany in World War II.
The measure had little chance of winning over the independent-minded Swiss, who have resisted the lure of joining the European Union and recently shocked the world with a vote to ban the construction of minarets.
"Switzerland is different," said Dora Andres, president of the country's sport shooting association. "In many countries the government doesn't trust its citizens and feels it has to protect them. In Switzerland, because we have a system of popular referendums, the state has to have faith in its citizens."
Martine Brunschwig-Graf, a national lawmaker with the left-of-center Social Democratic Party, blamed the defeat of the measure on women's reluctance to vote on an issue she says affects them most.
Women are the main victims of domestic violence, and are also the ones left behind when their fathers, husbands or boyfriends commit suicide with an army weapon, she said.
About a quarter of Switzerland's 1,300 suicides each year involve a gun, and those calling for tighter rules claim military weapons, such as the army-issued SG 550 assault rifle, are used in between 100 and 200 suicides a year.
There are signs, however, that even in Switzerland attitudes to guns are changing. Young people are among those most likely to favor curbs on gun ownership.
In most shooting clubs the average age is "closer to 50 than to 40," says Gerhard Schneider, president of the pistol shooters association in Bueren an der Aare.