GENEVA – A shooting in southern Switzerland has left three women dead, two men wounded and raised questions about how a troubled suspect was able to go on a rampage with an old military rifle.
The shooting – which came on the eve of students’ return to classes in Newtown, Connecticut, after a horrific school shooting – also highlighted the easy access to firearms in gun-loving nations.
The suspect, a 33-year-old unemployed man living on disability payments, fired about 20 shots Wednesday night in the village of Daillon, authorities in the Swiss canton (state) of Valais said Thursday.
He opened fire from his apartment and pursued people in the street, police said. Armed with a Swiss military rifle and a handgun, he then threatened to shoot the officers sent in to stop him, police said.
“The shooter pointed his weapon at our colleagues, so they had to open fire to neutralize him, to avoid being injured themselves,” police spokeswoman Jean-Marie Bornet told Swiss radio.
The suspect, who police did not identify, was arrested and taken to the hospital with serious wounds. Bornet said he lived in Daillon but the motive for the shooting was unclear.
Guns are popular among the Swiss – the Alpine country has at least 2.3 million weapons among a population of less than 8 million. Many rural areas have gun clubs, with children as young as 10 taking part in shooting competitions.
The suspect was using a military rifle that was once standard issue in the Swiss army, interim cantonal police Chief Robert Steiner said.
Prosecutor Catherine Seppey said the suspect was unemployed and had been receiving psychiatric care since at least 2005, when he was first admitted to a psychiatric hospital. He was currently under the care of the cantonal agency for the disabled, she said.
His weapons were confiscated and destroyed in 2005, she said, “and currently no arms register showed he had a weapon. The inquiry will have to determine where the weapons came from.”
Buying a firearm in a Swiss shop requires a permit, a clean criminal record and no psychiatric disability, but buying a firearm from another person is less restrictive and old-style Army rifles are often sold at military surplus markets.
Most types of ammunition can be bought, while automatic firearms generally require a special police permit.
Seppey said the shooter knew several of the victims, but “he was not known for making threats.”
The victims were three women aged 32, 54 and 79 who died at the scene, and two injured men, aged 33 and 63, who were taken to the hospital, Seppey said. The two youngest victims were a couple with small children.
“We have no words to express ourselves after an event like this,” Christophe Germanier, head of the Conthey district where the shooting occurred, told a news conference.
Daillon is near some of Switzerland’s most popular ski resorts, such as Verbier and Crans-Montana, and is in the country’s main wine-producing region.
The area also boasts a sizeable share of the country’s federally protected hunting reserves.
Authorities say firearms are involved in nearly a quarter of the 1,100 suicides a year in Switzerland — which don’t include another 300 cases a year of assisted suicide — but shooting rampages are rare in peaceful, prosperous Switzerland.
A gunman who killed 14 people at a city meeting in Zug in 2001 was the nation’s worst rampage, leading to calls to tighten national gun-buying laws. Friedrich Leibacher used a commercial version of the Swiss army’s SG 550 assault rifle for the rampage, then killed himself.
All able-bodied Swiss men who are required to perform military duty often take their army-issued rifle home with them after completing military service. In 2007, the government began requiring that nearly all army ammunition is kept at secure army depots.
Many in Switzerland believe that distributing guns to households helped dissuade a Nazi invasion during World War II. In 2011, Swiss voters rejected a proposal to tighten gun laws.
“This is part of Switzerland’s self-defense, where the entire army can be mobilized in 24 hours,” said Daniel Warner of the Geneva Center for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces. “I don’t think (the latest shooting) is going to cause a change in attitude here.”