Man shoots and kills 3, injures 2 in Conthey, Valais (update 8)

Correction: assult rifle was not used

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Three people have died and two were injured at the hands of a 33-year-old man in the village of Daillon, Conthey commune, in canton Valais Wednesday night 2 January. The man, whose identity has not been released by police (standard procedure in Switzerland), began shooting from an apartment window in Daillon, then went down to the street. Police believe he fired some 20 shots.

Police and a special intervention unit from Valais received calls at 20.50 and were on the scene at 21.15, but witnesses in the village report that the gunshots began at about 20.30 and lasted until 21.55. Given that the shooting took place the day after New Year’s, when many people have fireworks, village residents told Valais newspaper Le Nouvelliste that they thought the noise was children exploding their fireworks (photo gallery).

Police shot and injured the gunman in the thorax when he threatened them, and took the man into custody. He is now in hospital, in intensive care.

A 1931 Swiss “mousqueton” (source, Bouterolle/Wikipedia)

Police have not identified the victims but say that the gunman was related to some of them and probably knew all of them, given that the village has a population of 400. He lived in Daillon, in the upstairs apartment where he began shooting.

Those who died were women, ages 32 from Valais, 54 from canton Vaud and 79, from Valais.

The two injured are men, ages 33 and 63. The younger man was shot in the pelvis and is in critical condition. His wife was one of those killed; they have young children. The other man was shot in the shoulder and is in stable condition in hospital.

The women who died were shot in the head and the thorax, receiving at least two shots each.

Under strict Swiss privacy laws the names of victims and those accused of crimes generally cannot be published.

Police said at a Thursday morning press conference in the village that the man used an old and long-abandoned army weapon called a “mousqueton“, and a hunting rifle, but it is unclear how he obtained them. Earlier media reports that he used an assault rifle are wrong, police have confirmed. They are continuing to investigate if he used any other arms.

Psychiatric treatment and police record, man under guardianship

The man was hospitalized in a psychiatric unit in 2005 at the demand of his family, with police and medical authorities, according to RTS (public broadcasting) and he has been under guardianship. He has not been permitted to have weapons since 2005, when police confiscated and destroyed his guns, according to Valais public prosecutor Catherine Seppey.

He is not a registered gun owner and the investigation is looking at how he may have obtained the guns, says Seppey.

He has a police record, but only for possessing marijuana.

Co-owner of a local restaurant, La Channe d’Or, Marie-Paule Udry, is reported by RTS to have said that the man had “drunk a lot” in her establishment during the evening.

Police cordoned off the village, high on the hillside above Conthey, which is near Sion.

No motive for the shooting has been established.

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Weapon was not army issue, but shooting could revive debate

Despite the country’s high rate of gun possession because of its citizen militia, the homicide rate with guns is relatively low and suicide has been a greater public focus. (Ed. note: Le Nouvelliste in Valais has published a chronology of multiple shootings in Switzerland, in French)

Defense department figures show that an estimated 2 million guns are in private hands in Switzerland, which has a population of 8 million. An estimated 240,000 guns are not registered. Many Swiss soldiers buy their guns once military duty, which includes several years of three weeks of annual service, is completed.

A 23-year study of 75 cases of homicide-suicide, where a murderer turns the weapon on himself or herself and that involved 172 deaths, was published by researchers at the Chuv University Hospitals in Lausanne in 2010 in the runup to the 13 February 2011 popular initiative vote on tightening gun control laws.

They noted: “Our results show that if guns were used in 76 percent of the cases, army weapons were the cause of death in 25 percent of the total. In 28 percent of the deaths caused by a gunshot, the exact type of the gun and its origin could not be determined.”

Gun control law was rejected in 2011 but some rules tightened

The shooting may revive the debate, but not the initiative’s gun control proposals, which were widely mis-reported outside Switzerland.

Swiss men serving in the citizen militia that makes up the bulk of the Swiss army keep their rifles at home, but not the ammunition, which is kept in armories, a change that was made in 2011 after a heated debate in the country over tighter gun laws and a national vote, where the Swiss rejected proposed measures to tighten the law.

The popular referendum was supported by Socialists and Greens but no other major parties, nor did the federal government back it. The “initiative” as referendums are called, called for a national gun registry to replace the current cantonal registries, and for military guns to be kept centrally, rather than in homes.

International media turned the spotlight on the vote at the time, drawing a parallel with US arms discussions. The Swiss debate was not over the right to bear arms, however, but the responsibility that goes with bearing them. The Swiss militia obligation for citizens to have firearms is accompanied by the legal obligation to practice shooting regularly.

Vote was in part over shifting gun control from cantonal to federal level

The vote would not have changed this obligation, both to bear arms and to use them responsibly, but it would have shifted how information about gun-owners is kept and where the firearms reside.

Most men and some women after age 18 serve in the Swiss militia and keep their guns at home. Proponents of stricter regulations said in the 2010-11 debate that the guns are too often used for homicides or suicides, while the government argued that current legislation is adequate and the legal change would not be the best way to fight abuse.

Switzerland has had on average close to one suicide by handgun, a day, for some years.

Amnesty Switzerland has been active in the fight to move guns out of homes. Shortly before the 2011 vote it translated the Swiss Peace Council’s “10 good reasons to restrict possession of arms in Switzerland”.

Switzerland does not have a national arms registry, but records are kept at a cantonal level in this de-centralized country and part of the debate was over whether it made more sense to maintain controls at the cantonal, or state level, rather than federal, or national level.

Army taken to task over tracking of old weapons

More recently, the Swiss defense department has been criticized as information has surfaced about its efforts to track arms while moving old files covering 309,000 former soldiers to a new database.

The army said 18 June that in the process of “putting order” in its house it had recalled 6,500 arms in the previous 12 months. It is working closely with the cantons to find the owners of another 300 that should be returned.

But the hunt for old records on soldiers and arms has also turned up some lacuna, including 6,000 former soldiers whose current addresses cannot be found, to complete their files. And some 4,000 former soldiers have not replied to the army’s letter asking them to return their service cards as part of efforts to complete the database.

Potentially dangerous citizens/soldiers’ records must now be shared with army

The most recent change, part of continuing changes sparked by the 2011 debate and vote, came in September 2012, when Bern said that court records of soldiers who may be potentially dangerous to themselves or others will in future have to be shared by public prosecutors directly with the Swiss military department.

Civilian and military authorities have had access to the Armada database but the change calls for them   to be actively informed if a gun permit has been refused or withdrawn by military or civilian authorities. The army currently establishes whether recruits or active soldiers should not have access to arms, but the new rules will ensure better communication between justice authorities and the military, the Federal Council says.

Parliament in January 2012 asked the council to draw up plans to tighten security, following growing public concern over incidents involving the use of military arms and incomplete records about the location of some soldiers’ arms.