For members


INTERVIEW: ‘The Swiss are not all law abiding and peaceful’

You could be forgiven for thinking the Swiss have no reason to misbehave in their land of plenty. But they do, as crime writer Kim Hays - a Swiss-US dual national - has learned from her 35 years living in Bern. 

Members of the so-called 'Schwarzer Block' are sprayed by a water cannon in front of the Swiss House of Parliament on late May 25, 2013 in the centre of Switzerland's capital Bern during the 3rd edition of
Members of the so-called 'Schwarzer Block' are sprayed by a water cannon in front of the Swiss House of Parliament on late May 25, 2013 in the centre of Switzerland's capital Bern during the 3rd edition of "Tanz Dich Frei" (Dance Yourself Free) a politically-tinged techno parade and mass unauthorised rally. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Stability and order are the hallmarks of Swiss society, at least on the surface. But the many contradictions of Switzerland have provided Hays with plenty of material for her Polizei Bern series of detective novels. Hays’s first book, Pesticide, opens with a riot in the middle of Bern, and is inspired by real-life events that happened on the night of an illegal rave in 2013. 

“The event, called Tanz dich frei (dance yourself free) had taken place in the Old City of Bern twice before without any trouble,” Hays said.

“When it was held a third time, after the city had forbidden it because the downtown streets were dug up for an extensive construction project, it turned into a major riot. There were masked thugs fighting and injuring the police and a huge amount of property destruction and looting.”

The violence was provoked by a relatively small group of activists, referred to in Swiss media as the Black Block (Schwarzer Block). “They’re classified as radical leftists and associated with the ‘Antifa’ (anti-fascist) movement in Switzerland, but I think it’s pretty clear that they’re more interested into looting, vandalising property, and fighting the police than in politics,” Hays said.

READ ALSO: The surprising extent of petty theft in Switzerland

Members of the 'black bloc' in front of the Swiss House of Parliament in Bern in 2013 during "Tanz Dich Frei" (Dance Yourself Free) a politically-tinged techno parade and mass unauthorised rally.

Members of the ‘black block’ in front of the Swiss House of Parliament in Bern in 2013. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

‘Switzerland isn’t peaceful all the time’

Switzerland also has a recurring problem with sports hooliganism, which was one of the arguments for a successful popular vote in 2021 that banned face coverings in public. 

As Hays commented: “Anyone who thinks all Swiss are peaceful has never seen its football hooligans in action, and anyone who thinks they’re all law-abiding doesn’t know that Swiss cities consistently show up on the shortlist of the places where the most cocaine is consumed.”

When it comes to murder, the numbers are low, but Switzerland has seen gruesome crimes and even serial killers over the years. Hays has a special interest in this area, and attended the trial of an axe-murderer in the course of her book research.

In 2021, there were 226 attempted homicides in Switzerland, 42 of which ended as murders. The solution rate of all 226 crimes was 97.3 percent, which is remarkably high.

With a background in sociology, Hays is interested in the wider context. “Around three-quarters of the victims were women and children, a clear sign that domestic violence is a problem in Switzerland,” she said.

“There are other types of murders as well, of course, including a serial killer who took the lives of four known child victims in the 1980s, and the case of a male nurse who went from one nursing home to another killing elderly patients, at least 22 of them. These men were caught and sentenced. Murder in Switzerland can be just as horrible as in any other country.”

READ ALSO: Switzerland biker brawl – gangs clash with police ahead of trial in Bern 

Born in Connecticut, Hays lived in several places, including Puerto Rico, Canada and Sweden, before settling in Switzerland. She is a self-confessed mystery-novel addict, who turned to writing later in life and is now on her third book contract with Seventh Street Books, an imprint of Start Publishing.

Switzerland could not be more different from the US when it comes to punishment for convicted criminals. “I was upset to learn that in Switzerland a ‘life sentence’ generally means 15, or in some cases as little as 10, years in prison. And even then, only premeditated murder, treason, and a very few other serious crimes receive that maximum sentence,” Hays said.

Crime writer Kim Hays.

Crime writer Kim Hays. Photo courtesy of Kim Hays

The emphasis in the Swiss justice system is on the likelihood of reoffending rather than using a prison term as punishment. Since 2007, all prison sentences under two years are automatically suspended, even for violent crime. 

“The problem is that there have been a few well-known cases during the past decades where Swiss sexual offenders who’d been released from prison almost immediately raped and killed new victims. Short prison sentences may be humane, practical, and cheap, but they don’t protect society from dangerous criminals,” Hays said. 

Switzerland has a diverse population

Hays’s characters come from different social classes and ethnic backgrounds, revealing her in-depth knowledge of the diversity of Swiss society, where one in four residents is foreign born. One of her detective duo is of Italian origin, representing one of the country’s largest immigrant groups.

“Switzerland is a country where people of different cultures rub shoulders with each other every day and where hundreds of thousands of children are binational,” she said. 

The murder victim in Hays’s latest book, Sons and Brothers, being published next month, is a member of the upper class of Bern who turns up dead in the Aare River. He’s part of the Burgergemeinde or community of burghers, which still owns large swathes of property in and around the city. 

“The Swiss aristocracy is untitled,” said Hays. “Still, their names are very well-known, because they are usually active in the government, economy, social welfare, and cultural life of their cities and cantons.

“Names like Escher and von Meiss in Zürich, Burkhardt and Merian in Basel (where the patrician families as a group are nicknamed “the dough”), Sulzer in Winterthur, Patry in Geneva, or von Fischer and von Graffenried in Bern are easily recognised in their own cities.”

A view of Bern and the river.

A view of Bern and the river. Photo by Tim Bernhard on Unsplash

Though Hays is partial to a shooting or two in her fiction, fatal shootings are rare in Switzerland. This is despite the fact that most Swiss men have undergone weapons training through their military service and the gun ownership rate is one of the highest in Europe. The Bern-based writer has a theory about why this is. 

“One reason that guns aren’t used surely has to do with the Swiss character,” she said. “This is a country where losing your temper and confronting people, even if it’s just a matter of raising your voice, is frowned upon. That makes it all the more interesting to invent scenarios that drive ordinary people to resort to extraordinary violence.”

READ ALSO: Understanding Switzerland’s obsession with guns

Sons and Brothers by Kim Hays will be published in the US and Switzerland in April 2023. 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Why you might hear gunfire in your Swiss neighbourhood

One thing you should get accustomed to while living in Switzerland is the sound of gunfire.

Why you might hear gunfire in your Swiss neighbourhood

This may sound like a paradox in this neutral and peace-loving country, but it is nevertheless true.

Right now and throughout the summer, you may be hearing gun shots in your area, especially in you live in a small or rural community. And depending on where you are, the sound of gunfire may blend harmoniously with the ringing of cow bells — what could be more ‘Swiss’ than that?

You will notice, however, that nobody here is alarmed, and you shouldn’t be either: it is  just the Swiss doing what comes naturally to them: firing their weapons.

Why exactly is sharpshooting ‘natural’ for the Swiss?

All able-bodied Swiss men from the age of 18 until 30 are required to serve in the armed forces or in its alternative, the civilian service. 

The soldiers who have been issued an assault rifle must complete a shooting exercise  every year until they are discharged from military duty.

This usually takes place in spring and summer, which may explain why you are hearing the sounds of gunfire now, especially if you live within the hearing range of a military base.

Swiss soldier fires a machine gun during a shooting exercise. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Then, there are also numerous civilians who practice target shooting as a hobby.

There are plenty of gun clubs throughout the country where people of all ages — including children as young as five — can hone their sharpshooting skills. These clubs are grouped under the umbrella organisation, the Swiss Target Shooting Federation. 
This may sound shocking to some, but in fact, firing guns in Switzerland — whether by soldiers or civilians — is all about safety.

The Swiss learn to shoot from an early age, and develop a deep sense of responsibility toward their firearms, which accounts for the relatively low (in comparison with other countries) rate of gun violence.

However, mishaps sometimes do happen:

READ ALSO: Swiss soldier fined after ‘forgetting’ about gun in car

Youngsters can show off their (safe and responsible) skills during shooting festivals, including  Knabenschiessen, the world’s largest youth rifle competition for 12 to 16-year-olds held in Zurich every September.

This video is a humorous though factual take on Switzerland’s gun culture.

Who is allowed to own a firearm in Switzerland, and under what conditions?

You can own a gun if you are a Swiss citizen and are at least 18 years old; are mentally stable; there is no reason for authorities to believe you may use the weapon to harm yourself or others; and have no criminal record indicating you pose a danger to public safety.

A permit is needed to own a weapon.

A written contract between the seller and buyer, as well as the weapon being sold / purchased must be established.

And If the weapon is a firearm, the seller must send a copy of the contract to the buyer’s cantonal firearms office within 30 days of concluding the contract. 

READ ALSO: How to explain Switzerland’s obsession with guns

Can foreigners own a gun and participate in target shooting practice?

If you have a C permit, your rights to own and use a firearm are the same as for the Swiss (see above).

Others are subject to stricter rules, according to the Federal Office of Police (Fedpol):

“Foreign nationals who do not possess a long-term residence permit require a weapons acquisition permit for all types of weapons and their essential components. They must also have an official certificate from their canton of residence or country of origin confirming that they are authorised to acquire the weapon or main components.”

Citizens of certain countries, however, are not allowed to acquire weapons or essential components.These countries are: Albania, Algeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Serbia, Sri Lanka, and Turkey.

The reason for the exclusions is that “there have been ethnically or politically motivated confrontations in Switzerland between members of the warring factions from these countries (or there is a real risk of confrontation),” according to Fedpol.