It took place nearly fourteen years ago, but it was as if it were yesterday.I had been in Switzerland less than a week and was slowly beginning to find my way about. One sunny Saturday I was riding the number 11 tram out of Zurich.It rattled into Schaffhauserplatz , the doors opened and two men in T-shirtsand jeans boarded. It was not their dress that caught my eye, but the menacing black sub-machine guns casually slung over their shoulders.

A wave of horror swept over me. As an Englishman, not only had I never seen such guns before, except in war movies, but these deadly weapons were clearly in unofficial hands. Perhaps some sort of terrorists dressed, not in any uniform, but to mingle innocently with an afternoon’s shoppers.

Quickly, I glanced round the tram for some sign of what to do next from my fellow passengers. The terrorists made their way through the tram and stood at the back laughing and joking together. Opposite me a white-haired lady clutched her shopping trolley. She had seen the thugs and yet continued to smile to herself as she looked out the window at the glorious day outside. Maybe she relished an early meeting with her Maker. I did not.

All other passengers ignored the impending horror of the next few minutes. But they could not have helped but see those desperadoes. I calculated my chances of making a break for it. Before I could decide, the doors clunked closed - locked and the driver, who was clearly ignorant of the headline grabbing events about to unfold on his tram, drove on. I played out various scenarios in my mind – diving for the floor, using my shopping as a shield. What were the chances of breaking a window and escaping? What power could such armoury unleash? Did I stand a chance?

The next stop was approaching. My panic-induced prayers had been answered and I was able to step out onto the sunny street uninjured. The doors closed behind me and as the tram pulled away those two terrorists still seemed to find scaring me half out of my wits very amusing.

Had I not had it explained to me later that these were likely two men off for a spot of compulsory army shooting practice, I would have phoned the police and watched the early evening news in full expectation of hearing about ”The Great Number 11 Tram Massacre”.

If you are not brought up here, there are some things about this land you will never get your head round.

After the best part of fourteen years here I have given up trying to understand the Swiss love of guns. As an Englishman brought up in the innocent streets of Britain where Bobbies can still be seen plodding their beat armed with no more than a walkie-talkie, the site of any foreign police officer with loaded gun in holster is a shock.

Thanks to the Swiss Army’s call up system it is unlikely that there is a single house in the country that does not have some sort of firearm stowed away, complete with ammunition. In Britain this would results in most Saturday nights turning into ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ as domestic and neighbourhood disputes were solved by the gun.

The Swiss army is not the full story, matters have gone much further. A quick look in the phone book reveals that gun shops not only exist, but are popular – Zurich’s Yellow Pages lists 17 retail outlets where guns and ammunition can be bought over the counter. Every village has their shooting range for compulsory army shooting exercises as well as to let the local gun club have their fun. I have met a number of Swiss who boast a selection of firearms at home that would make hardened armed bank robbers feel under ‘tooled’ (armed).

Events in a Scottish primary school in 1995, when sixteen children and their teacher were shot by a madman from the local gun club, resulted in a massive outcry from the British public. The Prime Minister was forced to rush in draconian laws to outlaw guns and gun clubs. A similar swell of public opinion in Switzerland after the events in the Zug Parliament building last year was noticeable by its absence.

Now we can add Erfurt to the growing list of places made notorious when guns in wrong hands did their terrifying work with such cold efficiency. Despite the lethal potential of firearms, Switzerland seems unruffled by accidents that regularly occur when boys discover their fathers’ guns. Even the death of 14 council members in Zug was apparently an acceptable price to pay for the right the bear arms.

Let us hope that Switzerland’s tolerance of firearms is never tested again. Because thus far it has been a remarkable witness to the common sense and control of the Swiss that so many lethal weapons can exist in the homes and hands or ‘ordinary’ people. The fact is, it is not the number of guns but the number of unbalanced people that is the problem.