Paul Bilton ponders the young shooting stars that bring Zurich to a halt

When I try to explain to people back in the UK the reason for Zurich's Monday afternoon holiday on September 12, I am met with disbelief and amazement. Of all the strange things about Switzerland, this public holiday has to be the hardest to explain.

The fact that Switzerland's largest city and commercial center has two holidays a year that fall on Monday afternoons is incredible enough and greater evidence of the Swiss work ethic is hard to find. (The other holiday being the burning-the-snowman affair in April.) The second holiday is for a shooting competition and a shooting competition for children to boot - with real guns and real bullets. The name Knabenschiessen means literally 'Boys Shooting', though girls are now involved too.

The rest of the world's relationship with the gun is not a happy one. In the UK town names such as Hungerford and Dunblane have become notorious as a result of shooting tragedies. The latter's slaughter of 15 school children and their teacher in 1996 by a local gun club member resulted in the British government tightening their already strict firearms laws.

In the USA controversy over the Second Amendment's "right of the people to keep and bear Arms" launched film-maker Michael Moore on a successful career with his 'Bowling for Columbine' and send matinee idol Chalton Heston on a new one as president of the US National Rifle Association, notorious for his clenched-teeth quotation that the authorities would have to pry his rifle "out of my cold dead hand".

Meanwhile Switzerland does not go without shooting tragedies. The difference here, as you may have noticed after the July fatal shootings of two bank executives in Zurich's Enge quarter, is that no-one questioned whether there are too many guns in circulation. Not the gun, but stress is held up as the culprit. Likewise in Zug in 2001 when 14 council members were killed by a gunman; first the police were called to answer, then the gunman was declared a psychopath. Nevertheless, the liberal gun laws of Switzerland remain unchanged. Round the world Switzerland is often quoted as the example of guns not being the problem. It is claimed, there are more firearms per head here than in the USA. With every adult male under 40 in the Swiss Army, Swiss homes are awash with rifles, pistols and boxed ammunition. It is certain that most of your Swiss neighbours will have at least one firearm in their home.

It is a remarkable testimony to the Swiss ability to live in harmony without resorting to the ultimate solution, available in the attic cupboard. Coming from a country where Bobbies carry nothing more than a walkie-talkie for defence, it was in Switzerland where I saw a real automatic machine gun for the first time. At least I think that is what it was. It was not in the hands of a soldier or police officer, but slung casually over the shoulder of a young man wearing jeans and a T-shirt travelling on the number 14 tram on his way to some compulsory shooting practice.

As if to underline Switzerland's incongruous relationship with deadly weapons my nearest shop is a gun store – or it was, until the owner blew himself up earlier this year while working with gunpowder.