Monday

16th Jan 2017

EU split on semi-automatic weapons

  • Some 130 people were killed in last November's terrorist attacks in Paris (Photo: Reuters)

EU lawmakers are meeting on Tuesday (15 November) for another round of backroom talks to curb gun violence and prevent terrorists from acquiring weapons on the black market.

Debates around the European Commission's EU firearms directive reform, proposed in the aftermath the Paris November terrorist attacks, appears to be advancing as positions converge between the two co-legislatures at the European Parliament and the Council, representing member states.

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"There is a great deal of similarity between the Council and Parliament positions as co-legislators," British conservative MEP Vicky Ford, who is leading talks at the Parliament, told her counterparts last week.

Representatives from the three EU institutions discussed the matter in so-called trilogue talks first in September and once again in October in the hopes of finding an agreement before the end of the year.

The EU directive, first adopted in the early 1990s and then amended in 2008, has shifted away from an internal market perspective to one that has increasingly focused on security given the spate of terror attacks in France and Belgium.

The latest reform tabled by the EU commission's internal affairs branch, DG Home, intends to, among other things, restrict the online purchase of weapons, ban certain semi-automatic firearms as well as so-called deactivated guns that can no longer fire bullets.

Deactivated assault rifles

Deactivated assault rifles legally purchased in Slovakia had been converted into live fire weapons, which were then used last year by the Charlie Hebdo shooters in Paris.

"Thousands of these weapons have been sold from Slovakia, legally sold in Slovakia, but then were brought home by their customers across Europe," said Nils Duquet from the Flemish Peace Institute, a research institute of the Flemish Parliament.

A separate EU wide regulation on the deactivation of firearms was implemented this past April in a larger effort to close the loophole.

Police in Belgium have in the past arrested former employees from the country's largest small arms makers FN Herstal, fully owned by the Walloon government, for reactivating weapons for subsequent sale on the black market.

Earlier last month, they arrested the director of Belgium's proofing house, a quality control centre set up by the industry in Wallonia, for allegedly falsifying documents with the intent to sell weapons to the underground market.

The fear is that these weapons could end up in the hands of criminals or possible terrorists as so-called foreign fighters return home from Syria and Iraq.

The two EU institutions, meanwhile, have departed from the EU commission's plan to slap an outright ban on semi-automatic weapons that resemble those used by soldiers.

The issue is one of the biggest sticking points in the reform of the firearms directive. The Council and Parliament want to allow recreational target shooters and marksmen to legally own the guns.

Duquet says an outright ban may be counterproductive because owners of such banned weapons may end up selling them into the black market to get rid of them.

"You always have the risk when you start prohibiting firearms that some of these guns disappear on the black market and then you might actually see an increased availability of very lethal firearms on the black market," he said.

Alarm pistols and blank firearms

Other so-called alarm pistols or blank firearms have also posed security issues. Such weapons were designed not to fire any live rounds and are typically used on film sets.

But what is considered an alarm pistol in one EU state is not in another. The problem is that some can be turned into lethal weapons and end up being used by criminals.

Michael Benstein, a weapons expert in German Federal Police Office, made similar comments earlier this year.

"If it is theoretically possible to reactive a weapon, you can be sure that it will happen," he told MEPs in the civil liberties committee in February.

He said manufacturers design semi-automatic weapons to look less like their military grade counterparts.

Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who shot dead 69 people in 2011, had legally purchased a .223 caliber rifle from a US supplier.

Benstein also noted that some hunting rifles use the same technology as the Kalashnikovs that killed dozens of people in Paris this time last year.

"We would end up banning a whole category of weapons without any real effect," he said.

Benstein instead recommended marking the individual components of the weapons to improve traceablity, a move that is broadly opposed by the industry.

"Only with traceability can you really identify the last legal owner of an illegal weapon," he said.

The reformed EU firearms directive also sets out rules to restrict gun ownership to those who have a "good cause", like hunters or collectors, as well as to those who pose no danger.

The EU commission last December had also proposed a separate plan to crack down on gun trafficking.

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