24th Mar 2018

EU lawmakers tighten firearm rules

  • A Kalashnikov. People will still be able to own a semi-automatic weapon with a high capacity magazine, though under strict conditions. (Photo:

The European Parliament agreed to tighten gun laws throughout the EU, amid an often bitter debate that triggered the rise of larger and better organised gun enthusiast groups.

The heated talks were on display during a press conference in Strasbourg on Tuesday (14 March), when MEPs working on the file disagreed on what exactly they had voted through.

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"Some people [MEPs] have clearly not read the text properly," lead negotiator on the file, UK Conservative MEP Vicky Ford, told reporters.

The British MEP said the text agreed upon on Tuesday means anyone who currently owns a firearm will be allowed to keep it "provided their member state agrees."

The European Commission had proposed to reform the firearms directive in November 2015 in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked a kosher supermarket in early 2015, had been carrying two Ceska Sa vz.58 automatic rifles fabricated in the 1960s. The guns had been decommissioned and legally bought in Slovakia, but were then reconverted to fire live ammunition.

Julian King, the British EU commissioner for security, told MEPs at the assembly that such attacks, where legally purchased "modified acoustic and deactivated weapons" were used, was the driving force behind the proposal.

Slovak police, years before in 2013, had already issued warnings against the ease of reactivating the same type of rifles used by Coulibaly. The warnings fell on deaf ears until the devastating attacks in Paris.

Asked why people first had to die before EU legislators decided to close the loophole, Ford said it had "never been an issue before".

"This was the first time it came to account, the law enforcement authorities found out after the Charlie Hebdo attacks," she told EUobserver, referring to the shooting in the French magazine just before Coulibaly's attack on the supermarket.

A recent report from the EU police agency, Europol, said traffickers are still exploiting legal loopholes and different rules between member states.

Only earlier this year in January, counter-terrorism units from the Spanish National Police seized 10,000 firearms from a criminal gang, which was using a sports shop as a front also to sell deactivated firearms.

The commission plan was to close the loophole that allowed people to purchase non-firing guns that they could then later convert into a live weapon. Nobody knows how many are in circulation but almost 70 percent of the guns recovered by German police in 2013 had been converted replicas.

The directive would also include, for the first time, blank-firing guns often used in films but which can also be made to fire real bullets. "These firearms will now need to be declared or authorised in order to ensure traceablity," King said on Tuesday.

Under the latest rules, deactivated firearms will have to be declared to national authorities and registered. Separate plans are also in place to make sure they can never fire real bullets again.

The commission's proposal sought to create standardised medical tests, such as psychological screenings. It also delved into age requirements, the validity of licenses, better marking and record-keeping for firearms, and limited the possibility for online sales.

The semi-automatic fiasco

But the proposal then also sought to ban semi-automatic firearms, triggering a massive backlash from gun owners who say there were being unfairly swept up into a wider debate on security and criminality.

The restrictions had also included banning semi-automatics that looked like automatic weapons for civilian use, a proposal that was later dropped.

The commission had looked into imposing the restriction, given that a semi-automatic Kalashnikov, for example, could be acquired by sport shooters.

The fear was that some would end up in the wrong hands or be used to carry out random attacks on innocent people.

But the latest rules mean that people will still be able to own a semi-automatic weapon with a high capacity magazine, though under strict conditions. Although the EU commission produced no impact study to prove its point, attacks with legal firearms have occurred in Europe.

In 2007, an 18 year-old registered member of the Helsinki Shooting Club, with a gun license, shot eight people dead at a school with a semi-automatic SIG Mosquito 22-calibre. He had no criminal history.

Another similar incident took place, again in Finland, in September 2008. Other shootings have taken place more recently in Norway and then again last December at a doctor's office in Marburg, Germany.

But the debate surrounding the commission's proposal quickly degenerated into a larger issue on legal gun ownership, the EU's opaque role in tweaking legislation, and personal attacks against some senior commission officials.

The EU directive, first adopted in the early 1990s and then amended in 2008, had shifted away from an internal market perspective to one that has increasingly focused on security, given the prevalence of terror attacks in France and Belgium. Gun owners were not happy.

Firearms United, Europe's new gun group

"The commission's first proposal was the worst piece of work that I have seen from the European Commission in my nearly eight years in this parliament," said Ford, who also chairs the parliament's internal market committee.

Her views were echoed numerous times by Stephen A. Petroni, who chairs the Foundation for European Societies of Arms Collectors (Fesac).

"It [the EU commission] is using the terrorist attacks as a pretext to bring collectors within the scope of the directive," he said at a November gun conference at the European parliament.

He told EUobserver earlier this year that people who call themselves collectors must be recognised as such in the EU. "In Malta, for instance, a collector is a licensed person as collector," he said.

The broader resistance towards the EU commission had also given rise to Firearms United, a confederation of gun owners. Firearms United's primary mission, according to its website, is to stop the EU from imposing new rules that make access to firearms more difficult.

Its president, Tomasz W. Stepian, claims the organisation represents some 200 million legal gun owners in Europe.

"I need to thank the European Commission for waking us up, a year ago, you woke a giant and we are not going away," he said last November.

He complained that the commission's directive was unworkable and would impose restrictions, making it impossible for sports shooters, for instance, to carry out their sport.

The group had also credited itself, along with others, of defeating what it describes as the "worst measures proposed by the commission."

The November conference at the EU parliament had been organised by a handful of sympathetic pro-gun MEPs. But it also included a top EU commission official who was met with a barrage of criticism.

One EU official, referring to the powerful US National Rifle Association (NRA), had described the pressure from some of the gun enthusiasts as "some harder edged NRA stuff".

A few days after the hearing, a 54 year-old high school teacher from northern Spain had spammed the European Commission with emails depicting them as Nazis. The teacher described himself as "a proud member of the gun culture" in an email exchange with EUobserver.

On Tuesday, he sent another set of images comparing King to Joseph Goebbels and Stalin.

EU reaches deal on contested gun laws

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