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17th Aug 2018

Feature

'Flobert' guns - Europe's latest terror loophole

  • 'Deactivated' guns were used in the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Now a new loophole in EU legislation has emerged (Photo: Kwikwaju)

Murderer Amedy Coulibaly entered the kosher supermarket on the outskirts of Paris in 2015 carrying two Ceska Sa vz.58 automatic rifles manufactured in the 1960s. He also had two reactivated Tokarev TT33 pistols.

The guns had been decommissioned and legally bought in Slovakia, but then reconverted to fire live ammunition. Before he was killed, Coulibaly managed to shoot dead four people. At his apartment, police found another cache of reactivated pistols.

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Slovak police had for years issued warnings about such guns but their pleas were broadly ignored until a string of terror attacks gripped much of Europe.

Such weapons had been reconverted into lethal arms in large numbers in France, Belgium, and elsewhere where they were then sold to petty criminals and, eventually, terrorists. Workshops in places like Luxembourg were even set up to turn the Slovak deactivated guns into real killing machines.

In 2014, police in Sweden found 230 deactivated firearms from Slovakia. A year later, the UK seized 22 vz.58 assault rifles, nine Skorpion sub-machine guns, two silencers, 58 magazines, and 1,500 rounds of ammunition from Slovakia.

The same year, the Italian crime syndicate Cosa Nostra bought 86 sub-machine guns, 45 rifles, 17 pistols and three revolvers, also from Slovakia, and then reactivated them in Sicily. They then tried to send them to Malta.

'Flobert' gun loophole

The EU rushed to revise its 1991 firearms rules and deactivation standards, which are now being implemented throughout EU states, as part of a broader policy arsenal to tackle terror.

So-called alarm and acoustic weapons would now fall under its scope and be declared for traceability.

"The fact that the perpetrators of terrorist atrocities in the last two years were able to use modified acoustic and deactivated weapons that were bought legally was the driving force behind the Commission's proposal to revise the directive," Julian King, the EU commissioner for security, told MEPs early last year.

King said, citing an Europol report, that firearms traffickers are highly adept at exploiting legal loopholes and differences in the regulatory regimes between EU member states.

It would appear that his prescient assessment still holds true today.

Under the old rules, a semi-automatic with a pin through the barrel, was classified as deactivated. Such pins were simply removed from the weapons and then used to kill people in the Charlie Hebdo attacks, for instance.

Vicky Ford, the British conservative MEP who steered the firearms directive through the European parliament, described it as a "fundamental flaw in European law."

Under the new rules, those deactivated firearms would be impossible to reconvert back into real guns.

But the beefed up EU firearms directive and deactivation rules appear to have overlooked a whole range of weapons known as 'Floberts' that are now being legally sold - in Slovakia.

Floberts are low-calibre pistols that can be easily converted to fire live ammunition. Gun shops in Slovakia, which before were selling deactivated firearms, are now flogging Floberts, given the glaring loophole in the EU directive.

Gun dealers with large caches of deactivated weapons under the old rules can either further deactivate them under the new EU regime (which render them impossible to convert later on) or turn them into Flobert guns.

Flobert guns can be made to fire live rounds and so typically fetch a higher price than their fully-deactivated counterparts.

These shock findings were part of a much larger study into the illicit gun market in Europe, conducted by Project Safte, an EU-funded initiative, published on Wednesday (17 April).

One of the authors of the report, Nils Duquet, called the Flobert loophole an oversight by EU policy makers.

"The only thing that we can do is point to this new loophole and try to put pressure on the different governments to regulate the Flobert," he told EUobserver.

The 232-page report says Europol expects the guns to be "a significant security problem in the coming years". It states that the EU firearms directive doesn't apply to guns modified to shoot Flobert ammunition.

It notes that Flobert firearm was apparently also used in the public mass shooting by a 17-year old in Munich in July 2016 during which ten people were killed and 35 others were injured.

It points out that the loophole for Floberts has opened up a new legal market "with significant risks of spillover to the illicit market" and the guns are now in demand among criminals.

The researchers also found other worrying trends. Access to military grade weapons is becoming easier for well-connected criminals and in turn easier for terrorists with low-level or mid-level criminal connections.

"I think that is kind of a worrying development that we are seeing," warned Duquet.

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