When small arms proliferation became Europe's problem

By: Aaron Karp

2015-11-17 |

The Paris massacres of 13 November 2015 were not just the act of Islamist terrorists. They also were the result of access to specific weapons. While grenades and suicide bombs also were used, it was Kalashnikovs that appeared to have caused most of the killing, most hideously at The Bataclan theatre, where 87 died.

With this, the latest in a series of terrorist attacks, Europe is waking to the reality of its own long-simmering firearms proliferation. While the dimensions remain small compared to the worst afflicted countries in other parts of the world, there is no denying Europe's vulnerability and sensitivity to such mayhem.

The series of terrorist shooting outrages in Belgium and France, starting with The Jewish Museum of Belgium attack on 24 May 2014 and culminating in the Paris massacres, show that Europe is losing some of its distinctiveness. Its tradition of stronger gun regulation than the United States no longer seems sufficient. While Europe remains much safer statistically, it faces serious problems of firearms availability and trafficking, including weapons ideally suited to mass shootings.

From export policy to domestic policy
For decades, most European governments assumed that their domestic gun problems were relatively minor. Policies were based on the assumption that small arms proliferation mostly was an issue for their foreign and development ministries. Small arms policy meant export policy at home and capacity building elsewhere, mostly ameliorating deadly violence in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

Now gun policy must become a priority for European home affairs as well. What was an issue of choice abroad has become a matter of domestic necessity.

Europeans often understand their internal firearms problems in comparison to the situation in the United States. By that standard, Europe has meticulous regulations and strong restrictions. But the comparison also is misleading. It resembles the belief that war is waning because we have seen nothing resembling the world wars. The scale of American gun ownership, like American levels of homicide, is so extreme it makes many countries look problem-free, overshadowing trends that deserve to be seen for what they are, in and of themselves.

European action on small arms has been slowed by the same problems inhibiting coordinated action on other aspects home affairs. Overshadowed by the weaknesses of the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties, home affairs policy is almost entirely a field of inter-governmental cooperation. Having demanding the right to set their own policies, EU member states now find themselves vulnerable to the weakest policies of the few and the borders of the many. The similarities to migration policy are striking.

Individual governments have not been inactive. One of the great ironies of the Paris massacres was the announcement of improved French policing for gun crimes, just one day before, by Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve. However much they help, national efforts, even with better multi-national coordination, seem unlikely to solve the trafficking problem, though.

Unable to demand equally high restrictions on gun ownership throughout the continent, the EU has concentrated on secondary matters. Some of these are not unimportant, such as common standards for record keeping. And inter-governmental cooperation on policing and customs is not trivial. But the essential reality is states have preserved a level of national discretion that often becomes an excuse for negligence and a barrier to forthright action.

Weaker than they look
It would matter less if the illegal gun trade was like other forms of trafficking, where suppression is the goal and success is measured in percentages. That is reassuring when smuggling mostly affects those immediately involved, as with cigarettes and drugs. Intercepting percentages may even be acceptable with human trafficking. But when it comes to the weapons of terrorism and mass killing, tiny leakages are catastrophic.

French Interior Minister Cazeneuve may be right when he says six attacks on French territory were foiled since the spring, but everyone else is right to respond "So what?" The Paris massacres show that the percentage mentality must yield a much more demanding standard of success.

Today's European gun control regimes cannot achieve that. Most of them emerged in the 1970s, responding to growing availability of pistols. These control systems were designed to prevent mass shootings by deranged or suicidal gun owners, not the careful plots of religious or millennial zealots. Thus they emphasize licensing and registration, club membership and training, and on safe storage to prevent theft and misuse by others.

Even here, there are problems. Mass shootings by legal owners and their guns still happen, most extraordinarily in and outside Oslo on 22 June 2011, where the weapons were a bomb, a legally purchased assault rifle and pistol. Lesser mass shootings occur roughly every year somewhere on the continent. Examples include the 2002 Erfurt massacre and the Winnenden school attack in 2009, both in Germany, or earlier this year when nine people died in Czech town of Uherský Brod, killed by with a CZ 75 pistol and an Alfa revolver.

Controlling the proliferation of self-loading rifles like Kalashnikovs was a secondary goal for European policy. Such weapons are generally illegal in Europe, although not everywhere, as Oslo revealed. What the Paris massacres show so starkly is the inward looking gun control systems of most European countries are poorly suited to intercept the illicit trade in these weapons as they move illegally from one country to another.

The numbers of illicit firearms stopped at Europe's internal borders is remarkably low. In 2014, French police and gendarmerie seized some 175 weapons of war, including 80 Kalashnikovs. Given the relatively small scale of police resources that go into stopping the trade, this might be seen as reassuring.

But part of the problem is the enormous sensitivity to small failures. It is tempting to dismiss the channels used in the terrorist attacks in Belgium and France as a single network, centered in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek. But that single network was responsible for a series of disasters: the Jewish Museum of Brussels, Charlie Hebdo, Île-de-France, Porte de Vincennes, Thalys 9364 and November 13. A similar but less deadly network probably is responsible for the grenade attacks intimidating the Swedish city of Malmö. The difference between the two seems to be luck, just as percentage-based law enforcement also relies largely on luck.

A solvable problem
Contrary to much media commentary, Europe is not awash in Kalashnikovs, nor are they easy to buy. Acquiring illegal self-loading firearms in Europe, especially Kalashnikovs, is difficult, but it is possible. The gun control system that works well overall fails catastrophically in specific instances. And the extreme deadliness of these weapons raises equally profound sensitivities to their use in terrorism.

Focusing greater attention on tighter gun control will not stop terrorism. The attack at Saint-Quentin-Fallavier on 26 June 2015, for example, was done without firearms. But victims there were limited to one dead and two injured. Nor will the risk of bombings will go away.

Better gun control is necessary, rather, to reduce mass casualty killings and terrorism. This means tighter governmental controls, where they are weak, and federalist cooperation to halt illegal firearms trafficking. We know what to do. One of the clearest lessons of contemporary gun control is the value of ending access to self-loading firearms, especially assault guns like Kalashnikovs. Once Australia banned such weapons in 1996 and the United Kingdom in 1988 and 1997, mass shootings in both countries stopped completely. This is a model all of Europe can emulate.

A Karp smallAaron Karp is senior lecturer in political science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and guest researcher at UI through January 2016. His research concentrates on technology in international security, including the arms trade and weapons proliferation.


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