Europe's restrictive gun laws may make the American pro-gun lobby recoil like a blunderbuss, but European governments hardly care. They maintain that limiting gun ownership to hunters, collectors and gun-club members has helped keep firearm homicide rates much lower than those of the U.S. According to figures recently compiled by the British Home Office, the European Union's average homicide rate per 100,000 people in 1997-99 was 1.7, compared to 6.26 in the U.S. ? and 20.52 in Russia.
Experts can argue about how much of those differences are due to the restricted availability of guns in Europe and how much to a cultural proclivity to lower levels of violence. But no one can argue that gun deaths can be legislated out of existence. The tragic shooting in Erfurt last month and in Nanterre in March, both perpetrated by gun-club members, show that even Europe's tough laws cannot keep guns out of the reach of murderous individuals. And the most detailed ownership laws don't even touch on illegal weapons, which are now washing over Western Europe. Last week French police in the southern city of Castres seized scores of automatic weapons, machine guns, revolvers, a pair of bazookas and two dozen rockets in a raid on a villa linked to the Basque terror organization ETA. "People often wonder what kind of money it takes to buy that kind of arsenal," says a French police official. "I'm more worried that people can buy them at all."
On April 26, the very day that Robert Steinh�user used a 9-mm pistol to shoot 16 others and then himself in Erfurt, legislators in Berlin's Bundestag were passing a hotly discussed revision of Germany's 1972 gun law. The revised law would require new permits for ammunition, make police clearance mandatory even for owners of blank pistols and set tighter rules for storing guns. It would also lower the age, from 12 to 10, at which young members of gun clubs can handle air guns. That morning conservative parliamentarians Hartmut Koschyk and Erwin Marschewski expressed their regret that the new law burdened "law-abiding hunters, shooters and collectors" with "a nonsensical tightening of rules."
By that afternoon, the Erfurt massacre had rendered the new law all but moot. It is unlikely that the Bundesrat will sign off on it without wholesale revisions, including possibly hiking the legal age for shooters from 18 to 21. Last week J�rgen Kohlheim, vice president of the German Marksmen's Association, acknowledged that raising age limits rather than lowering them would be a more likely future trend. And his organization suggested that permits for target-shooting rifles ought not to enable purchase of pump-action shotguns. Steinh�user, 19, was able to buy one of those on the strength of his shooting-club membership, even though he wasn't known to use it on the shooting range. He did not fire it in his killing spree, perhaps because it jammed.
Richard Durn's murder of eight city councilors in the Paris suburb of Nanterre suggests that in France, as one police official says, "the problem is diligence and attentiveness, not the laws themselves." Durn's gun-club membership allowed him to buy the two guns he used as well as a third found on his person. But the authorities failed to apply existing law to seize his guns after he used one to threaten a psychiatrist, even though a report was made. Nor did they disarm him as they should have after his ownership permits expired in 2000.
Better oversight becomes more important as gun ownership increases in Europe. In the Czech Republic, the number of guns held legally and in private ownership has soared from 123,300 in 1992 to 562,320 in 2001; the only requirements are an age of 21 or more, a clean criminal record and certificates of good health and gun expertise. (When Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross proposed a sharpening of the law last year, the parliament struck a clause that would have required psychological examinations.) Membership in German gun clubs, or Sch�tzenvereine, has risen steadily to a total of nearly 1.6 million, and another 340,000 hunters have legal access to guns. More than a million Italians are licensed to own guns, but Defense Minister Antonio Martino argues that current laws are too restrictive, having "disarmed the law abiders, but not the criminals."
While the actions of Durn and Steinh�user have put gun clubs on the defensive, legal gun owners in general appear to have negligible criminal potential. According to a report by pro-gun activist Reinhard Becker, an Eisenach lawyer, fewer than 4.5% of all gun-related crimes involved properly registered guns. Most weapons used in crimes were stolen or purchased on the black market; in Britain, police estimate that as many as 45% of the 17,589 weapons offenses committed in England and Wales last year didn't even involve real weapons, but rather replicas and air pistols. Many continental European police officials are more worried about the guns flowing westward from ex-Yugoslavia and Albania, which are awash in weapons after a decade of war. NATO troops in Bosnia have made three major seizures of arms caches in the last month and have collected thousands of small arms and hand grenades since January. Domitilla Sagra-Moso, a researcher at the Centre for Defense Studies at King's College London, says the end of those conflicts has put "cheap but powerful weapons ... in the hands of local organized crime groups" who sell them on to buyers across Europe.
Of course, an AK-47 automatic rifle is less useful for street crime than a good pistol. But some people are able to adjust the crime to the means. Last autumn in the southern French city of B�ziers, Safir Bghioua opened fire on police with a rocket launcher, switched to a machine gun and was later found to have stuffed his trunk with a military arsenal of explosives, detonators and armor-piercing ammunition.
The German police union has estimated that as many as 20 million illegal firearms are at large in Germany, a number rejected as "much too high" by the Federal Criminal Office. For their part, British experts see little evidence that much of that cache has made its way across the English Channel, where gun laws were severely tightened after the 1996 massacre of schoolchildren in Dunblane, Scotland. Says Peter Squires, a lecturer at the University of Brighton: "If people involved in crime are having to convert air guns to make live weapons, then there is not a big pool of illegal weapons floating around. " Take the case of Ashley Walters ("Asher D"), of Britain's successful rap group So Solid Crew. In March he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for carrying a revolver. Yet instead of packing real heat like many American "gangsta" rappers, Walters's gun was a converted air pistol. Deadly, sure ? but quaint. The question is whether Asher D's minor piece will look even quainter in a couple of years, when more powerful guns are plentiful in Europe. Laws will have less effect in avoiding that state of affairs than solid and consistent police work.