Ominous Cracks Seen in Gun Control Utopia
By SEBASTIAN ROTELLA - Los Angeles TIMES
MADRID, Spain -- On paper, Western Europe seems like a gun control utopia. The laws governing firearms are tougher than those in the United States. Citizens are less likely to be armed. And the number of gun crimes is substantially lower.
On the street, though, there are signs of ominous change.
Friday's massacre at a school in Germany was the latest in a series of bloody gun crimes around the continent during the last year. The two worst examples were the slaughter of eight city council members in a Paris suburb last month and the killing of 14 regional legislators in Switzerland in September. Europeans say these incidents are more typical of the United States, which they condemn for a Wild West gun culture. But the number of guns and violent crimes has risen in France, Germany, Britain and elsewhere. The trend defies laws that have grown more restrictive: The blood bath in Germany occurred on the same day that the national Parliament passed stern anti-gun legislation.
The problem stems partly from a booming underworld economy. Smugglers based in the war-torn Balkans pump an industrial-sized flow of illicit firearms into the European Union.
Once in the EU, moreover, the smugglers don't confront many obstacles. The relaxation of border enforcement that encourages travel and commerce has been a boon to criminals, whether they are smuggling goods or jumping back and forth across borders to commit crimes and escape police.
Then there is the human factor. As crime has dropped in the United States in recent years, it has worsened in much of Europe, despite generous welfare states designed to prevent U.S.-style inequality and social conflict. Nihilistic rage flares in classroom violence in Germany, car-arson rampages in France, brutal muggings in Britain.
Alienation a Factor
Those incidents often involve alienated young people, ethnic minorities or immigrants, whom politicians and the public tend to blame for violence. But it's not always that simple. A gunman who stormed into a rural police station in the French region of Brittany two weeks ago and opened fire with an AK-47, killing a policeman, was a French-born, 48-year-old farmer enraged by a traffic altercation.
"There is a general climate of violence that has developed over the years and an American-style evolution of French society," warned Charles Pasqua, a former interior minister.
Judging from the tension in the low-income housing projects of the urban periphery, it's a good thing that gun laws are harsh. Youth gangs don't hesitate to attack police stations in Marseille and Paris. But they generally use rocks, Molotov cocktails or cars set ablaze and converted into rolling missiles, not firearms.
The lack of guns helps explain Europe's remarkably low homicide statistics, experts say. While Los Angeles County recorded about 1,000 homicides in 2000, there was about the same number in all of France. Spain registered 1,200 homicides last year. London suffered only 148 shootings that resulted in death or grievous injury last year.
Britain, of course, has some of the toughest firearm laws in the world. The Labor government outlawed handguns in 1997 in response to a rampage by a gunman who mowed down 16 schoolchildren, ages 5 and 6, and their teacher in the Scottish town of Dunblane.
Then, as now, Britons blamed violent U.S. films and television shows for promoting violence and gun use. After the law passed, Britons surrendered about 160,000 handguns to police.
Nonetheless, the statistics are not good. Between April and November 2001, the number of homicides in London committed with a firearm rose almost 90% over the same period a year earlier. Armed street robberies rose 53%.
British police, once known as unarmed "bobbies" patrolling placid streets, have deployed armed response vehicles equipped to deal with gunmen. Gang and drug activity have propelled an influx of guns, particularly automatic weapons, from the United States, Eastern Europe and Asia, according to Scotland Yard.
Arms From the East
French police say Eastern Europe is the source of arms flooding into France, where crime went up 8% overall in 2001. It's no longer uncommon for police to confront well-trained, paramilitary-style gangs of robbers wielding AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and other heavy weapons.
A smuggling trail known as "the Balkans route" has linked Eastern and Western Europe for years. In the former Yugoslav federation, as well as in Albania and Bulgaria, large numbers of military weapons found their way into the hands of the general population and gangs.
The situation was particularly severe in Albania. In 1997, the successor government to the former Communist regime fell after a corruption scandal. Angry citizens--as well as gangsters--looted the government's armories, making off with about a million military weapons: assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and antitank missiles. Some of those weapons no doubt moved to Western Europe, where Albanian gangsters are heavily involved in gunrunning.
Government authorities in the former Yugoslav states also are often involved in the smuggling. Guns move across Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav states and into Albania or Croatia and then are ferried across the Adriatic into Italy.
"The great number of war weapons that you see in our country is extremely dangerous," French President Jacques Chirac said this month. "What has to be attacked is the trafficking."
Like Germany and Britain, France has reacted to recent high-profile shootings by making restrictive laws even tougher, but it's not clear that those safeguards would have prevented the mass slaying last month of eight city council members in suburban Nanterre near Paris. Like the German student accused in Friday's massacre, the Nanterre shooter belonged to a target shooting club and obtained his gun legally, although he had a history of aggressive behavior and psychological troubles.
In the years before the shooting, French police in the Nanterre area were impeded from reviewing the psychological data on applicants for gun licenses, according to media reports. The Health Ministry reportedly rejected several attempted reviews, saying mental health records were protected by medical privacy laws. Red tape also works in favor of public safety, however. In Italy, gun owners say the medical screening for applicants is infamously lax, but police checks are rigorous and getting a license renewed is a burden.
Relatively few Italians own guns. The rules resemble those of Spain and other countries. Gun owners in Italy must be at least 18 years old, have a clean police record, undergo psychological and physical tests and have an official certificate proving that they are capable of handling firearms. A person may not own more than three guns, and gun licenses must be renewed every year.
Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino suggested in a radio interview Monday that the country's gun laws should be loosened. Martino cited the U.S. Bill of Rights' 2nd Amendment, protecting the right of citizens to bear arms, as a model.
Critics said the minister's comments reflected a rising sense of insecurity as the population ages and the number of immigrants rises. Unlike in other European countries, fear in Italy has increased even as the number of violent crimes has gone down slightly.
Whether the restrictions can stop deranged gunmen, Europe's cultural resistance to guns is likely to endure.
Times staff writers Richard Boudreaux in Rome, Marjorie Miller in London and Alissa J. Rubin in Vienna and special correspondent Achrene Sicakyuz in Paris contributed to this report.
Source: LA Times