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Time for EU action against gun violence

21 October 2013.

Published in Svenska Dagbladet (SE), Frankfurter Rundschau (DE), and others

"We cannot let gun control remain politically invisible in Europe. It is time to put our own house in order", writes EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström. Photo: Photobunny/Flickr (CC)

One thousand people are killed by gun violence each year in the EU. Law enforcement authorities struggle to track and confiscate illegal weapons, often smuggled into the EU from other countries. Also, laws in EU countries differ widely on how guns must be stored, how to deactivate them when they are no longer needed and on how gun crime is sentenced in court. It is time for Europe to act, and today the European Commission presents suggestions for how to reduce gun violence, writes EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström.

August of this year: A nursery school teacher is killed by gunfire in North London while out celebrating her 24th birthday. The same month: After an argument, a 71 year-old man opens fire with a pistol at a restaurant in Dossenheim, Germany, killing two people and injuring five others. And just a few weeks ago, the horrendous shootings in Melk, Austria, when a gunman killed three police officers and a paramedic with guns which he was licensed to own.

Every week, we hear of new acts of violence being committed with firearms. Yet the debate about the illegal use and trafficking of guns in Europe is oddly quiet. The American debate on gun prevalence is often more visible, when we should rather focus our attention on the home front. We have plenty to do here in Europe to make sure that handguns, rifles and assault weapons do not end up in the hands of criminals.

In many countries, we have strong traditions of lawful gun use – sports shooting and hunting for example – and while respecting those traditions, we need to deal with the thousands of illegal weapons that are circulating in Europe: more than half a million guns registered as lost or stolen remain unaccounted for in the EU.

Many EU countries have well-functioning gun legislation in place. In Europe as a whole, we have stronger rules to prevent firearms getting into the wrong hands than in many other parts of the world. Action has also been action taken at EU level through, for instance, a general ban on sale of automatic rifles for civilian use.

First and foremost, it is the differences between national legislation in EU countries that are causing problems. Examples are easy to find. We have no common rules for how to mark firearms with serial numbers when they are manufactured, making it a lot harder to track them. Some EU countries have rules on keeping weapons stored in safes, while other countries have no such rules. National laws also differ widely on how to deactivate weapons that have been taken out of use, and which products to classify simply as collector's items or replicas, where firearms restrictions don't apply. In the attacks in Liège in 2011, the gunman drew from a huge personal arsenal including military weapons and collectors' items which he had purchased and converted. Furthermore, gunmen responsible for such terrible shootings as in Tuusula (2007) and Kauhajoki (2008), in Cumbria (2010) and Alphen aan den Rijn (2011), were all mentally unstable adults, yet licensed to possess a firearm. In Winnenden (2009) an adolescent used a pistol, insecurely stored in his parents' bedroom, to kill 15 people. 

Tragedies like these demonstrate the importance of putting better, more coherent rules in place. Today, we are taking the first step, with a communication from the European Commission pointing out possible actions at EU level to curb gun violence.

The Commission will look at the need to clarify rules across Europe on what firearms should be allowed for civilian use, and who should be allowed to carry or to sell firearms. Today there is a risk of criminals seeking to obtain weapons in countries where legislation is the most lenient. We also need to look at how gun violence is sentenced in court. How do we make it illegal all over Europe to tamper with serial numbers to avoid the tracking of a gun? Which actions should be considered as weapons smuggling and illegal gun manufacturing? Here, defining minimum prison sentences at EU level could ensure that such crimes are taken as seriously in every country.

There is also a growing problem of criminals sending parts of decommissioned weapons by regular mail, to be reassembled by the buyer. Here, we need stronger common standards on how to make sure that firearms sent for destruction do not find their way back onto the market.

At the same time, we need better cooperation between police and customs authorities by more cross-border information sharing about illegal guns in circulation. During the next four years, this will be a high priority both nationally and between EU member states, after an important decision in the EU Council of Ministers this summer. The EU should also, as part of our common foreign and neighbourhood policy, work with neighbouring countries in order to shut down smuggling routes and manage stockpiles of military weapons responsibly.

We are also facing new technological challenges, not least the possibility to manufacture gun parts with 3D printers. As the methods used by those who wish to get their hands on an illegal firearm become ever more sophisticated, our efforts must follow suit.

Encouragingly, most Europeans agree that it is time to act. In a Eurobarometer poll released today, 53 percent of Europeans overall say that they want stricter regulation of who is allowed to own, buy or sell firearms. 58 percent of all Europeans wish to see common minimum standards in gun legislation across Europe. So there is support from the public as we now start the discussion on what needs to be done.

Tragically, we can expect to hear about new violent crimes involving firearms before long – it is time to open the debate on how to modernize firearms laws across Europe. The actions put forth today will be discussed by EU member states, the European Parliament and stakeholders, after which the European Commission can present concrete legislative proposals. Now, it is up to each country – not least, government representatives and Members of the European Parliament – to contribute to raising this issue high on the agenda. We cannot let gun control remain politically invisible in Europe. It is time to put our own house in order.