Commission battles hostile firearms lobby

Half a million legally-owned guns are reported missing in the Schengen area. [Tristram Biggs/Flickr]

One year and hundreds of hours of meetings after the Paris attacks, the EU is still struggling to find common ground on the regulation of firearms. Some hunters and sport shooters have flatly rejected the debate. EURACTIV France reports.

A surreal and violent debate over the firearms directive is raging in the corridors of the European institutions. Adopted in 1991 and revised in 2008, the text was brought back to the table after the Paris terrorist attacks of 13 November last year.

The fourth round of trialogue talks on the subject are taking place between the European executive, the Parliament and the Council on Monday (5 December). Yet despite dozens of complex meetings, very little progress has been made in the last year.

The left out in the cold

“This subject is both very technical and highly political. But what it comes down to is that we have  public security problem, as the police services are telling us, and in this case we need to decide in favour of security, not liberty,” said Pascal Durand, a French Green MEP and rapporteur on firearms.

The left wing of the European Parliament is standing alone in defence of the Commission’s proposal, against opposition from the liberals (ALDE), the centre-right (EPP), the conservatives (ECR) and the far right (ENL).

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France is among the countries most eager to progress with the text, which has already been severely watered down since the Commission’s original proposal a year ago.

But even here, like elsewhere in Europe, hunters and sport shooters have come out to defend their activities. Many feel they are being tarnished with the same brush as terrorists. “It is true that we communicated this bill just after the attacks, but the question is far broader than that,” a source at the European Commission said.

A parliamentary source told EURACTIV that the directive had been “drafted too quickly and still had rough edges”, but that these imperfections had since been ironed out.

After the terrorist attacks in Brussels on 22 March 2016, Bernard Cazeneuve, the French minister for the interior, joined calls to rewrite the firearms directive.

Insults and spam

“The pro-gun lobbies have been very active and sometimes very violent, while on the other side, the defenders of victims can hardly be heard,” an EU source said.

Commission staff dealing with the subject have received insulting messages. MEPs that support tougher legislation have been the victims of massive spam attacks, which some have blamed on the organisation Firearms United.

Representing firearms associations and hunters from around Europe, as well as Australia, Firearms United is not known for subtlety. “We do not want anything to do with this text. As there is no link between the owners of legal weapons and terrorism, what use is it?” said Tomasz Stepien, the president of the organisation.

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An impressive number of politicians have also come together, crossing national and political divides to reject any negotiation on the subject.

But legal firearms have been linked to several massacres in the past, according to the European executive, which uses this argument to strengthen its position on semi-automatics, the neutralisation of weapons and ownership of collectables.

Several weapons that had theoretically been ‘decommissioned’ have been used in different terrorist attacks in recent years, including the attempted Thalys attack and the attack on the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris in January 2015.

The new directive aims to strengthen the standards for weapons decommissioning, in order to avoid a situation whereby parts of weapons can be sold online, like any other piece of metal, and be reassembled without legal oversight.

Brussels has also established a direct link to the 80 million legal firearms in circulation in Europe.

“The many firearms in illegal circulation are often the result of theft or diversion from their lawful lifecycle, of being illegally imported from third countries and of the conversion of other objects into firearms. Almost half a million firearms lost or stolen in the EU remain unaccounted for, the overwhelming majority of which are civilian firearms, according to the Schengen Information System,” the Commission said in a communication to the Council and the Parliament.

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So-called ‘semi-automatic’ weapons are particularly controversial.

Under the original draft of the revised directive, the availability of such weapons, some of which are used in the many disciplines of sport shooting, would be severely curtailed. But with 200,000 licence-holders in France and Germany, shooting is a growing sport, particularly among police personnel.

“Semi-automatic weapons can be more dangerous than fully-automatic weapons,” Alain Alexis, the Commission’s representative, said at a debate in the European Parliament in November.

The executive believes that a semi-automatic weapon, which “wastes” less ammunition than an automatic, could be more deadly in a massacre. The AR-15 assault rifle used in the Orlando shootings in June is one such example.

So the Commission wants to restrict the availability of this type of weapon to civilians, whether shooters or collectors. Other semi-automatic weapons will remain legal, but the executive plans to limit the size of the magazines authorised.

“The gun lobby wants 50 bullets and the anti-gun lobby wants seven. We currently stand at ten,” said a source close to the negotiations.

For moderate opponents, the last year of negotiations has led to a more balanced set of positions. This is the view shared by Thierry Coste, the president of the Comité Guillaume Tell, the French association of sport shooting.

But the lobbyist had strong words for the Commission. “The civil servants have shown an incredible ideological bias, they have been useless on this subject, clinging to symbols like semi-automatic weapons,” said Coste.

Extreme right on the front line

The Comité Guillaume Tell added that it had done “good work” with MEPs Philippe Juvin (Republican, EPP) and Mylène Troszczynski (National Front, ENL), both of whom are members of the internal market committee (IMCO), the main parliamentary committee to have examined the subject.

But for Troszczynski, the compromise currently on the table is a no-go. “I opposed this revision from the beginning. The European Commission is contradicting itself: First, it wanted to ban certain weapons, now it wants to authorise them with smaller magazines. It would be good to know!” she said.

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Most of the MEPs most active on the subject are on the extreme right and are in favour of a more widespread circulation of firearms. “There are big benefits to a larger number of households owning several weapons,” said National Front MEP Bruno Gollnisch.

Beyond the ideological debate, some countries have different approaches to weapons, notably for military reservists. In Finland and Switzerland, for example, many civilians keep military weapons in their homes.

The technical nature of the debate and the lack of willingness to compromise on both sides are serious obstacles to an agreement. But there is hope: Slovakia is working hard to ensure progress is made before the end of its Council presidency.

Bratislava is keen to end its six-month stint at the helm with a result on an issue that is important to its own citizens. A consensus on the subject could restore the reputation of an otherwise lacklustre presidency.