Europeans turn to weapons in growing numbers after attacks

There are over 100 guns per 100 US residents, more than twice the figure for Switzerland and three times that for Austria, Germany and France.

By REUTERS
August 23, 2016 19:47
3 minute read.
Gun found in overnight raid - March 22, 2016

Gun found in overnight raid - March 22, 2016. (photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)

 
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Europeans in a number of countries are seeking to arm themselves with guns and self-defense devices in growing numbers following a series of attacks by militants and the mentally ill.

Some weapons sellers also link their increased business to the arrival of huge numbers of migrants in Europe, although a German police report stated that the vast majority do not commit crimes of any kind in the country.

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The picture is patchy, with no up-to-date data available at a European level, leaving national and regional authorities to release statistics that are far from comprehensive and not always comparable. Reasons also vary for civilians to own guns legally, including hunting and sport as well as self-protection.

Nevertheless, applications for gun permits are climbing in Switzerland, Austria and the Czech Republic. Their larger neighbor Germany has not followed the trend in lethal firearms, but permits for carrying devices designed to scare off assailants, such as blank guns and those that fire pepper spray, have risen almost 50 percent.

Trends in weapons permits

Little research into the reasons for the recent apparent trend has yet been published, but the assumption is that attacks in the past year including in Paris, Brussels, Nice and Munich have stirred fear among some citizens.

"There's no official explanation for the rise, but in general we see a connection to Europe's terrorist attacks," said Hanspeter Kruesi, a police spokesman in the Swiss canton of St. Gallen.

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Kruesi advised against buying weapons, saying they did little to improve citizens' security while presenting problems over safe storage and raising legal questions over their proper use in a conflict. "People could actually make themselves criminally liable," he said.

After he spoke to Reuters, the canton was the scene of an attack aboard a train this month. The suspect and a woman victim died later, although police said his motive was unclear.

One Swiss resident who has just bought his first ever weapons - a pistol and a pump-action shotgun - pinned his decision on a feeling of insecurity created by the attacks combined with criminality that he blamed on north Africans, as well as concern over recent break-ins in his neighborhood.

"Buying weapons for self-defense won't protect you from terrorist attacks," said the 55-year-old who lives in a town near the capital, Bern.

"Nevertheless these attacks are contributing to a subjective sense of threat, as is the rising pressure from migration and the high crime rate among migrants from the Maghreb," he said, requesting anonymity due to concerns about his safety.

Figures are hard to come by on whether the rate of crime, serious or petty, is higher among migrants than the general population in Europe.

The report from the BKA federal police in Germany - where more than a million people fleeing violence and poverty arrived last year - said migrants committed or tried to commit about 69,000 crimes in the first quarter of 2016. However, it did not say how this compared with the overall number of crimes.

American mindset

Gun ownership remains low in Europe. According to the Geneva-based group Small Arms Survey, the United States easily surpasses the continent in per capita terms.

There are over 100 guns per 100 US residents, more than twice the figure for Switzerland and three times that for Austria, Germany and France.

France requires background checks for those seeking a weapon for the two purposes it considers legitimate: hunting or joining a shooting club. This scrutiny can take more than a year.

Consequently, it is unlikely that legal French gun ownership has changed much since 2015, said Thierry Coste, secretary general of the Comité Guillaume Tell (William Tell) lobby group.

"Gun ownership is extremely regulated, getting there is like an obstacle course," he said. "We don't have the same mindset as Americans."

Gun control laws in Britain, which has also experienced a number of Islamist militant attacks in recent years, have been strict since a school massacre in 1996. Licensed firearms numbers in England and Wales have remained relatively stable in the past year.

Even in the self-defence business, some doubt the benefits of a personal arsenal. Marco Schnyder, who runs a training center in Zurich, said knowing how to restrain an assailant was better.

"I have people in my shooting classes who want to protect their families or themselves," he said. "They would be better served getting a watchdog or an alarm system. I tell them that, too."

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