The shooting that occurred on July 20th in Aurora, Colorado has brought the question over gun control in the United States back on the front page. But any debate seems already solved before it even takes place. Americans are too attached to their Second Amendment that grants them the right to keep and bear arms. And none of the claims made by Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) or by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to strengthen gun laws is likely to change anything. Even the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford (D-AZ) was not able to trigger any congressional action. The Congresswoman who was shot in the head during an attempted assassination near Tucson, Arizona, in January 2011 is still in recovery and had to resign from her office.
On the other side of the Atlantic, many efforts have been made to minimize weapon proliferation. European countries have come together to set a legal framework that strictly defines gun ownership. As a result, the European Council Directive of June 18th, 1991 provides the key legal information regarding gun control in the EU. It prohibits the private possession of fully automatic weapons, and regulates the possession of semi-automatic ones and handguns. This regulation relies on a system of license. People who want to acquire a weapon need to obtain a gun owner’s license. This license is only delivered after a background check has been led and legitimate reasons have been provided. Only licensed people can legally acquire a firearm or ammunition.
Let’s take the example of France. To obtain such a license, people have to practice shooting during at least six months in a club of the official French Federation of Shooting. After the Federation has given its favorable opinion, the police investigate on criminal or mental records. If the police do not find anything, they give an authorization valid for five years. The owner must then buy his gun in a limited period of three months if he doesn’t want his authorization to expire. There is also a limitation regarding the number: a maximum of twelve guns can be detained, while in Norway, such restriction does not exist. Since the French law of 1995, it is nowadays compulsory to keep guns into a locked safe.
In France, Norway and the UK, the right to private gun ownership is not guaranteed by the Constitution. Moreover, in each country, sale of guns and firearms must be registered and recorded.
In case of illicit possession of firearms, the maximum penalty will be seven years prison and a fine in France while in Norway the maximum penalty would only be 3 months.
Such a restrictive policy has made its mark. Indeed, no European country has more than 30% of its population possessing guns. Compared to 88% for the United States, this number looks quite insignificant. In total, the number of guns held by civilians in the US seems to be disproportionate (270,000,000) compared to the European countries, where French civilians hold only 19,000,000 guns. The UK and Norway has even a smaller result with respectively an approximate 4,000,000 and 1,300,000 guns held by civilians. These two countries have an impressively low rate of gun deaths: only 107 deaths in 2009 in Norway and 138 in the UK for the same year. Even France, the most “armed” country of Europe, had a total number of deaths by guns for 2009 under 2,000 persons. In the United States during the same period, this number was five times higher, with almost 10,000 deaths a year.
European gun regulation legislation seems to limit efficiently the number of shootings similar to the one in Aurora. However, the European Union is still facing problems with firearms.
The shooting in Norway by the mass murderer Anders Breivik was a very astonishing event in a country where even policemen do not wear guns in the streets. In France, a similar event took place in Toulouse in March 2012, where Mohammed Merah shot French soldiers and French civilians from Jewish descent. His killing provoked a huge controversy in France at a time of presidential elections. In fact, the murderer Mohammed Merah appeared to travel in Afghanistan and Pakistan where he became familiar with extremist theories. He claimed his affiliation with the al-Qaeda terrorist organization and explained his behavior by criticizing French soldiers involvement in the war in Afghanistan and Jewish people in Palestine.
In Sweden, Prime Minister Olof Palme had been shot in the street while walking home with his wife in 1986. He died from his wounds. He had no bodyguard protecting him as he tried his best to live a normal life despite his position. This assassination traumatized Sweden. Since this event, Sweden passed laws in 1991, 1992 and then 1996 about acquisition and possession of weapons with a regulation based on license.
In these cases however, the shootings were inspired by political and terrorist motives. This aspect contrasts with the recent shooting in Aurora or with the sadly famous Columbine massacre. It is kind of paradoxical that the US which is quite successful in preventing terrorist attacks is so lax with civilian gun ownership. Like fighting terrorism, regulating gun ownership is another way to protect people.
Europe has its own share of paradoxes. European countries promote strict gun control laws at home. But many of them rank among the top 10 biggest arm exporters in the world. That is the case for Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Netherlands and Italy which respectively occupy the third place, the fourth place, the fifth place, the seventh place and the ninth place.
Another mass killing took place in early August in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in a Sikh temple continuing this sad trend of multiple murders with guns across the United States.
Will the United States ever adopt the strict gun laws of Europe? Or will guns continue to be out of control across America versus gun control in Europe?
Co-written by Guillaume CHAMPAGNAT and Elsa ROMEYER, Editorial Assistants for TransAtlantic Magazine