Gun Culture In Some European Countries Rivals That of US
By Mike Wendling
CNSNews.com London Bureau Chief
July 03, 2003
London (CNSNews.com) - Despite the popular view of Europe as a bastion of tight gun control laws, a study due to be released next week says firearm ownership is widespread and that some European countries have developed a gun culture rivalling that of the United States.
European Union residents own a total of 67 million registered guns, but the real total is probably much higher, according to this year's Small Arms Survey. Ownership is most prevalent in Finland, France and Germany.
"Contrary to widely accepted national myths, public gun ownership is commonplace," researchers wrote. "It may appear to some outside observers -- especially Americans -- that Europeans have blindly surrendered their gun rights."
"The reality is that the citizens of most European countries are better armed than they realize," the report said. "Many -- but not all -- countries of Europe have a strong gun culture."
The Small Arms Survey 2003, funded by the Swiss government and 12 other nations, was carried out by the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva.
Researchers found that the 15 E.U. countries have an average gun ownership rate of 17.4 guns per 100 people. While that figure is significantly lower than that in the United States, where ownership rates are climbing to one gun per person, individual European countries are taking up gun ownership at rates nearly as fast as the United States.
Germans, for example, are buying almost as many new guns per capita as Americans.
The report also said that firearm regulations are most strict in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and E.U. candidate country Poland. Officials across the continent agree that illegal or unregistered weapons greatly outnumber known firearms, the researchers said.
Finland has the highest per capital rate of official firearm ownership at 39 per 100 people, largely due to the Scandinavian country's hunting tradition.
France and Germany aren't far behind at 30 guns per 100 population. France has more legal handguns than Denmark, Great Britain, the Czech Republic and Poland combined.
"The levels of gun ownership are going up in Europe more than people realize," said Aaron Karp, a senior consultant on the survey, who also teaches at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
Karp, speaking to CNSNews.com by phone, said national culture affects ownership rates more than gun control laws do.
"Countries have very different attitudes towards firearms," he said. "Laws tend to come after or reinforce attitudes already in existence."
Cultural differences are reflected in an increased European preference for long guns such as rifles and shotguns -- except for France, where the long gun-to-handgun ratio is about the same as that in the United States.
Guns have also become a hot political issue in Europe, Karp said.
The study found that firearms crimes are becoming more prevalent in Europe, even as the use of firearms in wars and conflicts in the Balkans and Northern Ireland has decreased.
"European civil society has begun to acquire large numbers of automatic weapons," Karp said, and the study noted that firearms have been used in several recent high-profile assassination attempts.
Dutch conservative politician Pim Fortuyn was killed by a gun-wielding leftist last April, and a rifleman attempted to assassinate French President Jacques Chirac a year ago.
Several local politicians have also been the targets of shootings. In Sept. 2001, a gunman killed 14 at a local parliament meeting in Zug, Switzerland.
School shootings, once thought to be an American phenomenon, have also started occurring with increasing frequency in Europe.
In Erfurt, Germany, last April, a student killed 16 people and injured 10 others. And in the most recent incident Wednesday, a student shot and injured a teacher then killed himself in a school in the state of Bavaria.
It was a school shooting in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996 that prompted the British government to enact some of Europe's strictest gun laws.
Karp said the survey figures showed a "modest" correlation between rising gun ownership and rising firearms crime in Europe. The correlation is much stronger, he said, between gun ownership and suicide figures.
"Guns and gun crime, especially used in robberies and muggings, have sparked a massive debate in the U.K.," he said. "But the problem there is that the absolute level of gun crime is relatively low, so the figures are volatile."
The survey found that firearm-related deaths amounted to 11.3 per 100,000 in the United States compared to 5 per 100,000 in France, 1.5 per 100,000 in Germany and 0.3 per 100,000 in England and Wales.