Nobody yet knows exactly where the terrorists who murdered 12 people at Charlie Hebdo, a policewoman, and four hostages at a kosher market got their funding, backing, and equipment—French authorities and their colleagues elsewhere are investigating that as I write. But one question that appeared early in the media was about the "worrying level of firepower" brandished by terrorists in a country with strict firearms laws. Just how did the attackers acquire AK-style weapons in a country where gun ownership is tightly controlled by law, and where possession of handguns and semiautomatics is almost off-limits to civilians?
The obvious answer is that they didn't obey the law. They were terrorists with radical connections, criminal backgrounds and, no doubt, access to the black markets that everywhere make available the things people want that governments don't want them to have.
"The French black market for weapons has been inundated with eastern European war artillery and arms," Philippe Capon, the head of UNSA police union, told Bloomberg. "They are everywhere in France." Capon put the black market price of AK-47s at between 1,000 and 1,500 euros.
This squares with what the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey found in its 2003 annual report. As of that year, France had 2.8 million registered firearms, but an estimated 15 million to 17 million owned illegally. Smuggled guns "flow largely from east to west" in Europe the report found, fueled by simmering distrust of authorities in countries that suffered communist rule, as well as a mother lode of old Soviet weapons abandoned by collapsed regimes—weapons like AK-47s.
That's the supply side. The demand side likely consists of individuals who wants arms for themselves, criminals, and of course, terrorists. The Christian Science Monitor notes that raids by French police in October "found hundreds of illegal arms stashed away. The seized caches included machine guns, assault rifles, and automatic pistols."
This is an old story in all areas of life involving prohibitions, from weapons to drugs, from sex to forbidden literature. If people want something, somebody else will earn a buck by making it available. Supply will meet demand.
That's not to say that France's laws had no impact. It's impossible to know whether anybody at Charlie Hebdo or at the market could have successfully taken advantage of an opportunity to defend against murderers who didn't care about statutes and penalties. What we do know is that, under the law, the victims had no chance to find out. They had to settle for being legally disarmed when their assailants were not so encumbered.