Gun Control

In Europe, Terrorists Arm Themselves on the Black Market While Populists Champion Self-Defense Rights

Forget stories of restrictive laws; predators have easy access to weapons, but honest people can get into trouble for defending themselves.


A rising populist politician challenges federal officials' schemes to tighten gun laws in response to high-profile mass killings. Making existing laws ever-more draconian is foolish, she says, since "honest citizens are the ones affected, not those who procure weapons via the darknet,"—a direct reference to a recent shooting incident in which the killer illegally acquired a weapon from black market sites via anonymous Tor software.

The better approach, says the politician, is to enable people to carry guns to defend themselves. "We all know how long it takes for police, especially in sparsely populated areas to arrive at the scene of deployments." She added, "Every law-abiding person should be in the position to protect himself, his family and his friends."

We're talking about Orlando, right? Or maybe Charleston?

Nope. The place is Germany. The politician is Frauke Petry, leader of the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a Trump-esque party that has muscled its way into eight of Germany's 16 state parliaments and has many bien-pensant observers dreading the next national election—especially if a string of terrorist attacks and crime linked, partially in reality and partially in public perception, to the recent influx of North African and Middle Eastern refugees continues, sending frightened voters in the party's direction.

Her often xenophobic and Donald-ish stances aside, Petry has latched onto a real problem. Politicians have responded to recent violence by proposing to make gun laws even more restrictive than they already are. It's the sort of response Americans are accustomed to, with every ugly crime eliciting calls to tighten the screws on people who had nothing to do with the bloody incident. Disturbed kid shoots up a school? Then ban the sort of rifle he chose to use!

But Germany already has all of the laws that American authoritarians only dream of imposing: age restrictions, screening of purchasers for knowledge and psychological stability, mandatory registration, annual licenses to own any weapon or purchase ammunition, and specific bans on a range of weapons, among others. The end result has been, as is often the case with restrictions and prohibitions, crimes and terrorist attacks that continue without regard for the new rules. People prepared to violate laws against murder and mayhem, it turns out, aren't terribly impressed by licensing requirements.

Another inevitable result of restrictive laws is large-scale noncompliance. In 2003, the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey estimated that the roughly 80 million Germans owned 7.2 million legal guns and between 17 and 20 million illegal ones. Some of those illegal guns are long-held weapons that were never registered, but others are recently smuggled products. "Police in northern Europe tend to believe that illegal weapons are arriving largely from eastern and central Europe, especially the Czech Republic and the former Soviet Union," the Small Arms Survey adds.

Earlier this month, reporters for Britain's Sky News met with gun smugglers who displayed AK-47s and Steyr rifles for sale, and offered to provide explosives and rocket-propelled grenades. "The men claimed their weapons are smuggled from Ukraine into Romania before being shipped by another gang to western Europe and the middle east. But western Europe was the primary destination."

"You can find Kalashnikovs for sale near the train station in Brussels," a European Union official told the Washington Post last year. "They're available even to very average criminals."

Likewise, "[t]he French black market for weapons has been inundated with eastern European war artillery and arms," Philippe Capon, the head of the country's UNSA police union told Bloomberg. "They are everywhere in France."

Everywhere indeed. "While the exact number is not known, estimates run to 10 to 20 million illegal weapons in circulation in France's population of 65 million," adds the Christian Science Monitor (a number that squares with Small Arms Survey estimates).

The darknet through which David Ali Sonboly armed himself for the Munich rampage referenced by Petry has simply added a level of technological sophistication to a long-thriving weapons black market—an easier way to shop the ever-shifting inventory.

So Germany and the rest of Europe aren't really all that short of guns no matter what the law says, or what American Europhiles insist. What there's a shortage of in many places, though, is permission for people to legally carry the means to defend themselves so they don't suffer harsh penalties for saving their own skin. Danish authorities went so far as to penalize a 17-year-old girl who had the temerity to pepper-spray a would-be rapist.

And to be clear, there's plenty of demand for self-defense tools. Even before this summer's crimes and terrorist attacks, NBC News reported in the aftermath of chaotic and violent New Year's Eve celebrations in several cities that "[h]undreds of sex assaults allegedly committed mostly by North African men on New Year's Eve in Cologne has sparked an 'explosion in sales' of pepper spray and non-lethal guns… CS gas spray, stun guns and pepper spray are especially in great demand." Those weapons are less restricted than firearms in Germany and so can be used legally, if not always so effectively, against assailants.

Evidence that Germans might prefer Frauke Petry's suggestion that they be more easily allowed the use of actual firearms for self-defense is apparent from a glance at neighboring Austria. There, fears both exaggerated and real over the recent rise in terrorist attacks and crimes (also linked to the influx of refugees) drove residents to nearly empty gun stores of shotguns and many rifles, taking advantage of the country's relatively liberal rules.

And Swiss citizens, free of the most prohibitive restrictions, have also flocked to acquire the means to defend themselves. At one Geneva gun shop, "the demand for pistols, revolvers and pump-action guns rose by 30 percent to 50 percent after [last] month's attacks in Nice and Munich"—figures repeated through much of the country.

Those restrictive European gun laws touted by gun control advocates in the United States have done exactly nothing to disarm criminals and terrorists in the countries where they've been implemented. As always, restrictive laws have bred black markets and inconvenienced only the law-abiding.

Smart politicians might respond to public fears of crime and terrorism by acknowledging that they have no ability to disarm the predators in their society, and by empowering people to defend themselves without fear of prosecution. Smart officials would concede that the restrictive path they've chosen has failed and that the American model that they've ridiculed for so long, under which people are entitled to own the means for self-defense, may well be preferable. Dumb ones would leave the issue to be wrapped up in a bow by their country's own Donald Trump.