I have spent most of this summer in Europe, during one of the most volatile periods I can remember. In only the past several weeks, gun violence and terrorism have hit Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge, Nice and Munich. In the US, the continued violence has reignited the crucial debate and search for an explanation on the specific cause of our extremely high rate of gun murders; by far the highest in the developed world. Is it because the U.S. has such an enormous volume of easily acquired guns, in the legal and black markets, or is there something else to the story; something about our society that makes us more prone to this tragic problem? Is it because of systemic, socioeconomic or cultural inequalities?
For years, I have seen many parallels to this debate in Europe, and wonder if the ideas and understanding regarding gun acquisition and ownership that have been gained across the Atlantic can shed light on what the US should consider, as we cross the halfway point of a bloody summer.
Much of the thinking on violence in the United States is informed by comparisons made to a variety of countries with lower murder rates, and most importantly, with fewer guns per capita, such as Canada, Japan and the U.K. Many studies and statistics on crime have shown that the U.S. murder rate is approximately 5 times that of the Eastern and European countries. A recent study by the OSCE (Organization for Security and Economic Cooperation in Europe) found that the murder rate within the United States is approximately 5 per 100,000, compared to the majority of European countries with murder rates often below 1 per 100,000. A similar study in 2013 by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime found a similar gap in the number of violent crimes between the US and Europe that resulted in murder.
To tackle this dire situation, we are forced to confront the cold reality of how dangerous and shameful our relationship to guns has been for far too long. We need to focus on the broader spectrum of differences between the U.S. and other countries to examine how cultural, social and regulatory approaches have afforded them a completely different reality when it comes to gun violence and safety.
Unlike the US, European countries set out early to create a framework that strictly defines gun ownership. The European Council Directive of June 18th, 1991 provides comprehensive direction and understanding of gun control in the EU. It prohibits the private possession of fully automatic weapons, and regulates the possession of semi-automatics and handguns. This unique organization relies on a system of licenses that must be obtained prior to gun ownership. The license can only be issued after successful background checks and significant reasons have been provided as to why an individual wants and needs to own a weapon. It is a very restrictive program that was put in place over the protests of many, but it’s implementation has worked well, up until recent years.
Despite the recent wave of terrorism violence, both France and Germany have strict gun laws, and Germany in particular, has some of the strictest laws in the world. Licenses are rarely granted for self defense purposes; a strong contrast to U.S. policy and politics.
In order to obtain a gun license, individuals have to practice for at least one year at an official shooting Federation. After the Federation has given approval, police investigate criminal and mental health records. If all clears, individuals can be granted authorization which is valid for up to three years. The newly permitted buyer must purchase a gun within a specific time period or the buying license automatically expires. If purchased, additional regulations apply, such as the number and type of guns one is permitted to own and requirements that all guns must be stored in a locked safe. In France, Norway and the UK, the right to private gun ownership is not guaranteed by the Constitution, and violations to protocol are not taken lightly. If someone is caught with illegal possession of firearms, the maximum penalty is at least a seven year prison sentence and stiff fines.
This strict regulatory environment has had undeniably powerful impact. No single European country has more than 30% of its population in possession of guns. Compare that to 88% in possession in the United States. Statistics show that criminal assaults with guns kill 30 Americans every day, and injure another 170. The US has at least 270,000,000 guns legally registered to private citizens, compared to France’s 19,000,000 or the UK and Norway, with 4,000,000 and 1,300,000 guns respectively.
Obviously, Europe has still endured gun violence. Deaths in Sweden, Denmark and Norway’s mass shooting are only a few examples. The last several months have brought a wave of terror attacks involving guns in France and Germany, and were perpetrated by individuals who were able to purchase weapons on the black market from Eastern Europe left from previous conflict zones, such as Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia and Albania, and more recently, weapons sent from the US to arm the opposition in Syria have been traced to black market sales in Jordan. Further instability in countries such as the Ukraine and Libya has added to this challenge, in addition to the return to Europe of foreign fighters recruited and trained in weapons by ISIS and other organizations.
To further cloud the debate, we are now faced with the daunting task of addressing the availability of guns and gun parts on the Internet. A vast secret network of weapons smugglers have taken advantage of the Schengen open borders agreements and gun parts, used to rebuild previously deactivated weapons, have been available for purchase online on the so called encrypted “black net”, which has led to an unprecedented rise in gun violence in European cities. Unlike the UK, which has very strict laws regarding deactivation, including permanent disablement of shooting capabilities, most of continental Europe still caters to gun collectors and their need for intact original firearms, which in the wrong hands, are very easy to reactivate.
Europe struggles with other paradoxes as well. Several countries rank among the top ten biggest arms exporters in the world. Included on that list are Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy. Additionally, the role of the internet in recruiting, promoting and mobilizing terrorism and violence has become a tremendous challenge. Severe restrictions need to be put in place to safeguard all of our societies worldwide. Recently, Israeli Intelligence has taken an active lead in helping Europe as it faces the first steps of implementing the necessary restrictions that have been instrumental for protecting Israel.
Despite these very concerning and dangerous developments which are now forcing Europe to aggressively catch up on how criminal action of this nature has found a way to go around the rules of law enforcement, the key differences in the numbers of shootings and how that relates to the availability of weapons is what should be considered most important. On a positive note, the illegal black market for acquiring firearms can be susceptible to leaks, and has also provided information in past years leading to a number of arrests.
In contrast to the US’s alarming statistics of random gun violence and recent, calculated attacks like Orlando’s mass shooting, nearly all of the violence in Europe, involving guns and otherwise, have been inspired by political and terrorist motives. This aspect presents a sharp contrast to very recent shootings in Dallas or Baton Rouge, or with the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. In light of these examples, it is sadly ironic that the US, which has been largely successful in preventing terrorist attacks since 9/11, maintains and justifies such a lenient approach to gun ownership.
Despite how overwhelming, complicated and far-reaching it may seem, all of this chaos and instability can offer an opportunity for all of us to strongly reevaluate the many different tools and mechanisms against violence that are being used in the world today. It is absolutely imperative that an international global effort take place in the name of making our communities and cities safe. This is starting to take place. Last week, the German government called for EU-wide gun controls in the wake of the Munich shootings, as it emerged the teenage attacker purchased a gun on the “dark web”. In the US, a strong step in the right direction is the recently passed law in Massachusetts that bans the sale and possession of all automatic weapons in the state, reinstating a previous law allowed to expire in 2004.
This is a volatile and unpredictable time for Americans, and for the world. Here at home, the 2016 Presidential elections make everything shakier. Yet my hope is that we can use this dramatic shake up in political structures to realize a new and expanded lens for examining these issues, and a more conscious debate on what needs to be done. We must not only work on changing the way we interact and improve communication on these urgent issues; we must come together everywhere to find common ground and courage in order to implement the necessary laws and restrictions to make our challenging, complicated and uncertain world safer for us and future generations. In the words of Hillary Clinton’s closing speech at the Democratic Convention, “the entire world is watching the United States for leadership and our perils should not blind us to the world’s promise.”