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EU action against gun violence - Communication

21 October 2013
by eub2 -- last modified 21 October 2013

The European Commission has presented suggestions on how to reduce gun related violence in Europe. It identifies actions at EU level, through legislation, operational activities, training and EU funding, to address the threats posed by the illegal use of firearms. The ideas address weaknesses in the EU across the whole lifecycle of weapons, including production, sale, possession, trade, storage and deactivation, while respecting strong traditions of lawful gun use, such as sports shooting and hunting for example.


What is the extent of the problem?

Most legally-held firearms are used for legitimate purposes by law-abiding people. While the number of legally-held civilian firearms is estimated at 80 million in the EU, there are no precise statistics on the many firearms in illegal circulation. Some figures however give some indication. For instance, almost half a million firearms lost or stolen in the EU remain unaccounted for, the overwhelming majority of which are civilian firearms, according to the Schengen Information System.

At the same time, it is difficult to assess precisely the volume of illegal trafficking which provides lucrative business for organised crime groups. According to one estimate the illegal firearms trade generates between €125 million to €236 million per year globally - which represents between 10 to 20% of the total trade in legal firearms (UNODC The Globalization of Crime," Chapter 6: Firearms (p.129), June 2010).

Such figures only cover portable firearms, and do not account for trade in heavy firearms, ammunitions and parts and components. Moreover, illicit firearms trade is often closely intertwined with other serious crimes such as drug trafficking, human trafficking and corruption.

It is also true that firearms which are legally registered, held and traded get diverted into criminal markets or to unauthorised individuals. It is clear that firearms in the wrong hands have devastating consequences for citizens. In the EU, there are on average 0.24 homicides and 0.9 suicides by firearm per 100 000 population per year (see Annex 2 of the Communication). From 2000-2010 there were over 10.000 victims of murder or manslaughter, killed by firearms, in the 28 Member States of the EU.

What are the rules at EU level?

The existing EU legislative framework on firearms largely derives from the UN Firearms Protocol (UNFP) which the EU concluded earlier this year.

EU legislation consists of:

  • Directive 2008/51/EC, which integrates the appropriate provisions required by the Firearms Protocol as regards intra-Community transfers of weapons. The Directive establishes rules on controls by the Member States on the acquisition and possession of firearms and their transfer to another Member State.
  • The directive establishes 4 categories of firearms, by order of level of danger. Whilst it is prohibited to acquire and possess Category A firearms (explosive arms, automatic weapons…), for Category B weapons (ex: semi-automatic) an authorization is necessary and for Category C and D a declaration suffices.
  • Regulation 258/2012 which addresses trade and transfers with countries outside the EU, thereby transposing the provisions of Article 10 of the UNFP.
  • The Regulation is based on the principle that firearms and related items should not be transferred between states without the knowledge and consent of all states involved. It lays down procedural rules for export, and import - as well as for transit of firearms, their parts and components and ammunition.
  • Exports of firearms are subject to export authorisations, containing the necessary information to trace them, including the country of origin, the country of export, the final recipient and a description of the quantity of the firearms and related items.
  • Member States have the obligation to verify that the importing third country has issued an import authorisation. In the case of transit of weapons and related items through third countries, each transit country must give notice in writing that it has no objection. Member States must refuse to grant an export authorisation if the person applying has any previous record concerning illicit trafficking or other serious crime.

What is the aim of the Commission's Communication?

The EU has some of the toughest rules on firearms. It has made significant progress in the last decade through updating and strengthening regulation of commercial aspects of firearms manufacturing, possession and sale.

Many EU countries have well-functioning gun legislation in place. Yet divergences between national legislation make it easier for organised crime groups and those involved in terrorist activity to exploit gaps in legal supply chains to obtain weapons and ammunition.

The Commission believes that more can be done. It is therefore putting forward ideas to address vulnerabilities in the EU as regards weapons smuggling, and across the whole lifecycle of weapons, including production, sale, possession, trade, storage and deactivation.

For instance we need to look at whether and how we can strengthen the legislation, how to step up operational cooperation between law enforcement services, and how to work better in and with third countries to stem the inflow of illicit arms.

The actions suggested in today's Communication would facilitate both legal trade in the internal market and law enforcement cooperation in identifying and disrupting organised criminal groups.

They will now be discussed by the European Parliament, the Council and other stakeholders (police, customs agencies, industry, groups of legal firearms users, partners in third countries and other concerned citizens). The Commission may then develop concrete legislative proposals.

What are the main priorities?

The Commission has identified four priorities under which several concrete actions are considered:

1. Safeguarding the licit market for civilian firearms

The Commission will envisage tightening the EU internal market Directive (i.e. Directive 2008/51/EC) on the possession of weapons in the Member States. For example, should access to certain particularly dangerous weapons models continue to be allowed for civilian use?

A common approach for how to mark firearms with serial numbers when they are manufactured could help tracing those used by criminals.

We also need to look at the procedures for licensing of weapons. In general, licensing rules that are easier to understand would allow for a more consistent approach to authorisation for firearms dealers, brokers and owners wherever they are in the EU.

2. Legal to illegal: reducing diversion of firearms into criminal hands

Reducing the threat of diversion from third countries could best be achieved through technical assistance, including to reinforce their arms export control systems, close down smuggling routes and better manage stockpiles of military weapons.

Controls on sale and illegal manufacture of firearms should be properly enforced, for instance in the context of arms fairs. We also need to know more about new technological challenges, such as online sales of weapons or 3D printing of weapons parts, but also on how to reduce the risk of illegal delivery of firearms by postal services.

To prevent theft and loss, the Commission will also look at storage as well (some EU countries have mandatory rules on keeping firearms stored in safe, but others do not).

While requirements vary from one Member State to another, common EU-wide rules for how to deactivate firearms might ensure that once firearms have been taken out of use they remain inoperable.

3. Increasing pressure on criminal markets

Guidelines for law enforcement officers on cross border investigations into crime-related firearms will be further developed.

Cross border cooperation between police, customs and border guards can be strengthened through better sharing and analysis of intelligence and specific joint operation targeting for instance the principal sources and routes of illegal firearms. EU funding will be available to this end.

Tracing of firearms is essential for identifying who is responsible for firearms offences and how he acquired the firearm. Enhancing ballistic identification capabilities, facilitating exchange of information and best practice between Member States, establishing of a central online repository of factual information on ballistics and weapons types are ways to help police and customs identify ammunition and weapons.

There is also a need to consider EU legislation with common minimum rules on criminal sanctions to be sure that deterrence works in all Member States and that there are no legal loopholes for the traffickers. Such rules could prescribe which firearm offences should be subject to criminal sanctions (illicit manufacture, trafficking, tampering with markings, illegal possession of a firearm and intent to supply firearm), as well as foresee the level of sanctions that should be imposed by Member States.

4. Building a better intelligence picture

The EU will seek to gather more accurate and comprehensive data on firearms-related crime in EU and globally. Existing IT tools and databases, such as the Customs Risk Management System, the Customs Information System and the Europol Information System, should be fully exploited at all stages of criminal investigations.

In 2014, additional training schemes for front-line law enforcement officers will be organised at EU and national level, including through CEPOL, the European Police College.

What do Europeans believe should be done?

To prepare today's Communication and future debates, the Commission launched a public consultation and a Eurobarometer survey.

The Eurobarometer survey was carried out in the 28 EU Member States between 16 September and 18 September 2013. Some 26,555 respondents provided answers about the level of firearm ownership among European citizens, perceptions of firearms-related crime and whether stricter regulation is the most effective way to address the problem.


Key findings:

Firearms ownership

  •     Most people who own firearms have them for hunting, sports or for professional reasons.
  •     The reasons for owning a firearm differ considerably from country to country: for example, 73% of firearm owners in Finland have one for hunting, while 71% in Romania have one for professional reasons.

Firearms trafficking and related crime

  • Most (58%) think the level of firearms-related crime will increase over the next five years while only 6% think it will decline.
  • Around two thirds (64%) of European citizens think that the EU, working in cooperation with national authorities, is best placed to address the issue of firearms trafficking to the EU from outside the EU.
  • A large majority of people (87%) think the EU should cooperate with non-EU countries to help them control firearms.

Regulating ownership and trading of firearms

  • Around six in ten Europeans (58%) think that there should be common minimum standards across the EU concerning laws on firearms.
  • A majority of respondents (53%) support stricter regulation of who is allowed to own, buy or sell firearms in their country, while 39% of people favour other ways to reduce the level of firearms-related crime.
  • A large majority of those who support common minimum standards at an EU level support standards specifically concerning: the types of firearms that can be sold for private use (73%); marking each firearm to identify its owner (95%); licensing the possession of firearms (88%); and how illegal trafficking in firearms is punished (86%).

The public consultation was open from 25 March to 17 June 2013 to gather views of citizens and organisations on the possibility of more action on EU level in the area of firearms controls.

Details about the number and nature of the responses received and common themes which emerged

Communication: Firearms and the internal security of the EU: protecting citizens and disrupting illegal trafficking

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