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Europe’s Lucrative Gun Trade With America

Should Europe be concerned that its lax gun exporting laws stand in contrast to its strict gun control policies at home?

February 19, 2008

Should Europe be concerned that its lax gun exporting laws stand in contrast to its strict gun control policies at home?

We have seen this before. In 2007, the shooting at Virginia Tech claimed 32 victims. Despite extensive coverage, one detail went largely unnoticed: The guns used by the killer, Seung Hui Cho, actually came from Europe.

This is also the case in the Northern Illinois University massacre, in which Steven Kazmierczak killed five people in DeKalb, Illinois on February 14, 2008.

At Virginia Tech, the two semi-automatic pistols were manufactured by Austrian firearms specialist Glock and German gunmaker Walther. And at NIU, the shooter availed himself of a Glock and a Swiss Sig Sauer handgun.

In both cases, the weapons had been legally sold in the United States — although many Americans were shocked to discover how legal loopholes allowed Cho, who was widely known to be mentally disturbed, to buy two handguns within a month.

Meanwhile in Europe, where the U.S. gun culture is regularly pilloried, nobody seems perturbed by the double standard of having strict gun controls at home — while allowing guns to be easily exported to a country with looser regulations.

There are about 30,000 gun-related deaths in the United States each year — roughly eight times the total number of U.S. soldiers killed in the entire four-year Iraq war.

An estimated 200 million firearms are circulating in the United States, and there are 44 million gun owners out of a population of 300 million — meaning that nearly 15% of the U.S. population owns firearms.

Meanwhile, EU exports of small arms to the United States — shotguns, pistols, rifles and revolvers — earned European businesses a tidy $370 million in 2006, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The EU-to-U.S. gun trade has more than doubled in the past five years — with 65.4% of all the guns imported by the United States in 2006 coming from the EU, the statistics show. The number one exporter is Italy, which in 2006 exported $141 million of light weapons.

Austria — home of the Glock 19 pistol, which is also the most popular gun in America — comes in at second place, with gun exports totaling $87 million last year.

Ironically, while both shooters easily managed to get their hands on an Austrian gun sold inside the United States, they would probably have never been able to acquire it had they been in Austria.

One Austrian diplomat, who owns a hunting gun, explained how Austrians must pass a rigorous psychological test in order to buy a gun, prove they need it for self-defense before they are allowed to carry it — and report to the police every two years.

Gun manufacturing is big business inside the United States, too. According to figures provided by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a grand total of 3,307,627 guns were manufactured in 2005. Renowned U.S. firearms manufacturers include Smith & Wesson, Colt, Remington, Browning and Mossberg.

While the NSSF was happy to supply data on the number of guns made, neither the National Rifle Association (NRA) nor the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) could say how much money was made from the trade.

Finally, an official in the census section of the U.S. Commerce Department was able to provide the manufacturing sales total for 2005: $1,977,612,000. That means EU manufacturers cornered off a respectable 16.6% segment of the $2 billion U.S. firearms market for themselves that year.

With the gun trade clearly booming, the question remains: What restrictions do the EU and United States impose on the trade? Inquiries revealed how both the EU and the United States have extensive regulations designed to avoid weapons proliferation in just about every other part of the world — aside from their own.

The idea that gun proliferation could be a problem domestically does not seem to have occurred to the regulators.

The 2005 EU strategy on combatting illicit traffic in small arms and light weapons pinpoints sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Central and Eastern Asia, the Balkans and the Middle East as the trouble spots.

A 1998 EU code of conduct on arms exports bans governments from granting export licenses to countries where there are human rights abuses, internal or regional conflicts or regimes that support terrorism. There is even a clause prohibiting exports to countries where there is a risk of arms being diverted to an “undesirable end-user.”

One wonders if Seung Hui Cho and Steven Kazmierczak would fit the bill here — or if Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, perpetrators of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, would also fit into this category.

Meanwhile, in the United States, there is the “Security Assistance Legislation” that aims to “restrain the flow of conventional arms to less-developed countries.”

The U.S. government is supposed to only allow exports to “legitimate end-users,” subject each export consignment to individual assessment and examine the “regional stability” and “human rights” situation when deciding whether to grant an export license.

As a result, there is an outright ban on exporting weapons to Belarus, Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Vietnam, China, Burma, Haiti, Liberia, Somalia and Sudan.

U.S. gun manufacturers are obliged to register with the U.S. State Department, even if they do not intend to export their products, in order to track any potential illicit gun-trafficking.

There is no doubt that gun proliferation is a major problem globally. According to the United Nations, there are about 600 million light weapons in circulation, which cause 500,000 deaths each year.

The UN estimates 300,000 of these deaths occur as a result of armed conflict — while the other 200,000 are the result of crime.

If this figure is accurate, it means that while just 5% of the world’s citizens live in the United States, 15% of the world’s crime-related gun deaths take place there. This makes the United States a more dangerous place to live than many of the poorer nations for which the strict gun export controls were designed.

Meanwhile, after the Virginia Tech shootings, the gun control issue barely registered on the political radar in Washington — and it is unlikely to become a high priority after the Northern Illinois University massacre.

The countrywide ban on buying and selling semi-automatic weapons introduced by Congress in 1994 expired four years ago — and there seems to be little appetite to reinstate it.

Europe — sanctimonious and principled in so many other regards — continues to do a roaring firearms trade with the United States, any ethical misgivings seemingly muffled by the lure of the dollar.

More on this topic


Europe continues to do a roaring firearms trade with the United States. Any ethical misgivings are seemingly muffled by the lure of the dollar.

A 1998 EU code contains a clause prohibiting exports to countries where there is a risk of arms being diverted to an "undesirable end-user."

In Europe, where U.S. gun culture is regularly pilloried, nobody seems perturbed about exporting guns to countries with looser regulations.