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How France cut its per capita gun ownership in half

Posted at 6:19 PM, Feb 26, 2018

On November 13, 2015, terrorists burst into the Bataclan concert hall and several restaurants across Paris, killing at least 130 and wounding hundreds more. Concertgoers and diners were raked by high-powered AK-47s, a cheaper, more primitive cousin of America's popular weapon of choice, the AR-15.

Most of these weapons came from Germany and neighboring Belgium -- the bulk of them purchased via internet and mail orders originating in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

None of them was purchased in France, where authorities have implemented some of the strictest laws and regulations in Europe. And while the black market certainly poses a threat to gun control, it's also clear that France's laws have made significant strides in counteracting many of the dangers created by guns.

In France, there is no preordained right to bear arms, absent rigid registration and surveillance of their use. So most modern attacks, excluding terrorist incidents involving weapons obtained from abroad, are undertaken by trucks, cars and even knives.

In other words, mass shootings are not the norm in France. And the United States would benefit from closely examining French gun laws in order to reduce the risk of another mass shooting within its own borders.

That said, the tradition of gun ownership is deeply embedded in many strata of French society. In the countryside, hunting is a way of life and leisure -- more prevalent than golf or tennis as weekend recreation. In regions like Sologne, some of the great families of France have practiced hunting back to the Middle Ages. La chasse (the hunt) is the preferred weekend pastime.

While gun ownership is allowed, the state takes great pains to make sure guns are not abused. For example, authorities do not make gun ownership easy. Firearms are divided into four categories. In Category A are real weapons of war. As is in the United States, the French can't own a tank or a fighter plane, nor any fully automatic weapon like an Uzi or a Kalashnikov. No exceptions.

Category B includes any firearm with a barrel shorter than 18.5 inches and a removable magazine with capacity larger than three rounds. For these, you need a sports shooting license, which means active membership in a shooting club, presenting yourself at a firing range at least three times a year, and visiting a physician annually for a physical and mental certification that you are capable of owning a firearm.

The procedure and all accompanying paperwork must be presented every three years. In between, this license can be revoked in an instant by the local police. When this licensing went into effect several years back, anyone who did not want to go through all the steps had simply to turn in their weapons. As many as 500,000 were relinquished.

Category C is a bit easier and includes most regular hunting weapons limited to three rounds. But each such arm -- pistol or long gun -- must be registered, its owner carrying a sports shooting or hunting license. For the latter, the owner must undertake a full day of exams on theory and practice covering safety, protected species, even dog breeds.

And in none of these categories can such a weapon routinely be carried ready to fire. It must be locked and disassembled during transport to the shooting range or property where it's to be used for hunting.

Finally, Category D includes lightly regulated items, such as pellet and paintball guns, pepper spray and deactivated, display weapons.

These categories stem from the reality that the French people really don't like to be massacred, and the statistics support that. The total number of guns -- licit and illicit -- in private hands in France dropped from 19 million in 2006 to 10 million in 2016. The number of guns owned per 100 people plunged from 31.2 in 2006, when gun laws were suddenly tightened in France, to 14.96 in 2016. By contrast, the number of guns per 100 people in the United States is 101.05. In fact, France isn't even in the top 10 for per capita gun ownership, a list with America as No. 1.

Of course, France hardly exists in a vacuum and Europe recognizes that. With its porous borders, a transnational approach is needed. The EU Firearms Directive establishes the same four categories of weapons as used by the French. After that, it's up to the individual country to tighten restrictions further.

Some have, but many -- particularly in the old regions of Eastern Europe -- have not. The reality is that a Kalashnikov or a rocket launcher can be bought for as little as $400 to $800 in some countries of the EU, according to Europol, the European Union's law enforcement agency. It is then up to individual countries to keep them from getting into their country and especially into the wrong hands.

France has been among those at the forefront of the efforts to stop both the import and circulation of these weapons. And the mandate clearly begins at the top. French President Emanuel Macron recognized that reality, and has moved to sharply expand stop-and-arrest powers of the police, further tightening the removal of weapons from all individuals on terrorism watch lists. "We're sizing up the situation," said Macron's Interior Minister Gérard Collomb, "and taking the weapons away."

The French, years after gun laws have been tightened, appear to still support gun control measures. And why shouldn't they? The number of mass shootings in France is quite small.