The problem with guns

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

There are 15 million guns, of all types, circulating in France, according to official estimates. These are the registered, lawful ones. That works out at about one firearm for every three adults. Every year, on average, another 100,000 are lawfully sold.


On 27 March, 33 year-old Richard Durn massacred an assembly of local councillors in Nanterre town hall, near Paris, shooting them down, one after the other, armed with two nine-millimetre Glock automatic pistols and a 357 magnum Smith and Wesson revolver.

He killed eight men and women and seriously wounded 20 others before he was overpowered. There is obviously no other common type of hand weapon which could have allowed him to inflict so much carnage in just a few minutes.

Conclusion? Well, there is not a conclusion - and there is no solution to stopping all the deranged people who also own guns in France from one day carrying out a similar bloodbath. It's a terrible thing to consider, but the chances are that it WILL happen again, just as it's happened before.

This despite a lot of soul-searching, already underway, and the probability that something, however symbolic, will eventually be done to change the gun ownership law. But only slightly, and only with regard to what happened in Nanterre.

Who could seriously argue that a firearms ban would solve the problem? Like with killer dogs, we're told - and this time by the gun lobby - it's the owner who is the danger, not the weapon. It's difficult to fault that (self-serving) logic - just like a car isn't a weapon unless it's driven badly. There are more road deaths per year in France than fatal shootings - and there's no argument for outlawing car ownership.

Britain, for example, has fewer guns per head than France, more restrictive rules about the ownership and use of firearms - and yet that didn't stop the mad gunman of Dunblane rampaging through a Scottish primary school.

"We are together called upon to find the reasons that lead to such acts of violence and to fight with whatever means possible so that our world becomes more peaceful and human," said Hanspeter Uster, the head of Switzerland's regional government of Zug, in reaction to the Nanterre killing. It was in Switzerland, in September last year, that a lone gunman carried out a chillingly similar attack to that of Durn in Nanterre, when he stormed the Zug parliament building and shot 14 politicians dead.

But there is a problem, perhaps far more sinister yet, which the focus on the spectacularly horrific shooting sprees ignore: it's not just the obviously certifiable likes of Durn who, every year, shoot dozens of people dead. In fact, this other type of gunman is responsible for hundreds of deaths. He's part of the silent, unremarkable majority.

There's hardly a household in the French countryside which doesn't have a shotgun under the bed 'just in case'. There are millions of city dwellers who keep a revolver in the drawer. The country's acceptance of gun ownership, which finds its roots in French rural traditions, is deeply anchored.

Shooting murders, let alone incidents, are reported around France every week. These include crimes of passion, homeowners defending themselves against burglars, quarrels between neighbours.

Many of these involve 'ordinary' folk, people who, unlike Durn, have never had need of a psychiatrist, and who will therefore always qualify for a firearms permit, however more stringent the rules may become.

Turning the world, as Hanspeter Uster implored, into a more peaceful and human place could and should begin with changing French attitudes towards guns just like, in quite separate areas, attitudes are finally changing towards drink-driving or passive smoking.

Richard Durn apparently caused no surprise when he bought, quite legally, his rapid-firing Glock automatic pistols and Smith and Wesson revolver in central Paris. Nor did this depressive, by all accounts distressed, individual raise the eyebrows of fellow members of his suburban shooting club.

Changing France's gun culture is a big challenge for politicians, especially in a country with such a powerful hunting lobby. It will demand further courage coming now in the middle of the national controversy about the rise in delinquency rates - when many people are turning to guns for protection.

But someone needs to grapple with the issue - before the current laissez-faire approach backfires on all of us.

28 March 2002

(This article was written by Graham Tearse, former editor of Expatica France)

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