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Europe needs to do more than tightens gun laws

Lisbon – School shootings and other gun crimes have spurred European governments to tighten their gun laws but the measures have been uneven across the continent, experts said Thursday.

Dramatic incidents, such as Wednesday’s rampage by a 17-year-old gunman who killed 15 people at his former school in Germany, often jolt authorities into action.

Finland announced plans Wednesday to impose stricter restrictions on firearms, including raising the minimum age for handgun ownership from 15 to 20, following two school massacres within a year.

In Switzerland, a spate of suicides and homicides has brought demands for a referendum aimed at confining army weapons to military compounds and banning private purchases of pump-action rifles and automatic weapons.

Denmark’s government said last week it will raise the penalty for illegal gun possession as part of a crackdown on gang violence that has killed three people in recent months, and Belgium responded to the racially motivated shooting deaths of a toddler and her black baby sitter by passing strict new gun control laws in 2006.

Portugal’s Parliament, meanwhile, is considering the government’s proposal for a crackdown, including denying bail to anyone suspected of a gun crime after a surge last year in armed holdups. Authorities say an average of four firearms are stolen or go missing each day, and in 2008 police confiscated almost 3,000 illegal guns.

"The general trend is clearly towards stronger gun laws," said Alun Howard, a policy director at the London-based International Action Network on Small Arms, part of a global network of organisations fighting the proliferation of small arms.

He said that officials still need to "dam up the weak spots that are feeding crime," especially by restricting access to guns.

In 2008, European Union governments pledged to adopt new rules devised to make buying and possessing firearms more difficult across the 27-nation bloc. EU officials estimated there were "millions" of illegally-owned weapons on the continent where 24 countries have scrapped their border controls.

The directive is due to come into force only by July 2010, however. Meanwhile, national governments have expedited their own measures.

Germany raised the legal age for owning recreational firearms from 18 to 21 following a 2002 shooting in Erfurt that killed 16 people, including 12 teachers. But exemptions meant that some people could keep guns at home. The teenager in Wednesday’s school attack apparently took the handgun from his father’s collection of 15 firearms, police said. His father kept the weapons locked away except for the pistol.

Gisela Kallenbach, a German Green Party deputy who steered the bloc’s upcoming legislation through the European Parliament, said some EU member states have been "very progressive" in restricting the availability of gun laws while others "still have something to do".

She said that in drawing up the new European law she encountered resistance from lobby groups, including arms manufacturers, hunters, security companies and sports groups, who insisted on exemptions. Some of them argued the new law contravened their human rights by denying them access to weapons, she said

"There is a huge number of lobbyists … who don’t want anyone interfering in their business," Kallenbach said in an interview.

The new law secured a compromise, achieving "an acceptable balance between the proven and justified use of legal weapons for special groups … and the safety expectations of citizens," she said.

While the new legislation will harmonise Europe’s efforts to control guns, Kallenbach said didn’t expect it to prevent tragic events such as school shootings.

"You can never prevent 100 percent any misuse (of weapons) because you can also never prevent 100 percent any criminal activity," she said, adding that a multifaceted approach involving politicians, police, teachers and parents was required.

AP / Expatica