German gun club lobbyists were invited to the German Interior Ministry (BMI) last week to discuss something that has been bothering them for a while - the European Commission's proposed plans to tighten Europe's gun laws, which were suddenly revived from legislative stagnation in the wake of the "Islamic State" attacks in Paris in November.
By all accounts, the visit was a success. "The proposal contains things that the BMI said would be difficult for them, and where changes would be called for," said Joachim Streitberger, head of Germany's association of shooting ranges (BVS), after he emerged from the meeting. "After this conversation I do not expect the draft to come into force in the present form."
The ministry, for its part, wasn't keen to let Streitberger take the words from its mouth, emphasizing afterwards that it had not yet taken a "final position" on the reforms. In a statement released to DW, the BMI said that it "welcomed in principle and provisionally ... regulations for the expansion ... and improved interconnection of the weapons register among member states."
There is a reason why the ministry is being so circumspect. According to a report in "Der Spiegel" magazine, confidential EU reports suggest that the German government - along with its Austrian, Czech and Finnish counterparts - is keen to put the brakes on the EU's plans.
German government at one with gun lobby
The latest proposals were first adopted as part of the European Commission's "Security Agenda" in April, but lay dormant until the horrific events in Paris injected extra impetus into the EU bureaucratic machine. A Commission statement released on November 18, five days after the attacks, said the plans to reform Europe's gun laws would be "significantly accelerated in light of recent events."
As well as the expanded gun register, the measures included a ban on certain semi-automatic firearms, tighter rules for the online acquisition of guns, as well as standardized EU criteria for marking guns and decommissioning starter pistols, to make it difficult to convert them into functioning weapons.
"Today's proposal ... will help us tackle the threat of weapons falling into the hands of terrorists," said Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in November. "We are proposing stricter controls on sale and registration of firearms, and stronger rules to irrevocably deactivate weapons. We will also come forward with an Action Plan in the near future to tackle illicit arms trafficking. Organized criminals accessing and trading military-grade firearms in Europe cannot and will not be tolerated."
Even the German Hunting Association (DJV) admitted that some of these measures were "sensible." But it was not happy with the crackdown on online gun-trading or what it called "further bureaucratic hurdles for reliable and legal gun owners."
The ministry statement also says that while the expanded registration of weapons and the improved data exchange between governments could achieve "an increase in security," "other regulation proposals need deeper examination."
This statement hints that the German government is essentially on the same page as the hunting lobby about the new measures - indeed, Streitberger confirmed as much, though he would not discuss details of his meeting in the ministry. "Weapons law, by definition, is only concerned with legal weapon owners, because they stick to the law," he said. "The criminal doesn't care one bit what is in the law. The paradox is to try to use the law to avoid disadvantaging the law-abiding,while regulating the law-breaker, and that's a paradox that a lawmaker can't solve. Which weapon used in Paris was legally owned?"
European gun owners unite
In fact, at least one of the Kalashnikovs used in the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris in January is thought to have been bought legally in Slovakia - as a decommissioned gun subsequently reactivated to shoot live ammunition. One of the EU measures is meant to standardize technical criteria to make sure that any gun sold as deactivated cannot be reactivated, and the EU is also hoping to do the same for starter pistols.
Indeed, the EU's initiative answered demands for tighter gun ownership laws that have been going round for some time. The Flemish Peace Institute estimates that some 6,700 people are killed by firearms in the EU every year, while police in Belgium - home to some of the Paris attackers - recorded 25,000 cases of illegal firearms possession between 2009 and 2013 - an average of 5,700 cases per year.
Sarah Parker, of the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey, welcomed the EU's proposals. "The proposed changes to the EU Firearms Directive are quite progressive," she told DW. "Indeed, some of the proposed measures are stronger than those adopted by EU member states at the international level - for example the requirement to regulate brokers."
Parker also argued that measures like banning online gun trading would help to tighten illegal arms sales - if they were enforced properly across all 28 EU member states. "The EU has identified certain areas or gaps as contributing to the illicit trade in small arms in Europe e.g. Internet purchases, a lack of harmonization among states, and re-deactivation and conversion standards," she said. "Whether these changes will fill that gap - and prevent illicit trafficking - depends on many factors including whether and to what extent all EU member states adopt and implement the measures."
None of this will mollify most European gun owners. An online petition opposing the reforms has collected almost 280,000 signatures to date. It came with a statement that said: "The ... draft to amend 91/477/EEC is not only populistic [sic] in nature, it is also an insult to our civil liberties and to the intelligence of the EU citizens as a whole."