MOSCOW — VALERY IGUMNOV decided to take the law into his own hands.
The businessman was fed up with constant threats from mafia gangs, who demanded that he pay protection money to keep his trading firm afloat. Rather than take his grievances to the police, who are widely distrusted here, he bought a gun.
``Everyone should have the right to arm themselves,'' says Mr. Igumnov, who was shopping last week at Defense, a lavishly equipped gun shop in central Moscow where round-the-clock militia guards carry submachine guns. ``Russia should be like America: the more guns, the less crime.''
Russian gun laws as yet are not as lenient as those in the United States. Only private security guards are allowed to use handguns, which they rent from the government on three-year contracts, and only soldiers and policemen can carry machine guns.
The waiting period to receive a gun license averages about a month, and authorities check up on applicants' backgrounds, including possible criminal records.
But Russia is rapidly turning into a gun-slinging society, and it may not be long before gun laws are relaxed.
Under Soviet law, ordinary citizens were not allowed to carry firearms at all. But as Russian society became more violent following the breakdown of the command economy and the subsequent weakening of both the military and police, public outcry demanded that citizens be allowed to defend themselves.
Illegal arms markets have thrived since the Soviet collapse in Russia, where weapons stolen from the former Red Army are used by criminals as well as in hot spots in ex-Soviet republics.
A legal civilian arms market was formed only in May 1993, after President Boris Yeltsin broke with communist tradition and allowed the unrestricted sale of gas pistols. On July 1, a new law was passed requiring a license to buy gas pistols. But hunting rifles -
which previously required hunting licenses - may be had by anyone who pays for a permit.
According to city police statistics, the number of legally registered weapons in Moscow has grown 20 times in the 10 weeks since the new law came into effect.
``When the law changed, an enormous market for arms opened. Russian society has become more criminalized, and many people believe they'll feel better, even if only psychologically, if they're armed,'' says Anatoly Zevako, a jovial man who took charge of the Defense shop after he left his job at a Soviet missile complex. ``Business is great,'' he adds. ``Our demand is higher than the supply because for so long owning weapons was forbidden.''
Defense is the largest privately owned gun shop in the capital, where 32 such registered stores compete for sales. It is a paradise for gun-lovers.
Imported Winchester and Remington pump-action rifles adorn one wall, while domestic Sable, Badger, and Elk rifles are artistically displayed on another.
For those adverse to guns but needing protection, a selection of handcuffs, billy clubs, slingshots, knives, and crossbows is available. For convenience's sake, a nearby shop called ``The Russian Hunt'' stocks a large variety of flak jackets and bullet-proof vests.
Even Aleksei Nikulnikov, head of the gun-licensing department at Moscow's municipal police headquarters, finds the thought of a Russian antigun lobby absurd.
``We have organizations here that want people to take up more arms to defend themselves against criminals,'' he says, chuckling. ``The conditions of real life here don't let people form those type of [antigun] groups.''
The murder rate in Moscow has jumped by 30 percent this year, and a recent survey by the Russian Independent Public Opinion Research Center revealed that 70 percent of Muscovites feel vulnerable to crime. Officials blame the soaring crime rate on the widespread use of illegal firearms and explosives.
Any type of gun can easily be bought at any of Moscow's makeshift outdoor markets, says Alexander, a ``consultant'' at the FAP gun store, run by former police officers and ex-KGB personnel. Most guns are either stolen from the military or smuggled from abroad, especially from former Communist satellite states.
Last week, for example, Russian TV showed a Mercedes-Benz that customs officials had found crammed with almost 100 shotguns on the Estonian-Russian border. Bought for $50 each in Poland, they could fetch at least seven times that in Russia. Such seizures are almost daily occurrences, officials say.
In the semiautonomous republic of Chechnya, Russian soldiers can do a brisk trade in weapons they steal from armories.
``We think that some newspaper kiosks are guarded much better than Army ammunition depots,'' says Maj. Gen. Vyacheslav Ryabov, a senior military official in Moscow.
Crime has become so widespread that legislators in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, petitioned unsuccessfully for permission to carry handguns after the April murder of a deputy who was shot outside his Moscow apartment building.
``You can't hire a bodyguard on a deputy's salary,'' says Vladimir Gusev, a spokesman for Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, which decried the decision. ``If an average person wants to defend himself and his family, it's perfectly normal for him to bear arms.''