Crime-Wary Russians Get Their Guns

SELF DEFENSE

A broad-horned elk's head, mounted on the wall, stares down morosely at customers inspecting the weaponry for sale at "The Hunter," one of several firearms stores in central Moscow. Similar trophies - a bear, a wolf, and a hare - line the shelves.

But not all the customers who squint down the barrels of the hunting rifles here have wildlife in their sights. Under a new law that bucks a worldwide trend toward stricter gun controls, Russians are now allowed to buy rifles for self defense, so long as they promise to keep them at home.

The law, which has just come into force, is a blunt admission that crime in post-Soviet Russia has shot out of the control of the police.

"The state today is unable to defend its citizens," acknowledges Lt. Col. Yelena Shelkovnikova, a police lawyer. "Until the police are paid properly, the problem of armed crime is not going to be solved, and citizens will have to defend themselves."

Debate over the gun law split the Russian parliament along lines that might surprise Americans. Liberal democrats were the fiercest proponents of wider gun ownership, arguing that personal freedoms should include the right to bear arms.

Russia's conservatives, on the other hand, who are strongest among the Communist and Agrarian parties, favored stricter gun control, saying it is government's duty to ensure law and order and that wider gun ownership will lead to more violence.

In a country where drunkenness has reached epidemic proportions, where spouse abuse is common, and where economic hardships have increased social tensions to the snapping point, the dangers of allowing almost anybody to keep a rifle at hand seem obvious. Under the new law, only the insane, drug addicts, and convicted criminals may not own a gun.

"The law means that guns will be used in everyday quarrels," worries Nikolai Kharitonov, leader of the Agrarian Party in the Duma (lower house of parliament). "And it will create a situation where people will settle accounts between themselves without law or judge. Then no sheriff will be able to do anything."

These sorts of concerns, though, were outweighed by public anxiety about the wave of lawlessness that has gripped the country since totalitarian controls imposed by Soviet authorities were relaxed.

The number of crimes involving firearms rose more than fourfold, from 3,401 in the entire Soviet Union in 1986 to 12,150 in Russia alone in 1995, according to official figures, which police privately say underestimate the real scale of the problem.

"Criminals are armed to the teeth," says Mikhail Myen, a liberal Duma deputy who voted for the bill. "And if when God created us, He created us different, Mr. Colt made us equal," he said, paraphrasing the famous gun-manufacturer's slogan.

"I personally oppose the idea of any civilian except a hunter owning a gun," explains Sergei Chuganov, a Duma aide who helped draft the law.

"But on the other hand, when official organizations are unable to protect, ... private individuals must have the right to defend themselves," Mr. Chuganov says.

Chuganov, himself a former state prosecutor, prefers to point to another main aim of the legislation, tightening up on the number of military handguns and automatic weapons in circulation.

In Russia, with the right connections you can buy almost any weapon from corrupt Army officers, whether a simple Makarov pistol, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, or a land mine. All these weapons, and more, have been used by hit-men in the past. Hardly a week goes by without news of another contract murder as Mafia gangs fight over business turf in the newly privatized Russian economy.

At the same time, previous legislation allowed registered bodyguards to carry military arms. The Interior Ministry has no exact figures on how many such weapons are in legal circulation, but they are known to number in the tens of thousands. Under the new law, bodyguards are required to hand in their Army-issue guns, deemed offensive weapons, in exchange for less powerful models regarded as merely defensive.

The factories that make these guns stand to benefit from the new law, as do other Russian weapons producers. While limiting the import of some foreign guns, "The law is also designed to defend Russian arms manufacturers by stimulating demand," Chuganov explains. "Liberalized access to guns will create jobs."

Demand is set to rise even further if another draft law currently before parliament wins passage. That bill, drawing its inspiration from America's Wild West past, would certainly set the "Wild East" seal on post-Soviet Russia's reputation.

Taking the concept of citizens' self defense to the maximum, the bill would legalize the formation of volunteer posses of armed vigilantes.

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