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Toulouse gunman puts spotlight on France's growing illegal gun trade

France's strict gun laws sharply limit legal ownership. But illegal trafficking is on the rise – at prices that people like Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah can afford. 

By Contributor / March 27, 2012

The National Assembly, France’s lower chamber, adopted a new bill on gun control on Feb. 1. The French Senate then adopted the bill on Feb. 27, and it became law on March 6, just five days before Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah committed his first murder.

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As the prosecutor listed the weapons gunman Mohamed Merah amassed before going on a shooting rampage in Toulouse, French citizens received a stark reminder that gun trafficking doesn’t only affect unstable countries. It's happening in France, too – a nation that is anything but gun-friendly. 

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France has no equivalent of the United StatesSecond Amendment’s right to “keep and bear arms.” Only a small minority of the population, such as hunters and sport shooters, can get authorization to own firearms.

The strict legislation amounts to a virtual ban on guns for most people. But the many guns Merah had has drawn new attention to the rise of illegal weapons in France.  Often acquired cheaply from Eastern Europe and the Balkans, they pose a growing challenge to law enforcement.

Timothé Artale, a spokesman for the General Police Union Workers’ Force, says it is alarming that criminals like Merah can have access to enough weapons to fill a car trunk.

“In France, it is very easy for them to find (firearms) as if they were in a country at war,” Mr. Artale says. “And this poses a real problem.”

Illegal arms easy to get

Mr. Merah, a 23-year-old self-proclaimed jihadi of Algerian descent, claimed that he gunned down three soldiers on March 11 and 15, and four members of the Jewish community, including three children, in an attack of a Jewish school on March 19. He was killed by police in Toulouse on March 22 after a 32-hour standoff. 

According to prosecutor François Molins, Merah’s weapons included a Sten machine gun, a Colt Python pistol, a shotgun and an Uzi submachine gun. He used one of his three .45-caliber pistols and the Uzi submachine gun for the killings, according to investigators, as reported by French media.

Thierry Coste, a pro-gun lobbyist, says Merah couldn’t have bought these weapons from a legal gun dealer.

“… He could only supply himself on the black market or from crime organizations, that’s clear. Not only was the purchase illegal but also the ownership,” says Mr. Coste, the secretary general of the William Tell Committee, a coalition of hunters, sporting shooters, weapon collectors and gun dealers and manufacturers. 

Two million people legally own guns in France, according to the group. Coste says gun laws are so strict that it is easier for criminals to buy guns illegally than trying to do so legally. The William Tell Committee campaigns for simpler, but not looser, gun laws.

In addition to the comparative ease of obtaining a gun illegally, arms sold on the black market in France are not prohibitively expensive. 

Artale of the SGP FO police union says a Kalashnikov machine gun can be purchased for about €1,000, or $1,300, which he says is extremely cheap for criminals who make money from other illegal businesses such as drug dealing.

Ange Mancini, France’s intelligence national coordinator, said Saturday on French TV channel BFM-TV that Merah told police during the standoff preceding his death that he bought €20,000 worth of weapons, or about $26,500.

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