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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. 

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“These are weapons he said he bought, and I think it is true,” Mr. Mancini said. “He allegedly paid €20,000 for them, he says during his discussions with elite police negotiators, and he allegedly bought them thanks to break-ins or holdups he did to make money.”

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“You have to distinguish between the ‘wannabes’ who want to launch their careers and those who are experienced,” Artale says. “For the ‘wannabes,’ €1,000 is nothing. When you make €3,000 (or about $4,000) selling drugs, €1,000 is a necessary investment but it’s not huge. As for the experienced criminals, it’s a drop of water.”

A stream of weapons from the east

Last year, a legislative group studying France's gun climate produced a report citing concerns about the emergence of new illegal weapon providers. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of the 1990s' Balkan wars, there was a glut of weapons in the region, which criminal organizations sought out. 

The report also indicated that some French gangs share guns in banlieues, neighborhoods with high unemployment rates and where ethnic minorities are concentrated.

That report laid the groundwork for a new law. On March 6, just five days before Merah committed his first murder, a bill that aims to modernize the legislation on guns and creates news sanctions for selling guns illegally became law. Under the new law, which will fully go into effect next year, someone found guilty of gun trafficking could get a €100,000 fine and seven years in jail.

Claude Bodin, a lawmaker of the right wing U.M.P. party and co-author of the bill, said he believes this law is a milestone because it simplifies gun regulations for those who obtain them legally and has made punishment more severe for those who get them illegally.

“We gave the judiciary the resources to punish heavily all those who own guns illegally and use them,” Mr. Bodin said.

Yet some say the legislation isn't enough on its own to put an end to the problem. Jean-Paul Le Moigne, a lawyer and gun law expert, says the government should increase resources for fighting gun trafficking and "specialize more," training more police officers specifically for this job.

Because so many guns are purchased through illegal channels, it is difficult to come up with an accurate estimate of how many there are in France. But by extrapolating from available data, some of it anecdotal, numbers seem to be increasing. 

A Dec. 2, 2011, story by Le Figaro newspaper’s website reported that 2,710 firearms had been seized by police in 2010. The statistic, which was quoted from a confidential memo by France’s Interior Ministry, represented a 79 percent increase in gun seizures since 2009.

Le Moigne says it is hard to know whether an increase in seizures means an increase in gun trafficking – just because more guns are seized by police, doesn’t necessarily mean more are being sold, he says. The best indicator would be gun traffickers' profits, which are impossible to know. 

Artale, the police union spokesman, says even though the number of guns isn’t known, police agents see more and more weapons in criminals’ hands during interventions.

“The feeling among police is that we are indeed increasingly facing people, delinquents and criminals who carry guns,” he says.


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