'See a Shrink First,' Austria Tells Would-Be Gun Owners


Perhaps it is to be expected in Sigmund Freud's homeland: Austria is about to put would-be gun owners onto the psychiatrist's couch before it will issue them permits.

Under a new law effective July 1, those seeking permits for certain weapons will have to present evidence that their "potential for aggression" has been evaluated by a psychiatrist and that they have been judged "reliable."

The new law, says Guntram Knecht of the psychiatric clinic at the University of Vienna, was passed not in response to any particular crime episode ("Thank God," he says) but as a result of "rather broad public consensus" that Austria's already strict gun laws needed further tightening.

Under the present system, a psychiatric examination may be required, but only if the police find in the applicant's files any evidence - such as signs of drug or alcohol problems - to indicate that the applicant should not be granted a firearm permit.

There has been "justifiable criticism" of this system, says Walter Grosinger, an official of the Interior Ministry: The police were drawing on materials in their files that were likely to be inaccurate, incomplete, or obsolete - and not necessarily the assessments of psychiatrists, but rather of other health-care professionals. And doctors were concerned about the possible violations of professional confidentiality implicit in police searches of medical records.

In effect, the new system replaces a negative standard of proof ("You're OK as long as nothing turns up in the files to say otherwise") with a positive standard ("You have to show us that a doctor has checked you out and pronounced you OK").

The Interior Ministry is working on a system of procedures to make sure that would-be gun buyers don't just run to a friendly neighborhood psychiatrist to get their certificates. A register of psychiatrists authorized to do the testing is being developed. The questions of the moment, Dr. Knecht says, are whether there are enough psychiatrists to do the testing and how extensive the checks should be. The discussion is moving in the direction of a simple, quick approach, he suggests.

The new gun law was also needed, Mr. Grosinger says, to bring Austria into conformity with guidelines of the European Union, which Austria joined in 1995. Gun laws are seen as an issue for the EU since they relate to the free flow of persons and goods throughout the 15 member nations and involve public safety.

In 1991, the European Council issued a directive setting a floor for gun-legislation standards, which individual member states must meet and may choose to exceed. The directive requires member states to allow people to buy and possess certain firearms only if they have "good cause" to have a weapon and "are not likely to be a danger to themselves, to public order, or to public safety."

The idea is that if member countries are to let citizens of other countries cross borders freely, weapons and all, the countries need to have confidence in one another's gun laws.

Austria's new law was "very controversial," Grosinger says. The country does not have a large gun-owners lobby, but gun dealers fought the new measure.

The new law was "a response to the pressure of public opinion," says Harald Aschauer, a colleague of Knecht's at the clinic. "The lobby on the other side just wasn't strong enough to block the bill. They're still complaining. And the gun dealers expect a big increase in their business before the new law comes into effect."

The new law applies to semiautomatic or repeating firearms, and all handguns. Austria apparently stands alone in its requirement of a psychiatric report.

An EU official in Brussels, explaining the 1991 directive on gun laws, was asked whether there are other areas of life where a psychiatric check on the "aggression potential" of one's fellow citizens could be useful, and where perhaps public pressure for tighter controls was mounting.

"On the Autobahn, for instance, wouldn't it be helpful to know that the other drivers have all been checked out by a psychiatrist?" the questioner continued.

Whereupon the official did something officials in Brussels are not necessarily noted for doing: She laughed. And laughed and laughed.

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