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. 

Bastien Inzaurralde
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.

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. 

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.

“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.”

“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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