Newtown shooting highlights Russia's gun-control debate

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called for further strengthening of Russia's already strict gun-control laws on Monday, but some Russians argue more guns would make the public safer.

Dmitry Lovetsky/AP
A Russian woman puts a toy near the US Embassy in Moscow on Sunday. The massacre of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary school elicited horror in Russia, as well as calls to reexamine the country's own strict gun laws.

The Newtown school massacre, heavily covered by Russian media, has shed light on a long-simmering debate within Russian society over the wisdom of allowing freer civilian access to firearms.

At present, Russia is one of those countries that gun control opponents often cite with grim satisfaction to bolster the claim that there is no connection between gun ownership and murder. Though Russia today has one of the toughest gun control regimes in the world, its homicide rate is more than twice that of the US.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who authored laws to tighten access to weapons while he was president, seized on the US school tragedy to reiterate his viewpoint that even tougher gun control is needed in Russia.

Newtown "was a terrible tragedy. It is deeply distressing," Mr. Medvedev wrote on his Facebook page Monday. "I fully agree with those who are against free weapon possession. This is my principal position as well. By no means should we go down that road."

In Russia, private possession of handguns and any type of automatic weapon is banned outright. The procedure to obtain a hunting rifle is extremely daunting, as Rafail Ruditsky, head of the Saiga gun club in Moscow, explains:

"First you have to get three medical documents [to prove you're in good mental health and not on drugs], then you need to go to a specialized medical institution for a full check up. Now you're ready to apply for a gun license," he says.

"It's a good idea to apply for a hunting license at the same time, since that makes it easier but takes a couple weeks. When you have all these documents ready, with a few photos, you go to the local police with your passport to fill in an application. After you pay the fee, it will take up to a month to get your license," he adds.

"If you want to buy a rifle, you'd better get a strongbox first, because if you are buying a weapon, you'd better be prepared for regular police visits [to your home] to check on how your weapon is stored, if all rules are observed, if it's within the reach of children, etc," Mr. Ruditsky says.

Some civil society activists in Russia are arguing, in surprisingly American terms, that building true democracy in Russia requires more freedom to own and bear arms.

"World experience shows that the availability of arms raises the probability that criminal acts will be thwarted and also provides a deterrent effect: Criminals fear not only the police but average citizens, as well," says a statement on the website of Civil Security, a Russian pro-gun lobby.

"Unfortunately [our authorities] either underestimate the importance of the problem or pursue self-interest in their rigid opposition to the idea that citizens should be enabled to protect themselves," it says.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the most authoritative source, the US had 4.8 homicides per 100,000 people in 2011 compared to a Russian rate of 10.2 in 2010, the last year for which figures are available.

It's impossible to compare rates of gun homicide, since Russian figures are unavailable. But most anecdotal evidence suggests that the majority of Russian murders originate in domestic disputes, often fueled by alcohol, and the choice of weapons tends to be primitive.

Many observers have pointed out that the US, on the other hand, has the highest per capita rate of gun ownership in the world, and a gun homicide rate that's 20 times the average of other developed countries.

And despite all the restrictions, Russia does witness the occasional gun massacre. Last month, an apparently deranged young man, Dmitry Vinogradov, walked into his former girlfriend's Moscow workplace with two rifles registered under his own name, and killed six people before he was subdued by security guards.

According to Sergei Zainullin, deputy chairman of Russia's Association of Gun Owners, says the weak point in the system – like so many other things in Russia – is corruption.

"The license system works pretty well, but it does happen quite often that people pay to get fake medical certificates" and other needed documents, he says.

"I think that Russia should move on to a system of public control, like the European gun club system" where weapons are stored and regulated by clubs, instead of the state strictly managing every detail, Mr. Zainullin adds.

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