The independent resource on global security

Small arms control in Europe: time for an integrated strategy

Although small arms control has been an issue on the humanitarian arms control agenda for a long time, small arms manufacturers and civilian consumers have enjoyed a relatively liberal market in large parts of the world. In Europe and the United States, for example, the guiding principle has been to remove barriers for law-abiding adults in good mental health to access weapons for cultural, recreational or self-defence purposes. One could argue that the same principle has been adopted for international transfers of small arms. However, this discourse is being challenged by recent events, and a new narrative may emerge that makes security the overriding determinant of small arms policy and governance.

Over the past year, there have been several high profile examples of politically motivated shootings that challenge the existing approach, including: the shooting outside the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels in May 2014; the terrorist attacks on the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo and on a kosher supermarket at Porte de Vincennes in Paris in January 2015; and the attack against Krudttønden and a synagogue in Copenhagen in February 2015. The mainstream security discourse in Europe is now about when and not if the next attack will be launched. With two ongoing armed conflicts in the EU’s neighbourhood and the rise of Europeans recruited to terrorist groups, the small arms discourse in Europe is more security-focused than it has been for two decades.

Military-style small arms are highly lethal, but unlike explosives they can discriminate between targets in ways that enable targeted assassinations and politically motivated atrocities. The horrific attack by Al-Shabaab against students at the Garissa University College in Kenya on 2 April left 152 people dead (including the 4 perpetrators), with the terrorists partly selecting their victims on religious grounds. Terrorist attacks carried out with small arms, from Paris to Garissa, fuel a highly problematic narrative of a global Islamist terrorist threat.

The response to shifting perspectives, including on the issue of small arms, may be the introduction of stricter security controls of different kinds. In Europe, stricter security measures may slow or rollback processes of European political integration, as well as restrict cooperation under the European Neighbourhood Policy. The Kenyan Air Force bombed al-Shabaab camps in southern Somalia in the days following the attack in Garissa, and public grief over the loss of lives and the assault on civilian institutions included demonstrated anger over the failure of responsible authorities to provide adequate security and fear of future attacks. Evidently, a much more compatible and mutually agreeable comprehensive approach will be needed to address the root causes of the problems.

Military-style weapons are banned from civilian ownership within the EU, as they are in Kenya. But certain criminals and terrorists can obtain illegal weapons, just as they can obtain drugs and other illegal commodities, and they often take advantage of loopholes in the regulatory framework to do so. With major armed conflicts now very close to the EU borders, an increase in the inflow of military-style weapons to Europe is a growing risk. Furthermore, the technology of firearms is advancing, and some semi-automatic weapons today have many of the characteristics of military weapons. As a result, neither the authorities nor the wider population know how many civilians have access to weapons with military capabilities.

Gaps in current EU small arms legislation, shortcomings in the implementation of existing legislation at the national level, and different national interpretations of legal commitments mean that the risks are not being managed as efficiently as they could be. For example, national authorities use different criteria to assess the scope of the EU ban on civilian ownership of military-style weapons. Where EU states make different assessments of the same weapon it leads to a ban in one country of a weapon that may be legally owned in another. Given the ease of movement of people and vehicles in the EU space, this can pose an increased risk.

The EU is far from having an integrated strategy to address the military and civilian dimensions of small arms. Excluding weapons ‘designed for military purposes’ from EU legislation means that civilian authorities have no insight or power to regulate weapons belonging to the military. Furthermore, the EU’s legal and institutional framework on small arms is based on a false distinction between internal and external security, and between civilian and military demand and intentions.

Law enforcement agencies are working on multiple fronts to prevent further terrorist attacks and mass shootings. One initiative is to review the EU regulatory framework for the civilian market in small arms. Strengthening the regulatory framework is likely to reduce some of the current risks, but not fully address military weapons—which remain outside the scope of the EU Firearms Directive. Another approach is to strengthen ballistic intelligence at the national and EU level. The enhancement of the ballistics intelligence capacity of the United Kingdom, including the creation of a dedicated National Ballistics Intelligence Service (NABIS), was an important factor in helping reduce the level of gun-enabled crime in the UK. Building national and regional capacities for ballistic intelligence collection and analysis will help law enforcement build a more comprehensive picture of the actors and methods involved in gun-enabled crime.


Dr Lina Grip was a Researcher with the European Security Programme.