By Andrew Chung
PARIS (Reuters) - If you're not a hunter or a target shooter, it's nearly impossible to buy a gun legally in France. But the country's strict gun control laws are not enough to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of Islamist militants.
Gaps in the current laws, light sentences, and the absence of a European agency like the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), with its billion-dollar budget and thousands of agents, are the main problems facing France and its neighbors as they focus on tackling gun trafficking in the wake of the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, experts said.
The coordinated attacks, which killed 130 people, had a cross-border dimension. Two of the suicide bombers lived in Belgium and German police arrested a man who, according to a newspaper, may have sold the militants their guns.
“We need a European ATF,” said Jean-Charles Antoine, a researcher at the French Institute of Geopolitics and author of two books on arms trafficking. “Gun trafficking always turns on the need for guns. And right now terrorists need guns.”
France already has some of the strictest gun laws in the world. Automatic weapons are banned, while many other guns require government authorization and a medical exam, along with a permit from a hunting or sport shooting federation.
The public is generally supportive of the laws, although their attitudes having changed dramatically over the decades, said Paris lawyer Laurent-Franck Lienard. “Thirty years ago, France was a country where everyone had guns and it was considered normal,” he said.
The problem with tough laws, Lienard said, is that “they only apply to those who follow them.” Illegal weapons are another matter. Lienard said that Balkan gangsters used to manage the flow of guns in France in the 1990s. Today, there is a big trade in the theft of legally-held guns.
There are an estimated 15 million legal and illegal guns circulating in France, according to Antoine of the French Institute of Geopolitics. Of those he said up to 15,000 may be “weapons of war.”
But with relatively few gun crimes compared to countries like the United States, European authorities have paid gun trafficking scant attention. “For the last 20 years we have worked mainly on drugs,” Antoine said.
In a striking coincidence, France’s answer to the problem came on the very day of the Nov. 13 attacks. That morning, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced a national plan to counter illegal guns, citing worsening gang violence and terrorism. “Terrorists are more easily getting the guns they need to carry out their planned attacks,” he said.
The plan will include a database to map trafficking networks, modeled after one used for drugs, and a unit to gather intelligence on Balkan-French gun pipelines. It would also give police more powers to work undercover and track sellers or buyers on the Internet, he said at the time.
It is unclear whether further measures are being studied in the wake of the attacks. Spokespeople for France’s Interior Ministry and the National Police declined to comment for this article.
Researchers say the challenge with gun-trafficking is gathering intelligence on networks before any attacks.
Nils Duquet, an arms researcher for the Flemish Parliament in Brussels, said legislators might have to rethink the mandate of Europol, a police agency based in The Hague that supports information exchange between national police forces. Europol currently does not have the mandate to carry out investigations itself.
“Do we want that, or some kind of European police force set up to deal with transnational problems, such as arms trafficking and terrorism?" he asked.
In the U.S., the ATF helps perform this role, enforcing gun laws and targeting illegal trafficking. Created in 1972, the agency investigated more than 23,000 firearms cases and performed 360,000 traces last year.
The agency has nearly 2,500 special agents and a budget of $1.2 billion, a far cry from the resources available in Europe, Antoine said.
France has a section of police officers within its organized crime unit assigned to trafficking, as do other European countries, but their numbers are relatively few, he said.
In the speech announcing the plan, Cazeneuve said he would increase maximum penalties for possessing the deadliest guns, from three to five years. Lienard, the Paris lawyer, said judges in France rarely give jail terms longer than one or two years.
"They should be getting 30 years. They're selling death!" he said.
Deactivated guns could also pose a threat. There are gaps in the law that allow these guns from countries such as Slovakia, which has lax rules on decommissioning, to be sold in France, Antoine said. These weapons can be easily reconverted into live fire weapons - a scenario that played out during attacks in Paris last January.
On Nov. 18, the European Commission accelerated proposals to tighten gun laws on the continent, and announced harmonized policies for deactivating guns, to take effect in three months.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung. Additional reporting by Chine Labbé; editing by Janet McBride)