Worrying increase in illegal guns and related violence in EU, study reveals

Worrying increase in illegal guns and related violence in EU, study reveals
The Belgian federal police reports on average 5,500 offences of illicit firearm possession a year. Credit: Belga

The first comprehensive study on gun violence in Europe was published on Monday and warns of the risks of increased gun availability in the region.

Project Target is the first major EU-wide study and was coordinated by the Flemish Peace Institute (VVI). It noted an increase in armed clashes between drug criminals and an increase in the availability of firearms on the black market. This is likely to increase gun violence and even terrorism, intensifying 'general sentiments of insecurity among the population.'

'Illicit firearms trafficking already significantly impacts both lethal and non-lethal gun violence. If these new sources and forms of trafficking render firearms more available, we can safely assume that they will increase gun violence," the study stated. It highlights the need for effective EU policy and resolute measures.

Although gun violence has decreased in the EU since the millennium (many EU Member States have among the lowest rates of firearm homicides worldwide), the rate of lethal gun violence has remained the same since 2012. In some countries, such as Sweden, the rate of violence has slowly started to remount.

The situation in Belgium

In Belgium, illegal firearm possession is relatively high – especially in the south (Wallonia) where figures were higher than in Brussels and the north (Flanders).

The Belgian federal police reported on average 5,500 offences of illicit firearm possession each year in Belgium between 2009 and 2019. This makes Belgium the seventh-highest country for gun seizures among European countries.

Although the majority of these illegal firearms are weapons that were not regularised after successive changes of national gun legislation since 2006, they are also used by various criminals, ranging from international drug traffickers to street gangs.

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Most acts of gun violence in Belgium are armed robberies committed in public places, often by young and less-experienced criminals. These incidents are mainly firearm threats that do not result in casualties.

The report stated that actual shootings seem more often to be related to the drug trade as Belgium is an important entry point for illicit drug trafficking into Europe and also an important production country for synthetic drugs and cannabis. The gangs behind these operations generally have illegal access to a wide range of firearms.

An EU solution to a Europe-wide problem

Researchers found that gun trafficking in the EU predominantly impacts criminal and terrorist gun violence (rather than domestic violence or other disputes).

The study also referenced dozens of real-life examples of gun violence and trading across Europe – particularly in Belgium which has a reputation as a hotspot for illicit firearms trafficking in Europe. The findings highlight the steady flow of affordable weapons that is radically transforming the illegal firearms market in the EU.

Results show that while jihadi terrorists tend to acquire firearms mainly through criminal connections, people associated with rightwing terrorism (which is becoming more prolific in the region) tend to rely on legal purchases, internet purchases, or assembling firearms themselves.

"Gun violence and firearms trafficking are often not a national security priority in Europe. Yet the social impact of the violence it entails can be very sudden and disruptive," Nils Duquet, director of the Flemish Peace Institute, told Belga News Agency.

"While progress has been made and international cooperation has increased within the EU, more is needed to strengthen law enforcement capacities, enhance information sharing, and close legal loopholes. This report is just the first piece of the puzzle."

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