The recent Florida school shooting has again, tragically, focused minds on gun crime. A total of 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The attack on Valentine's Day, 14 February, was the deadliest US school shooting since 2012. The current crisis of gun crime in the United States is, of course, well documented, but it is not the only country with such a problem. Every year, about 6,700 people are killed with a firearm in the European Union.
According to UN data on homicides by firearms in Belgium, dating from 2004, the country has had a relatively high death rate by European standards. The rate of homicides caused by firearms is put at 0.7 per 100,000 deaths, meaning that Belgium’s rate was similar to those of Italy and Bulgaria — countries notorious for organised crime. In fact, it has been estimated that the gun homicide rate is double that of the Netherlands and three times as much as Germany.
It is also claimed that more than 5 per cent of families in Belgium possess a firearm, one of the highest numbers in Western Europe. Still, by international standards, Belgium remains safe. The US rate is around 3 or 4 deaths caused by firearms per 100,000 deaths. In Honduras, it is an astonishing 64.
Even so, the Brussels-based Flemish Peace Institute, in a report on gun policy, concluded that in Europe in general countries with more firearms tend to have more firearm deaths, especially gunshot suicides.
“Possible linkages between on gun ownership and homicides rates are much more difficult to establish, partly because a lot of homicides occur in criminal contexts in which illegally-held firearms are used and because of a lack of reliable and detailed data on these aspects,” explains Nils Duquet, senior researcher at the Flemish Peace Institute.
Although terrorism activity have most recently and horrifically cast the spotlight on Belgium’s "gun culture", it has been estimated by Claude Moniquet, co-founder of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre, that 95 per cent of weapons on the black market are destined for criminals with no relation to terrorism. It begs the question: where are these weapons coming from and how easy (or otherwise) is it to acquire them? In an attempt to try and find out, I went “undercover” on the streets of Brussels.
My inquiries started in the area around the city’s Midi Station, which – in the past at least - has had something of a reputation for gun running. I wanted to find out how one goes about buying an illegal firearm on the black market, what type of weapons might be available and the cost.
My search didn’t get off to the best of starts. A few, very discreet, inquiries at the first bar I tried came to absolutely nothing. Indeed, my questions about acquiring a firearm were met with something of a bemused (and suspicious) response. A second night attempting the same thing yielded the same result. I tried again for a third night and, after a while, the response from a man stood near a bar in an area not far away was more promising. He told me he could get hold of “anything of my choice” and, when I asked for proof of this, he very quickly produced a mobile device displaying what appeared to be an array of firearms, including a pistol, shotgun, handgun and rifle. He even said that, should I want one, he could obtain an AK-47.
Weapons from Western Balkans
It seemed to amount to a “shopping list” of firearms and prices. The man declined to give me his name or phone number and told me he would have to take me to a “secret” destination for any transaction to take place. Curious as to where he had managed to acquire such items he'd shown me on this mobile phone, I delicately inquired about his source and supplier. He was clearly reluctant to give much away – no surprise there - but told me that, generally, the Balkan states were the biggest source of unlicensed guns in circulation.
This had a ring of truth to it since I’d heard on good authority that the flow of illegal guns into Belgium first started in the 1990s amid the Balkan wars and the fall of the Soviet Union. It has been estimated that 90 per cent of the arms circulating in Belgium probably originate from the Balkans, including Bosnia and Albania, and Dutch police say drug gangs there increasingly use Kalashnikovs rather than handguns because of their reportedly relatively easy availability in Belgium.
My newly-established contact, a lightly built French speaker who wore tatty jeans and leather jacket, said we’d have to move to an undisclosed “safe house” for any purchase to take place but cautioned that this would not come cheap. I was quoted €2,000 for a handgun (he said this was the preferred type of firearms for criminals because they are easy to conceal), €800 for an assault rifle and €1,500 for what was called a “military-style” weapon. He could, he said, also supply ammunition. Speaking in very badly broken English he told me that I should be mindful that some of the weapons he apparently could obtain were deactivated weapons.
In fact, deactivated firearms (certified by Belgian Proofing House) can be bought legally in Belgium, for much lower prices than the ones offered to me.
Deactivated arms are more commonly used as mere props in theatres or antique collectors’ items. There are differing standards on what deactivation actually means and the contact informed me that, should I buy one of these, it could “very easily be reactivated.” When asked if any of the guns he could supply were licensed, he replied, "Of course not." At no point was I asked what I wanted a weapon for or if I had a firearms licence. It was clear that these were undocumented items being offered.
Until 2006, the gun control laws here were relatively liberal and even lax. Now, though, they are far more rigid and strict. In Belgium, there are several categories in which users must comply with to get a weapon. Gunsmiths, collectors, hunters and marksmen may be given specific exceptions when it comes to the purchase and use of a weapon. A rigid legal framework – tightened in 2006 after two innocent people were gunned down, now exists and ordinary citizens must meet strict criteria before they can legally own a firearm. But concerns still exist about the illicit gun market here.
The stumbling block in the “negotiations” with my contact came regarding payment, with him insisting I pay “in full and up front” before I’d actually seen any item. It was at this point that I told him I’d give the idea some more thought and discreetly left. The experience had been, in truth, rather unnerving, not least because I was left in little doubt that the person I’d been dealing with was, in terms of his willingness and apparent ability to supply an illegal weapon, perfectly genuine. The relative ease with which I’d penetrated this shadowy, yet seemingly eager, criminal fraternity was scary. It hadn’t taken a great deal of effort on my part to get a taste, albeit relatively fleeting, of Belgium’s black market for firearms.
Belgian gun laws
Traditionally, Belgium has always been a leading manufacturer of firearms and is ranked among the world's leading firearms exporters. The biggest player in Belgian firearms manufacturing is Fabriques Nationales in Herstal.
A few years ago, police in Charleroi dismantled a gun running ring in the city in which the smugglers had been faking the signature of the minister president of Wallonia on import documents. After the shooting at the Christmas market in Liege in December 2011, the Belgian government announced extra steps to break up smuggling gangs. This included the reactivation of the “committee for interdepartmental coordination on illegal arms transfers”.
A source at Belgium's foreign affairs ministry said, "In order to fight the illicit trade, our country defends the need for marking and registering weapons in order to increase their traceability. Belgium supports initiatives aimed at supporting countries affected by the illicit arms trade through better control of arms flows, the securing of stockpiles, better border control and strengthening of administrative and regulatory competences."
But gun crime here (as elsewhere) persists and, while it is public shootings like the one in Florida (thankfully, still unheard of here) that grab the headlines, what should not be overlooked is the fact that every year, over 4,000 suicides by firearm are registered in the EU.
Belgium, in trying to tackle the issue, also faces the added complication of its federal structure. The Weapons Act, which regulates possession and use, is a federal matter but the control of the import and export of firearms, as well as hunting and shooting regulations are a regional competence. Such a system, it is argued, can hinder cooperation and intelligence-sharing between the country’s administrations.
So, is (as it has been dubbed in the past) Belgium a “dream destination” for criminals (and terrorists) who want to get their hands on illegal guns? Of course, the country has a black market for guns but, as gun-related crime in other EU member states has shown, this is a problem shared by many others.
It must be stressed that the spot near Gare du Midi had no known links to illegal firearms dealing. It was chosen quite randomly. Previous studies clearly conclude that criminal connections are important to access the illicit gun market in Belgium, but what my (strictly unscientific) experiment may have shown is that it is possible to buy such lethal items on our streets. What it also showed is that, should you be desperate enough to go down this route, such potentially deadly purchases will also come at quite a price.
In 2016, Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon said that while the overall crime rate had gone down (by 8.8 per cent), the illegal gun trade in the country was up by more than 50 percent. Let's hope it doesn't take a Florida style incident here to focus political minds on the need to eradicate the illegal flow of firearms.
By Martin Banks