Europeans own a total of 67 million registered guns, according to a new survey, which argues that some nations have developed a gun culture that bears comparison with the United States.
The report highlights recent incidents of mass shootings and political assassinations, raising questions about the increasing availability of firearms in Europe and their use.
"Contrary to the common assumption that Europeans are virtually unarmed, an estimated 84 million firearms are legally held in the 15 member states of the EU. Of these, 80 per cent - 67 million guns - are in civilian hands," the report states. But the Small Arms Survey also concludes that the gun culture varies enormously between European nations, and does not pinpoint any overall trend in behaviour in the EU.
The document reflects the fact that, throughout the continent as a whole, the situation has improved and that the end of the war in the Balkans leaves Chechnya as the only major ongoing conflict.
But in some EU countries, domestic gun ownership is surprisingly high. According to Aaron Karp, co-author of the report: "Citizens of most European countries are more heavily armed than they realise, with an average of 17.4 guns per 100 people in the 15 EU countries alone." While that falls a long way behind the US, which is "fast approaching a statistical level of one gun per person", Germans are buying almost as many new firearms per capita as Americans.
Finland, with its strong hunting tradition, has the most legally registered guns in the EU at 39 per 100 people, the UK has 10 - one third of the German and French figures - and the Netherlands has two. Gun laws are tightest in the UK, the Netherlands and Poland, while France has more legal handguns than the Czech Republic, Denmark, Poland, England, Wales and Scotland combined.
Mr Karp said the assumption there is no overlap between European and American gun culture is misleading. "We have been acting as if this was a comparison between Mars and Venus, but that does not always hold. Many - but not all - countries of Europe have a strong gun culture," he said. He also highlighted the convergence between US and European problems in controlling illegal firearms - thought to exceed those that are registered - and of armed crime.
The report, compiled by an independent research project funded by 12 governments, stresses the diversity of different national law but points out that Germany and France do not have a tradition of tight regulation of firearms. Registration of new guns was only made compulsory in Germany in 1972 and in France in 1995.
It also highlights recent cases of mass murder in both nations: at a school in Erfurt, Germany, in April 2002, where 17 died and 10 were wounded, and in Nanterre, France, in March last year when eight people were killed and 12 wounded in an attack on a council building. In the 13 months before last October, 47 people died and more than 36 were wounded with privately held guns in mass shootings in France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland.
By and large, Europeans show a preference for rifles and shotguns over handguns. With the exception of France, handgun ownership is largely restricted to urban areas.
HOW THEY COMPARE
Firearm-related deaths (in 2000)
United States: 30,419 (11.3 per 100,000)
England and Wales: 159 (0.3 per 100,000)
Germany: 1,201 (1.5 per 100 000)
France: 2,964 (5 per 100,000)
Gun ownership per 100 inhabitants
United States: 83-96
European Union: 17.4
United Kingdom: 10Reuse content