Continental Divide

Gun laws in Europe aren't as draconian as you might think.

European gun laws are not necessarily stricter than ours (or even as restrictive). They are just different.

For generations, anti-gun fanatics have been claiming that Europe has highly restrictive gun control and low murder rates. Well, the latter is true, but European gun laws are not necessarily stricter than ours (or even as restrictive). They are just different.

German and Austrian murder rates are generally the lowest in Europe--about 50 percent lower than those of gun-banning England. So let's compare German and Austrian gun laws to ours.

To possess a firearm in Austria one must be 18 years of age. (Special permission can be granted for minors 16 and older who want to hunt or target shoot if they are shown to be responsible enough.)

Austria bans guns that mimic other objects--presumably things such as cane guns; guns that are more collapsible than average or are designed to be quickly disassembled; shotguns smaller than 90cm overall or with a barrel of less than 45cm; pump-action guns that have detachable magazines; and firearms with silencers or lighting devices.

Permits are required for short-barreled pumps and legal semiautos. To obtain a permit the applicant must show need. But need is presumed for any good citizen over 21 years who wants a gun for home defense. The permit allows ownership of no more than two such guns unless some special need is shown for more.

Revolvers and other firearms not covered above do not need a permit but must be registered within four weeks of purchase. A three-day waiting period is required before purchase unless you have a carry permit, an ownership permit or a hunting license.

To carry any gun requires a permit. Permits must be issued upon proof that the applicant is reliable and that a justification exists to carry the firearm. The need to carry is presumed if the applicant shows that he is especially endangered outside the home. Persons classified as unreliable are alcoholics or other substance dependent persons, those with psychological disorders or those with physical infirmities that prevent proper use of the firearm.

Also disqualified are those with criminal records for armed or gang related smuggling; threatening or injuring others with a firearm, or who have had a sentence of over two months imprisonment for any of a variety of offenses.

Illegal for civilians (with rare exceptions) are full auto firearms; pump shotguns fitted with a pistol grip and missing the stock; firearms that mimic other objects; firearms that can be abnormally quickly disassembled or collapsed; firearms with laser scopes; and firearms with night vision scopes. One who owns these types of firearms under a special permit must store them in a safe, but all guns must be stored in such a manner that they cannot be lost or stolen.

A permit is required to own any gun. To get one you must be 18 years of age, though minors may have a gun if needed for their vocational training or work, but then only under the supervision of an adult with a permit to carry.

Other requirements include trustworthiness; aptitude; satisfactory completion of an examination; demonstrating a need; and proof of a €1.5 million liability insurance policy (equal to about $1.5 million U.S.).

People considered untrustworthy include those convicted of a crime for which imprisonment was over one year if less than 10 years have passed since that conviction; a crime resulting in personal injury while using a firearm or who was sentenced to 60 days or more in jail for violating the Weapons Act; or if facts suggest that he will misuse the gun or use it carelessly or allow it to be used by someone without a permit.

Another requirement for the license is aptitude--again defined only negatively. Aptitude is lacking if facts show the applicant is: incompetent to use firearm; an alcoholic or otherwise substance dependent; psychologically impaired; or if there is basis to fear the applicant will use the firearm to harm himself. Applicants who are under 25 and are applying for their original permit must (at their own expense) furnish a certificate from a doctor or government agency of their mental fitness.

Applicants must also take a state examination showing firearms knowledge. And they must demonstrate a need for the firearms permit that outweighs any danger to public safety. Examples of requisite need include hunting, gun collecting, gun club membership, gun dealers and makers, security guards, and those who have been threatened.

Citizens who obtain a firearms permit have one year in which to purchase a firearm (of a type covered by the permit only) and then two weeks to report the purchase. Ammunition must be acquired within six years but can be kept indefinitely.

To actually carry a firearm you have to have a Waffenschein (gun carry license), which requires demonstrating a need to carry the firearm outside of the home. To get a permit requires an applicant to show that his or her life is in more jeopardy than are those of the population generally and that gun carrying will lower this risk.

So it is true that there are many differences between the gun laws of the U.S. and those of Germany and Austria, but the latter are not more restrictive. Indeed, sometimes they are less so. To legally possess a gun may involve more red tape. But having a handgun for self-defense is no more impossible.

And getting a permit to carry is far easier than in most of our most populous states. Austria, for instance, has three times more carry licenses than California with its 4.5 times greater population.

Moreover, the U.S. has literally thousands of felonies, many of them for relatively harmless behavior--anti-trust violations, cheating on your taxes, embezzlement or growing pot, for example--and a person convicted of any of them is barred from gun ownership for life. In Austria or Germany they would not be barred at all or, in more serious matters, for no more than 10 years.

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