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France has strict gun laws. Why didn’t that save Charlie Hebdo victims?

A masked gunman runs toward a wounded police officer outside the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office in Paris on Jan. 7. Paris residents captured chilling video of one of the gunmen fatally shooting the wounded officer as he raised his hands in a pleading gesture. (AP)

When American audiences read of a dramatic event in a foreign country, they often frame it in terms of the political debates occurring at home. As such, it was no surprise that after shootings at the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris this week, some Americans began to wonder about gun control laws.

"Isn't it interesting that the tragedy in Paris took place in one of the toughest gun control countries in the world?" American reality television star Donald Trump wrote on Twitter shortly after the news broke. The tweet prompted both praise (over a thousand retweets) and scorn (Trump was labelled a "moron" and an "idiot" by other tweeters).

Trump, a perennial attention seeker, was likely attempting to score political points and insult liberals with his tweet. But behind the disingenuity, there is is a genuinely troubling question: Why didn't France's gun laws save the Charlie Hebdo victims?

France's gun laws

French gun laws date back to April 18, 1939, though they have been amended a number of times since. They are certainly tough: There is no right to bear arms for the French, and to own a gun, you need a hunting or sporting license which needs to be repeatedly renewed and requires a psychological evaluation.

According to Gun Policy, a project by the University of Sydney, the punishment for illegally having a gun is a maximum of seven years in prison and a fine. In 2012, the French government estimated that there were at least 7.5 million guns legally in circulation.

As The Post's Thomas Gibbons-Neff notes, the men who attacked Charlie Hebdo appeared to be carrying two different types of Kalashnikov rifles. Such weapons are highly restricted and require extremely stringent background checks to buy (CNN describes it as rivaling the "clearance work done by the FBI for anybody employed at the White House").

How did the attackers get the guns?

Almost certainly illegally. Bloomberg reports that weapons designed for military use, such as the Kalashnikov AK series, have been illegally flooding France over the past few years, with state bodies recording double digit increases.

“The French black market for weapons has been inundated with eastern European war artillery and arms,” Philippe Capon, the head of UNSA police union, told Bloomberg. “They are everywhere in France.” 

The number of illegal guns is thought to be at least twice the number of legal guns in the country. Weapons such as AK-47s can be bought for the equivalent of a few thousand dollars.

Could more relaxed gun laws have changed the situation?

The worrying level of firepower in the Charlie Hebdo attack certainly affected the situation. While many French police officers are armed, the first to arrive on the scene were reported to have been overwhelmed by superior firepower and forced to retreat.

Some, such as the National Review's Jim Geraghty, have pondered how the event would go down in the United States, where more gun ownership could have prompted an "armed response from ordinary citizens." Such an alternative reality scenario is hard to guess at, though it's worth noting that the evidence from the United States is far from clear, especially in shootings involving automatic weapons.

Did France's gun laws fail?

French gun laws are a response to a variety of factors. For example, statistics from Gun Policy show that the number of deaths from firearms was about 0.2 per 100,000 people in 2010 and hovered around that for the previous few years. In America, it was a little over 2.8 per 100,000. Mass shootings are relatively rare, when compared to the United States: While the Charlie Hebdo attack was horrific, it was also an anomaly.

And while the flood of illegal weapons into France is clearly a bad thing, it's worth noting that not all countries with strict gun laws are facing similar problems. In the United Kingdom, guns are now so rare that rival gangs have been known to use the same gun in turf war shootings (they rent it from a third party as the guns are too expensive to own).

Even so, France may respond to the Charlie Hebdo shootings with a change to legislation. After a series of deadly shootings in 2012 in Toulouse and Montauban (which also involved the use of illegally obtained weapons), the response was a call for a crackdown on gun availability.