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France’s real gun problem

Bullet holes are seen in the terrace windows of Cafe Bonne Biere, as people lay flowers and candles in front, in Paris, Nov. 15, 2015. (Ian Langsdon/EPA)

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, Donald Trump and other American conservatives repeated a familiar and predictable response to mass shootings in other countries: France has a gun problem. If Parisians could legally carry weapons, they could have fought back against the assailants.

That argument doesn't have much support in France — a country that has around 1,800 firearms deaths every year, as opposed to the more than 33,000 in the United States. But there is certainly a kernel of truth to it. France does have a problem with guns. However, while an American might view that problem in terms of legal ownership, a French person might view it in a very European way: By thinking of borders.

As the attacks in Paris over the weekend and other events like it have reminded us, it is far from impossible to illegally acquire a firearm in France. This flies in the face of France's strict gun laws. There is no right to bear arms in the country. To own a gun, you would need a hunting or sporting license, which needs to be repeatedly renewed and requires a psychological evaluation. For weapons such as the Kalashnikov AK-variant rifles used in the attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's offices in Paris, the background check required would rival the "clearance work done by the FBI for anybody employed at the White House," French journalist Philippe Coste noted for CNN in 2012.

Despite these strict laws, France seems to be awash with guns. The guns used in high-profile terror attacks are really just the tip of the iceberg. In 2012, French authorities estimated that there were around 30,000 guns illegally in the country, many likely used by gangs for criminal activities. Of those guns, around 4,000 were likely to be "war weapons," Le Figaro reported, referring to items such as the Kalashnikov AK-variant rifles and Uzis. Statistics from the National Observatory for Delinquency, a government body created in 2003, suggest that the number of guns in France has grown by double digits every year.

The attackers who hit Paris on Friday were clearly armed to the teeth. During raids conducted by French authorities over the weekend, more weapons have been found — including a rocket launcher, according to some unconfirmed reports.

How did these weapons get into France if its laws forbid them? By likely a number of ways, but one stands out: Europe's border-control-free Schengen area. For years now, internal borders throughout much of mainland Europe have had no passport controls or baggage checks. It's perhaps one of the most dramatic results of Europe's quest for closer ties: There are now 26 different countries within the Schengen area, which means a huge number of people (400 million) can travel freely in an area that spans more than 1.6 million square miles.

France is a part of this, and can't really get out easily. As my colleague Rick Noack noted over the weekend, when French President Francois Hollande said he was going to close the borders after the attacks on Friday, it wasn't quite so simple in practice. It would take some time, and very considerable manpower, to really control the country's borders. In fact, one key suspect was actually stopped at the border on Friday night and later released.

The Schengen area has been the subject of much controversy recently, though the debate has largely focused on the movement of people and the flow of refugees through the continent. What's perhaps less discussed is the movement of illicit goods. Money can be laundered over these borders, drugs moved, and arms trafficked.

It's believed that most of these weapons come from the Balkan states, leftovers from the wars that took place after the collapse of Yugoslavia — some estimate there might be as many as 6 million weapons remaining in that region. Once they make it into the Schengen area, there's little to stop them from making it all the way to Paris, where AK-47s can sell for 1,000 euros ($1,072), according to Bloomberg.

It's also perhaps important to note that much of the planning for the attacks in Paris may have taken place in neighboring Belgium, which appears to have become a regional hub for weapons: Amedy Coulibaly, the Frenchman who was killed after he took hostages at a kosher supermarket in Paris in January, is believed to have bought the weapons used in that attack in Brussels's Molenbeek neighborhood.

To get a sense of how different things could have been for France and other countries in the Schengen area without this illegal trade in guns, consider the case of Britain — not only a non-member of the Schengen area, but also an island. Britain is a country with many problems and has its fair share of organized crime. However, gun crime is generally rare in the country, a reflection of the fact that guns themselves are rare. The Economist notes that during the 2011 riots in London and other British cities, a 19th-century St. Etienne revolver was fired, a likely sign of how desperate criminals are for guns. The number of firearms-related deaths is in the low hundreds each year.

A Paris-style shooting isn't impossible in Britain, but it would be significantly harder to organize. Understandably, with two devastating terror attacks involving illegal weapons in less than a year (plus at least one that was foiled), France is wondering what it can do to thwart them. On Friday, before the shootings had taken place, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced a new plan designed to combat firearms trafficking. The plan involved a new national coordination department headed by the Interior Ministry and increased sentences for those found guilty.

With Europe's open borders and a minority determined to get guns, you have to wonder: Is that enough?

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