PRAGUE — When eight people had taken their seats in the classroom, the proctor put on his glasses and said it was time to begin. He took attendance. He glowered as one person walked in late. He described how the test would work — 30 multiple-choice questions, 40 minutes — and how to properly mark an X on the answer sheet. Then he ordered phones away; only a pen and paper, he said, were permitted on the table.
“If anybody needs to go to the toilet, now is the time,” he said.
The test had all the tedious markings of a high school exam, down to the motivational poster on the wall saying “I will.”
But in the Czech Republic, this is part of how you obtain a gun.
And 40 minutes later, three of the nine had already failed, ushered out the door as the others went on to the later stages of the exam, in which they had to prove the ability to handle a weapon safely and shoot accurately.
In an America riven by gun violence, with recent mass killings at a Walmart in Virginia and an LGBTQ club in Colorado, weapons can often be purchased without even a background check. With the country divided about even the smallest changes to gun laws, the question is only hypothetical: What if anybody who wanted a gun had to first prove their competence?
The Czech Republic embodies an answer. By European standards, its gun laws are permissive. It allows people to carry concealed weapons for the purpose of self-defense, and it is one of the few countries in the world — and the only one in Europe — that provide the constitutional right to bear arms. But exercising that right is contingent on the test.
Czech lawmakers and gun owners say their national system dramatically increases the odds of responsible ownership. The rules also require a health clearance and a background check, and demand safe storage of weapons once they are purchased. In a country more populous than New York City, there were seven homicides using guns during all of last year.
“We really have bad politics in many ways here — corruption. But something I am proud of is this law,” said Martin Fiser, 35, a weapons instructor. “It can be a model for the rest of the world.”
The test is obligatory for anybody who wants a weapon, including hunters, collectors, even someone inheriting a shotgun from a grandfather. The standards are high: The test consists of questions randomly drawn from a pool of 501 possible. Those trying to obtain the hardest-to-get license — for concealed carry — can miss no more than one question. The failure rate is around 40 percent.
“Practice lessons aren’t mandatory. But without it you have a minimal chance of passing,” said Pavel Ausficir, who works at a shooting range in Prague.
He mentioned a government app and a website where people can study for the written part of the exam.
The questions are specific, plumbing the details of safety legislation and the criminal code. One example:
According to Government Regulation No. 217/2017, black hunting gunpowder, smokeless gunpowder and matches can only be stored:
A: In a place with a maximum air humidity of 70%, and at a temperature not exceeding 25 degrees Celsius;
B: In a dry place without direct sunlight, at a temperature not exceeding 30 degrees Celsius;
C: In a dry place, at a temperature not exceeding 40 degrees Celsius.
The correct answer? C.
“It’s not that a person needs to memorize the law,” Ausficir said, “but the test surely checks that they have read it.”
The notion of testing would-be gun owners isn’t solely the purview of the Czech Republic. Many European Union countries have some kind of competence exam, though the difficulty varies.
Some U.S. states, including California and Connecticut, require either safety training or an exam before the issuance of a gun license. But the majority of states allow people to carry guns without ever learning how to shoot one. On a national scale, the patchwork of rules presents a problem. Even those in more restrictive states can circumvent testing requirements by purchasing guns from private vendors online.
In the states that do have exams, the requirements “are not as difficult as what the Czech Republic has put in place,” said Sean Holihan, the state legislative director for the gun violence prevention group led by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
Czech lawmakers say they have a luxury that Americans do not. Guns are not a politically fraught issue. About 1 in every 30 Czechs hold a gun permit. For most of the rest, the issue is rarely discussed.
The constitutional right to bear arms was put in place only last year, not because of some popular groundswell, but because lawmakers liked the national laws as they stand and wanted to make sure E.U. initiatives passed in response to terrorist attacks wouldn’t jeopardize them.
“Guns are valued by gun holders,” said Martin Cervicek, a senator and former president of the Czech police forces. “But they are not viewed as sacred.”
That sentiment, and the absence of any major gun lobby, has made it easier to toughen the system. After a gunman fatally shot eight people at a Czech restaurant in 2015, in a rare mass killing — carried out by a legal-firearm owner who had been showing signs of mental instability — laws were quickly changed to give police power to seize weapons when a person’s mental capacity is in doubt.
The last Czech mass killing occurred in 2019, when a gunman fatally shot seven people in a hospital. But the perpetrator, who had been ineligible to legally possess a gun, had needed to go to great lengths to fashion a weapon.
The Czech national testing system was born in the vacuum of the 1989 Communist collapse. The Communists had decreed that guns could be licensed only to those proving capability. But in practice almost nobody aside from police and party apparatchiks had been able to get one. As the new Czech democracy tried to interpret that vague law, local police started conducting examinations. Within a few years, the system was formalized: a written and practical test, overseen by a government-appointed commissar. The country has regularly expanded the pool of possible questions for test-takers.
The Czech Interior Ministry, which oversees the testing system, did not allow The Washington Post to sit in on tests. But it shared uncut videos of several testing sessions, which take place at gun centers across the country, generally in groups of 15 to 20 people.
Jan Bartosek, the ministry’s firearms policy director, said the most difficult part involves safe handling, when somebody has to show they can take a gun apart, put it back together, and deal with failures like a squib load or a double feed. One of the videos showed a woman who was asked to simulate the event of a failure to fire. She was supposed to keep the weapon pointed at a target for 10 seconds, just in case the firing might occur on a delay. But she instead tried to unload it immediately.
“Unfortunately, I have to finish your exam right here,” the test administrator said.
Bartosek, showing the video to The Post, said the woman then needed to sign a document affirming the failure. She would be eligible to eventually retake the test. But many people who fail give up after one try, he said.
In any country “you can focus on regulating the weapons or the people,” Bartosek said. “We focus mainly on the people.”
The Czech Republic has seen a slight increase this year in the number of people seeking weapons, something officials attribute to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ludek Cakl, 43, an IT developer and father of two, said that the war, in which so many Ukrainians have been forced to take up arms, made him reassess the value of knowing how to handle a weapon.
So recently he started the process of obtaining a gun: visiting his doctor, getting a clean bill of mental health, paying a processing fee, and then, five days before his official test, arriving at an underground shooting range, where he stood in front of a yellow table and pieced together a CZ-75 semiautomatic pistol.
“The commission is going to ask you to describe the various parts of the gun,” an instructor told Cakl.
Cakl took notes on a clipboard.
After several hours, it was time for the shooting practice, and he was ushered to a dark, tunnel-like range under the Prague subway tracks, its walls rattling every time a train rolled by.
Cakl was told that on the day of the test, he’d have to hit the target four times out of five. He’d shoot a pistol 10 meters away from the target. And then a rifle 25 meters away.
So that’s what he practiced. The instructor told him how to plant his feet, how to keep a steady hand, and how even his breathing could influence aim of the rifle nestled against his shoulder.
He tried the pistol first: all on the target.
Then he tried the rifle from farther away: he hit four of five.
“My first shots ever,” Cakl said, looking at the bullet holes.
The instructor offered a handshake and took out a pocket knife, cutting away the target sheet — a souvenir for Cakl.
“An excellent result,” the instructor said.
But Cakl, leaving the shooting gallery, said he was still nervous. He had so much running through his mind.
“It’s harder than I expected it to be,” he said.
He told the instructor that he wanted to come back for one more lesson before his test.
“Just for reassurance,” he said.