In Europe, owning a firearm is pretty much illegal. But a huge black market has arisen in military-grade weapons, making them easily available to criminals, gang members, and terrorists. Proving the adage that if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will own guns.
Europe, a continent long known for the rarity of gun violence, is confronting twin challenges that give the issue sudden urgency: a growing population of radicalized young men determined to strike targets close to home, and a black market awash in high-powered weapons.
The problem has been rendered vividly in recent weeks by a pair of deadly assaults that each paralyzed a European capital. In Paris and Copenhagen, the attacks were carried out by former small-time criminals turned violent extremists who obtained military-grade illicit weapons with apparent ease.
In contrast with the free-firing United States, Europe is generally seen as a haven from serious gun violence. Here in Denmark, handguns and semiautomatic rifles are all but banned. Hunting rifles are legally available only to those with squeaky-clean backgrounds who have passed a rigorous exam covering everything from gun safety to the mating habits of Denmark’s wildlife.
“There’s a book about 1,000 pages thick,” said Tonni Rigby, one of only two licensed firearms dealers in Copenhagen. “You have to know all of it.”
But if you want an illicit assault rifle, such as the one used by a 22-year-old to rake a Copenhagen cafe with 28 bullets on Saturday, all it takes are a few connections and some cash.
“It’s very easy to get such a weapon,” said Hans Jorgen Bonnichsen, a former operations director for the Danish security service PET. “It’s not only a problem for Denmark. It’s a problem for all of Europe.”
European leaders have made tighter controls on weapons trafficking a priority in recent weeks, following the killing of 17 people in Paris by three attackers. The shootings in Copenhagen this past weekend, which left two people dead, raised the ominous prospect of copycat attacks across Europe.
But officials acknowledge there is no clear solution. The same open-border policies that allow people and goods to flow freely across the continent also make it extremely difficult to crack down on illegal weapons — a fact that arms dealers have been all too eager to exploit.
“You can find Kalashnikovs for sale near the train station in Brussels,” acknowledged a Brussels-based European Union official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. “They’re available even to very average criminals.”