There has been a lot of recent talk about how the renewed threat of Russian aggression might impact civilian gun ownership in Europe. After all, Ukraine appears to demonstrate the value of an armed populace with even minimal training. While the impact of those citizens on the war is unclear, the fact remains that the Russian Army has not had an easy time and appears to have been fought to a near standstill on the ground.
Ian McCollum of Forgotten Weapons [YouTube channel] recently posted a video discussing how Finland has a robust competitive shooting culture which benefits the country’s military readiness at no cost to the government. It’s an interesting take and I agree with his basic premise, given many of those competitions include fitness and shooting under physical and mental stress. If anyone has reason to be wary of Russia, it’s the Finns. But it got me thinking about whether Europe would truly embrace the concept of an armed populace.
NATO: A Deterrent or a Victim of Energy Diplomacy?
Like the Finns, the Baltic States of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia have reason to fear Vladimir Putin. They have historically been caught between Russia and Germany and still have living memories of being Soviet vassal states. They are currently almost entirely surrounded by Russia and her client state, Belarus. Unlike Finland, the Baltic States enjoy NATO membership. But the alliance’s material degradation since the end of the Cold War, coupled with the uneven response to the war in Ukraine raises real concerns about its ability to protect its most vulnerable members. Ian implies that, Article 5 responsibility or not, NATO might be reluctant to risk nuclear war by directly engaging Russian forces over a few relatively small border states.
Anyone willing to bet against that? Russia may yet win in Ukraine despite the apparent bloody nose they’ve suffered along the way. If so, they’re in for a difficult aftermath, due in part to those armed citizens we mentioned. But it also looks like Putin isn’t going anywhere and his desire to regain the traditional Russian/Soviet sphere of influence is plain to see. We’re talking about a guy who stated that he believed the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. Guys like him might make mistakes, as he has clearly done in Ukraine, but they rarely repeat those mistakes. And by that, I mean he will have his army better prepared the next time he decides to go adventuring.
I also believe the West will help him in that regard. The Ukrainian situation will eventually end or at least recede in peoples’ minds — long memories aren’t the West’s strong suit. Europe needs his oil and gas. I think that will trump his past transgressions over time, especially with the West’s fixation with the climate change flavor of the month. Russia is a threat to Eastern Europe, but will their Western cousins want to fight a major war over that?
Yeah, NATO seems to have woken up over the last month, but I’m skeptical of a return to its former strength and resolve. It’s too expensive and, despite their rhetoric, Western Europe seems to being moving on. I hope I’m wrong, but that’s what it looks like from here. I have little faith that NATO will be willing, or even able, to confront the Russians on the ground in a conventional war anytime soon.
But what about air power, you may ask. Great point. NATO air power, as long as it includes US assets, is truly formidable. But it has to stage to the operations area to be effective and history has shown that air power alone cannot win a war. It’s never happened. As badly as the Iraqis got their butts kicked in the 1991 Gulf War, ground troops were still required to retake Kuwait. While not as remote as Kuwait, the Baltic States are exposed, and a NATO response would take time. Not to mention that NATO aircraft would have to transit Russian or Belarusian airspace to reach their targets.
In addition, a recent Estonian defense study found that Baltic air defense networks are too weak to protect themselves or NATO reinforcements which might be coming to their aid from determined Russian air attacks. This includes the small numbers of fighter aircraft provided to the Baltics by the NATO Baltic Air Policing Initiative. It’s essentially a trip wire.
That means NATO air forces would first have to establish air superiority over the Baltics before they could strike at Russian ground formations. After transiting enemy airspace over which they would also have to gain air superiority. That enemy airspace happens to be part of the Russian Western Military District, home to at least 27 operational squadrons of warplanes.
Even if NATO were willing, intervention in Eastern Europe would likely be made problematic by Putin’s penchant for stirring up domestic strife using paramilitary and separatist elements to his advantage, as he did in South Ossetia, Crimea, and the Donbas region of Ukraine. Direct involvement of out of uniform and masked Russian special operations troops in those areas is an open secret. The “Little Green Men” of the Crimean situation came to mind.
Despite UN condemnation, Putin proved adept at parsing separatist propaganda and official Russian policy. (See David Reeder, The Crimea Catalyst at forgottenweapons.com/the-crimea-catalyst). He could conceivably sow enough discord to mute a firm NATO response, at least until he was ready to strike. Dividing one’s enemies is an age-old tactic used to good effect by such men as Vladimir Putin and, dare I say, Adolf Hitler.
The European Firearms Directive: Like New York Dictating to Texas
So, how does all that impact civilian gun ownership in Europe as the concept is understood in the United States? For one thing, it has already occurred to folks in Lithuania that they are potentially the next Ukraine, even if it won’t happen tomorrow. Gun stores are reportedly bare and gun license applications doubled in February. A well-armed populace might give Vlad some pause, given the Ukrainian scenario. Or it might just cause him to commit even more troops to the (theoretical) enterprise. Of course, I think it’s better to risk the latter by arming up, but that’s me.
But there’s a big elephant in the room that hasn’t been addressed, as far as I’ve seen, by people on our side of the pond cheering on the Ukrainian civilians and hoping others take their example to heart. While it is true that strong gun cultures exist in Europe, particularly in Switzerland, Finland, and the Czech Republic, the aforementioned pachyderm exists in the form of the European Firearms Directive, passed overwhelmingly by the European Parliament in March of 2017.
Without going into too much detail, which you can look up yourself if you want, the Directive prohibits the ownership of “automatic firearms; ammunition with penetrating, explosive, or incendiary projectiles; and pistol or revolver ammunition with expanding projectiles…except in the case of weapons for hunting or for target shooting, for persons entitled to use them.” That last part means you have to ask permission and receive authorization to be an entitled person. That’s confirmed by the next statement: “In general, the firearms [including the ammunition mentioned] are prohibited, authorization to acquire and possess may be possible only in special cases.”
Okay, fine. Sounds a lot like NFA items in the US. But the other categories list firearm types that we consider mainstream and are limited to “persons who have good cause” and are “subject to prior authorization.” That equates to all firearms, which, of course, must be registered. Now, here’s the kicker: these restrictions apply to the entire European Union. Member states have the option to enact stricter gun laws if they wish, but they cannot get around the minimum standards set forth in the Firearms Directive, which carries the force of law.
The Czech Republic objected, citing reasons such as impositions on their citizens who own and use such weapons, as well as the restrictions possibly enabling a black-market surge. Those objections were countered by countries and entities, such as Luxembourg and the Dutch EU Presidency, who believed the restrictions didn’t go far enough. It’s like New York having veto power over more freedom-oriented gun laws in Texas. The Directive passed the European Parliament by a vote of 491 to 178 in less than five minutes with NO public debate.
The European Council, comprised of each nation’s head of state, approved the proposed Directive by majority vote in late April of 2017. Poland, the Czech Republic, and Luxembourg voted against it, the latter because it wasn’t restrictive enough for them. For instance, Luxembourg supported a 2015 European Commission amendment proposal that would among other things, make muskets subject to the same restrictions as modern firearms, and require all automatic weapons, including those converted to semiautomatic only, to be destroyed or permanently deactivated, even those in museums. That amendment proposal was not enacted because the Directive was largely finalized, and its proponents believed a long amendment process would endanger its passage. It should be noted that the only European Commission members opposing the amendments were Czech. The European Commission is the executive branch of the European Union.
Switzerland, Finland, Estonia, and Lithuania opposed the Directive, but the inclusion of special possession exemptions for reservists and militia members convinced them to vote for it. Kind of like how off-duty and retired police are exempted in many gun control states in the US. Just not the plebes. Switzerland is not a full EU member, but the Directive affects them because they participate in the “Schengen Area,” which has open borders between countries.
If you are deemed worthy of a firearms license by your country of residence, you can’t just travel with said firearm throughout the EU, despite their open border policy in the Schengen Area. Oh no, you have to apply to the country to which you wish to travel, or even transit, and demonstrate your need to transport that firearm. Acceptable reasons for doing so are shooting competitions or hunting, though you must prove that’s where you’re going and provide a physical invitation.
Upon approval, you will be issued a European Firearms Pass from the destination or transit countries to make you legal. But there’s a catch: if you plan to transit countries with stricter gun laws where any of your equipment is illegal, well, it sucks to be you. They won’t allow it. So, you’ll just have to go around. So, while the Directive supersedes national gun laws, the European Firearms Pass does not. Just shut up and comply, peasant.
The EU government justified the Firearms Directive, and the earlier gun restrictions dating from 1991 through 2015, by citing the wave of Islamist terror attacks in several European cities. Never mind the fact that only nine of the 31 attacks employed firearms, and eight of those used guns that were illegally smuggled into the EU or “deactivated” firearms that were illegally refurbished. The last incident involved a rifle that was stolen from the Dutch Army. Not one of those attackers used a legally owned firearm. Yet they were used to justify severe restrictions on European citizens.
The Czechs Call BS
The Czechs almost immediately filed a lawsuit with the European Court of Justice challenging the Directive. Milan Chovanec, the Czech Minister of the Interior said, “Filing the suit gives me no pleasure, but there is no other option left. The Directive violates the principle of proportionality as well as prohibition of discrimination. We shall not allow the EU to use the guise of fight against terrorism in order to disproportionately infringe onto the Member States’ scope of authority and citizens’ rights. The EU Gun Ban would affect almost all of the 300,000 legal gun owners in the country. This is why we will lodge not only the suit to invalidate the Directive, but also propose postponement of the Directive’s effectiveness.” They were joined in the lawsuit by Poland and Hungary.
The Czech lawsuit was dismissed in December of 2019. The Court cited public safety, terrorism, trade harmonization, and the belief that repealing the Directive would not necessarily guarantee a return to the status quo ante as reasons for the dismissal. The Court also noted that the Czech’s objections had been previously examined by the European Parliament as part of the legislative process and found to be invalid. So, basically, screw your citizens because that’s the price of doing business in the EU.
Seeing which way the wind was blowing, the Czech Chamber of Deputies proposed and passed a Constitutional Amendment expressly providing “the right to be armed as part of a citizen’s duty of participation in provision of internal order, security and democratic order.” The Amendment cited the high gun ownership rate, number of concealed carry licenses, and high ownership rate of semi-automatic firearms suitable for defense compared to the rest of the EU and said citizens should be used to defend soft targets in the event of terrorism. The proposed Amendment was shot down by the Czech Senate and is now dead. There is a political movement in Switzerland to withdraw from the Schengen Area in response to the Directive, but there has been no movement yet.
No Second Amendment in Europe
Does that sound like Europe is on the cusp of a renaissance of the right the bear arms? Not to me. With the Directive’s Obamacare-like passage and only three countries willing to oppose it, all in Eastern Europe, I just don’t see how that can happen, Ukraine or no Ukraine. I think Western Europe is alarmed more by Putin’s ability and willingness to wage economic warfare through energy restriction than they are by any physical threat to their borders. After all, they aren’t really in Putin’s crosshairs, except as leverage to get what he wants in Eastern Europe. I also think they are perfectly capable of bowing to Putin’s nuclear threats in response to NATO action.
And does anyone believe that Western European populations will stand by for the disruption caused by an interrupted energy supply for long, especially when their physical safety is not otherwise threatened? I think it’s entirely possible that some NATO members would waffle on helping the Baltic States, and perhaps others, if it comes down to it. As I write this, Germany has refused to shut down the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline in response to calls for a full embargo on Russian energy by the Poles. I get it. Germany has to function and it’s still cold there. The Germans also have the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians as a buffer between them and Russia and no real fear of direct Russian aggression.
Right now, Vladimir Putin is an international pariah, but that will most likely fade as Europe looks for energy sources and Ukraine eventually passes from the 24-hour news cycle. A wild card in that situation is whether American energy policy changes significantly, but that won’t happen with Joe Biden or, God forbid, Kamala Harris in the White House.
Even then, infrastructure would have to be put in place to supply Europe’s needs, and with one half of the American political system firmly against adequate gas and oil production, I wonder if anyone would be willing to risk capital on such investments. I also wonder whether Europe would be willing to gamble their energy security on the whims of a fickle American electorate and ideologically driven politicians. Realistically, Putin could be attractive as the devil they know. At least he’s consistent.
So, to sum it up, I think the EU’s policies, driven by Western European ideology and the need for Russian oil and gas, will erode NATO’s ability and willingness to counter Russian expansion. I could very well be wrong and hope I am, but I wouldn’t bet against it. Assuming, of course, that is Putin’s plan. We can only go by what he’s said in the past and by what we know of men like him. He does fit the profile. He’s as calculating as Otto von Bismarck and as ruthless as he needs to be. He appears to subscribe to the Imperial Athenian maxim of political realism that asserts, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” In that regard, I see Western Europe as “the weak.” Ideologically driven and under no direct threat of Russian invasion, they view an armed populace as a threat, not an asset.