MADRID — On paper, Western Europe seems like a gun control utopia. The laws governing firearms are tougher than those in the United States. Citizens are less likely to be armed. And the number of gun crimes is substantially lower.
On the street, though, there are signs of ominous change.
Friday's massacre at a school in Germany was the latest in a series of bloody gun crimes around the continent during the last year. The two worst examples were the slaughter of eight city council members in a Paris suburb last month and the killing of 14 regional legislators in Switzerland in September.
Europeans say these incidents are more typical of the United States, which they condemn for a Wild West gun culture. But the number of guns and violent crimes has risen in France, Germany, Britain and elsewhere. The trend defies laws that have grown more restrictive: The blood bath in Germany occurred on the same day that the national Parliament passed stern anti-gun legislation.
The problem stems partly from a booming underworld economy. Smugglers based in the war-torn Balkans pump an industrial-sized flow of illicit firearms into the European Union.
Once in the EU, moreover, the smugglers don't confront many obstacles. The relaxation of border enforcement that encourages travel and commerce has been a boon to criminals, whether they are smuggling goods or jumping back and forth across borders to commit crimes and escape police.
Then there is the human factor. As crime has dropped in the United States in recent years, it has worsened in much of Europe, despite generous welfare states designed to prevent U.S.-style inequality and social conflict. Nihilistic rage flares in classroom violence in Germany, car-arson rampages in France, brutal muggings in Britain.
Alienation a Factor
Those incidents often involve alienated young people, ethnic minorities or immigrants, whom politicians and the public tend to blame for violence. But it's not always that simple. A gunman who stormed into a rural police station in the French region of Brittany two weeks ago and opened fire with an AK-47, killing a policeman, was a French-born, 48-year-old farmer enraged by a traffic altercation.
"There is a general climate of violence that has developed over the years and an American-style evolution of French society," warned Charles Pasqua, a former interior minister.
Judging from the tension in the low-income housing projects of the urban periphery, it's a good thing that gun laws are harsh. Youth gangs don't hesitate to attack police stations in Marseille and Paris. But they generally use rocks, Molotov cocktails or cars set ablaze and converted into rolling missiles, not firearms.
The lack of guns helps explain Europe's remarkably low homicide statistics, experts say. While Los Angeles County recorded about 1,000 homicides in 2000, there was about the same number in all of France. Spain registered 1,200 homicides last year. London suffered only 148 shootings that resulted in death or grievous injury last year.
Britain, of course, has some of the toughest firearm laws in the world. The Labor government outlawed handguns in 1997 in response to a rampage by a gunman who mowed down 16 schoolchildren, ages 5 and 6, and their teacher in the Scottish town of Dunblane.
Then, as now, Britons blamed violent U.S. films and television shows for promoting violence and gun use. After the law passed, Britons surrendered about 160,000 handguns to police.
Nonetheless, the statistics are not good. Between April and November 2001, the number of homicides in London committed with a firearm rose almost 90% over the same period a year earlier. Armed street robberies rose 53%.
British police, once known as unarmed "bobbies" patrolling placid streets, have deployed armed response vehicles equipped to deal with gunmen. Gang and drug activity have propelled an influx of guns, particularly automatic weapons, from the United States, Eastern Europe and Asia, according to Scotland Yard.
Arms From the East
French police say Eastern Europe is the source of arms flooding into France, where crime went up 8% overall in 2001. It's no longer uncommon for police to confront well-trained, paramilitary-style gangs of robbers wielding AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and other heavy weapons.
A smuggling trail known as "the Balkans route" has linked Eastern and Western Europe for years. In the former Yugoslav federation, as well as in Albania and Bulgaria, large numbers of military weapons found their way into the hands of the general population and gangs.