Fight against arms trafficking: Where do we stand?

Cecilia Malmström — EU Commissioner for Home Affairs

Conference – “Fight against illicit trafficking in firearms. Where do we stand”

Brussels, 21-11-2012 — / — I am delighted to welcome you all to our conference on the fight against illicit trafficking in firearms, in the EU and beyond.

We have in the room today some of the leading experts on the topic – from law enforcement, industry, policy makers, and from civil society.

For you, it will not come as a surprise that the Commission puts focus on this issue by organising this conference. Still, it is worth recalling that despite repeated political declarations, at international and EU level, calling for ‘less guns’ and ‘more security’ over the last decade; despite the adoption of new legal frameworks restricting legal access to the most dangerous types of firearms, and strengthening the fight against trafficking in illicit firearms, and despite the hard work of law enforcement authorities – including police and customs – in many countries to enforce those laws, firearms continue to cause severe harm.

Firearms still cause widespread death and bodily harm in the EU; they spread (more than ever before, it seems to me) fear, and undermine citizens’ feeling of security, as they are highly visible symbols of the power of criminal groups, and they generate large profits for criminal groups, increasing their economic power and ability to commit other crimes.

The question is what to do about it!

But before coming to that, let me touch briefly on three points:

  • the harm caused by firearms in the EU,
  • the steps taken at EU level in recent years to limit that harm; and
  • why in my view the EU still needs to go further.

The harm caused by firearms

Over the last few years, tragic gun attacks have repeatedly drawn media attention – in Norway, Belgium, Finland, France and Italy, just to mention a few.

Seven innocent victims, including three children, died in Toulouse and Montauban at the hand of Mr Merah. Five died, and 120 were injured, in Liege here in Belgium just before Christmas last year. In my own Member State, Sweden, 17 were killed as a result of gun violence last year. I could, of course go on and on.

Sadly, those cases are only symptomatic of a wider and truly terrible reality: according to Interpol, firearms are used in more than 245,000 murders worldwide (excluding war-torn countries) every year. In the EU alone more than 5000 murders were committed with firearms (around 20% of all murders) last year according to the UNODC.

And no EU country is unaffected by firearms violence. It is truly a cross-border, common challenge. It is therefore not an exaggeration to describe small arms, as former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan once did, as ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

What has been done already?

Trafficking in illicit firearms has been on the political agenda of the EU for at least a decade:

In 2006 the Commission suggested to bring EU law into line with the UN Firearms Protocol

In the Stockholm Programme from 2009, EU Member States highlighted arm trafficking as a continuing security challenge for the EU.

More recently, in 2010, the Council adopted a European Action Plan to combat illegal trafficking in so-called “heavy” firearms. It reflects a political commitment of the Member States to take operational measures to effectively fight trafficking of firearms.

Based on that political commitment, quite a lot has been achieved in the last decade.

First, the EU has updated its legislation in the field:

  • On the internal market side, the EU Directive from 1991 on the possession, sale and transfers of weapons between Member States was updated in 2008, and the rules tightened to some extent. The Directive now requires all Member States, by 2014, to create a data base on owners and transfers of legal firearms within the EU.
  • On the external trade side, a new EU Regulation on licensing and controls with transfers of weapons in and out of the EU was adopted earlier this year. It will improve tracing and control of civilian firearms imported into, exported from and transiting through the EU.

This should allow the EU to finally ratify the UN Protocol next year.

Secondly, authorities in the Member States have strengthened, to some extent, the practical enforcement of EU and national rules. Just to mention on example: over 18.000 police officers, customs officials and border guards joined forces for 24 hours to run spot checks of vans and busses across Europe in search of weapons in 2010.

Customs authorities use the EU’s common customs risk management framework (CRMF) to limit the risks of illicit weapons entering or leaving the EU over our external borders. Preventive measures have been put in place through the EU’s legislation on ship and port security.

Law enforcement authorities and EU agencies have pooled expertise within the European Firearms Experts Group (EFE), which acts as an important forum for sharing best practices.

Finally, we have stepped up cooperation with countries in our neighbourhood, in particular with the Western Balkan countries.

Recent studies from EU Member States, and EUROPOL’s Organised Crime Threat Assessment from 2011, highlighted the risks that in particular military grade arms trafficked from the Western Balkans pose to the EU’s internal security. The figure of 4 million unregistered illegal war firearms in the Balkans is well-known, but it remains deeply worrying.

At the EU-Western Balkans JHA Ministerial Forum earlier this month the EU and the Western Balkan countries therefore agreed to jointly map out the structure of the illicit firearms trade and improve the management of weapons stockpiles. The declaration agreed in Tirana also underlines the importance of strengthening controls, improving the collection and exchange of information as well as operational police co-operation. Finally, it recognises that the legislation in Western Balkan countries should, where it is not already the case, be brought fully in line with EU and international standards.

The need for further action

All that said, there is a need for further action at EU level to complement the important work done at international and Member State level.

There is, simply, no evidence that firearms are causing less damage or insecurity in the EU today than, say, five or ten years ago. The trend appears, in fact, to go in the opposite direction!

Legally owned weapons in the EU continue to feed the illegal market, powerful and highly dangerous weapons continue to be smuggled – apparently without great difficulty – over our external borders, notably from countries in the EU’s neighbourhood, where weak management of stockpiles, looting, and corruption fuel the illicit market. There is evidence that criminal groups creatively exploit new technologies, for example making and distributing weapons from spare parts bought legally on the Internet, by converting lawful air guns into more dangerous weapons, and by re-activating neutralized weapons bought both outside and inside the EU

As a result, illicit firearms are much too easily available. Statistics are hard to come by in this area, but the number of firearms illegally circulating in the EU today probably exceed by far the number of registered hunters and sports shooters which according to the IEACS, l’Institut Européen des Armes de Chasse et de Sport exceeds 10 million in the EU. And to take just one Member State: a French report on Arms Trafficking in the Western Balkans reported in May this year that 3910 firearms were seized in 2011 in France alone, 40 % more than the year before.

Nor is there any sign that illicit arms trafficking is becoming any less profitable for criminal groups, who often combine it with other transnational criminal activities, such as trafficking in drugs and human beings. The Global value of the illegal trade in firearms has been estimated to between $ 170 million and $ 320 million per year. For the EU, we do not have any good estimates, which is in itself a challenge. We need to know more about the problem if we are to solve it.

Our idea for way forward

Where do we go from here, then? How should we address those huge challenges?

I will not attempt to provide all the answers today. The purpose of this conference is to stimulate debate, and collect your ideas as experts in the field.

From the Commission’s perspective, two things are beyond doubt:

First, we have to follow up closely with the Western Balkan countries in the coming months, and to assess if lessons learned in that context are relevant for other countries in our neighbourhood. The risk of large weapons stockpiles ‘spilling out’ once an armed conflict ends may, sadly, be present also for parts of Northern Africa.

Second, although I have focused my comments on actions within the EU, we must continue global efforts as well. The EU is strongly committed to regulating the international weapons trade, and we fully support the successful conclusion of the negotiations on the Arms Trade Treaty at the UN Conference on 18-28 March 2013.

But it is equally clear that we will have to step up efforts internally in the EU, starting by building – with the help particularly of police forces in the Member States in particular – a better understanding of where illicit weapons circulating in the EU come from, and how they are distributed.

To stimulate the debate on how to move forward, let me ask a few questions:

Do we need to tighten the EU internal market directive on the possession of weapons in the Member States? For example:

  • Are there certain – particularly dangerous – types of weapons, which should no longer be allowed for civil use? The Commission concluded in a report published recently that there would be no clear benefit in simplifying and reducing the number of categories of firearms listed in the Directive, but should certain types of firearms be moved into the top category of ‘prohibited firearms’. This could reduce the risk that such weapons find their way onto our streets.
  • Secondly, are common EU rules needed to deal with issues such as deactivation of firearms? According to the Directive a deactivated weapon is one which has been rendered permanently incapable of being fired and has been verified as such by a national competent authority. The Directive asks the Commission to issue ‘common guidelines’ on deactivation. But do we need to go beyond that and consider binding EU-wide rules on deactivation? What about developing binding common technical standards for deactivation and marking?
  • Further, do we need to reflect on the need for EU rules on technical security features, to ensure that only rightful owners of firearms can actually use them?
  • These are issues the Commission will have to address sooner or later [The Commission will report on how the Directive has been transposed by Member States in July 2015].

Is there a need to adopt EU legislation with common minimum rules on criminal sanctions for illicit firearms trafficking, as the Lisbon treaty allows, to be sure that deterrence works in all Member States and that there are no legal loopholes for the traffickers?

Should we look at the operational actions Member States agreed on in the Action Plan from 2010, to check what has actually been implemented and what has worked best? Or do we need to find new and creative ways of improving operational cross-border cooperation?

Could EU agencies such as EUROPOL and EUROJUST play a more active role in this area, to support information exchange and judicial cooperation?

Is there anything the EU can do better to support the work of networks like the European Firearms Experts, and is there a need for CEPOL to help law enforcement working in this area maintain the training and skills needed?

Is there a need to pay more attention to seized and confiscated firearms when law enforcement authorities investigate and prosecute other crimes, and to dismantle criminal groups?


The challenge the EU faces in dealing with illicit trafficking in firearms is considerable, but the consequences of failing to act are even greater. We need a stronger EU policy in this area, and an engagement of actors at all levels – international, national, regional and local.

I hope that your discussions today will produce new and creative ideas for how to shape a stronger EU policy in this area. The Commission is planning to present a communication on firearms next year. The conclusions of this conference will, I am sure, be very valuable input in that context and we look forward to working with you in the coming months.


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