At a loss on the continent

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Back in August, hot on the heels of the Brexit vote, Jean-Claude Junker appointed a Briton, Sir Julian King, to the role of European commissioner for the security union. The message was clear; although Britain was to be treated as a “third country” and generally chastised for the Brexit decision, Europe was still invested in the idea of including Britain in their plans for defence, counterterrorism and gun control. That plan includes the now infamous Firearms Directive, and since EU legislation will continue to affect the UK until the lengthy process of triggering and carrying out article 50 has been completed, they’ve got some time to make that goal a reality.

At the time a letter from Junker to King outlined King’s new responsibilities, including – at the very top of the list – “Ensuring the swift implementation of the steps needed to build an effective and genuine Security Union as set out in the Commission Communication of 20 April 2016.” That document says that the EU firearms directive should be a focus, stating “This proposal aims to restrict the availability of some of the most powerful type[s] of semi-automatic weapons and those that could be easily converted into full automatic weapons, as well as to enhance the exchange of information between Member States, traceability and marking rules for firearms. Its adoption by the European Parliament and the Council should be a priority in order to complement actions taken against the reactivation and the contraband of military-grade weapons.”

Since then, Commissioner King has been carrying out his role as instructed, shepherding the bill through the legislature. “I am enthusiastic about the Commission position,” he said at a recent question and answer session. “I don’t want to take away from the very detailed debate that is going on about how to formulate effective controls, but I do hope that we come to an agreement soon, and that that agreement will restrict the circulation of fully automatic and converted semi-automatic weapons in a way that respects their legitimate use.”

Conciliatory, but not helpful. King can afford to adopt a magnanimous posture. The Commission, which is largely unelected, is the start and the end of Europe’s legislation process. Not only does it do the job of proposing new laws, it also has a lot of power to send them back if they don’t arrive in a form that they approve of. Arguably, the trialogues (which are a series of informal, unofficial meetings held behind closed doors) are the mechanism by which they exert control over the middle part of the process.

Meanwhile, most of the progress on the firearms directive has come from another British voice: Vicky Ford MEP, the rapporteur to the Commission from the democratically elected European Parliament.

Ms Ford attended the third in a series of trialogue meetings concerning the Firearms Directive on November 15. Speaking afterwards at an event organised by the European Conservative and Reformist Group (ECR) and Firearms United, she began by recalling that at the first reading her proposed reform to the bill had been to junk the whole thing. Unfortunately that motion was not carried. Ford stressed to the strongly pro-shooting audience that further amendments to the bill were necessarily the product of compromise between the parliament and commission. Thankfully, there were still several pieces of good news to report.

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Vicky Ford on a fact finding mission prior to her role as rapporteur

The latest improvements on the bill include special permissions for sports shooters to hold otherwise prohibited firearms, including those with large magazines.

The position on deactivated firearms was significantly improved, and the practical issues caused by previous drafts acknowledged. “There is now a clearer understanding by the Council and the Commission of the issues faced by legitimate holders of these items,” said Ford. “Regarding deactivations before April 2016, the parliament position is that firearms deactivated to an equivalent previous standard should still be able to be bought and sold and we suggest that national deactivation standards which are equivalent to the aims of the new EU standard adopted should be recognised as such. We are making progress with this.”

Speaking at the beginning of that conference was Alain Alexis, the Commission’s head of unit for the defence industry. He’s directly involved in the drafting of the bill and attends the trialogues. Like King, Alexis adopted a reasonable tone while towing the anti-gun line. “There are millions of [firearms] owners who pose no threat whatsoever,” he prevaricated. “However, firearms are not a product like any other. Firearms can kill people.”

Alexis’ efforts to seem level-headed were somewhat undermined by his unfamiliarity with the realities of shooting. Several times he made points that were to be refuted by later speakers. “If weapons are banned for hunters and sports shooters, why wouldn’t they also be banned for collectors? We need to be consistent,” he said. Stephen Petroni, chairman of the Foundation for European Societies of Arms Collectors, met this point head on. “The moment that you include collectors in the directive you are destroying historical artifacts,” came the rejoinder. And when Alexis expressed surprise that anyone objected to licenses being subject to sight tests, it was left to a member of the audience to point out that many shooters are blind.

Another trialogue took place on 5 December. Whatever you think about Europe, it’s good to know that some people there are fighting on the side of reason; the forces arrayed against them are considerable.

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Posted in Comment, Features, Legal, News

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