Moscow. (RIA Novosti political analyst Vladimir Simonov). When burglars killed a guard at my neighbor's summer-house, I started thinking about self-defense.
The Federal Law On Weapons adopted under Boris Yeltsin in 1996 has enabled five million Russians to buy guns for this purpose. In Moscow alone, some 400,000 people legally keep 470,000 weapons to protect themselves, their families, and property against potential assault in these troubled times.
The law in Russia is extremely conservative compared with that in the United States. Russians can only buy smoothbore hunting rifles of minimum 80 centimeters, gas pistols, or revolvers shooting rubber bullets. Safe use of this arsenal for five years allows purchase of a twin rifle or carbine. Stub-barreled firearms are a taboo for Russian citizens.
It took me several days to obtain a gun license from the Interior Ministry. I had to collect documents from the psychiatric and narcotics dispensaries confirming that I am not on their records. I also had to pay a modest state tax: 110 rubles (a little less than $4) for a hunting rifle, and 30 rubles for a gas pistol (slightly over $1). Then I had to undergo check-ups at several doctors: GP, surgeon, ophthalmologist, and ear-nose-and-throat doctor (a nice woman who ran to the corner of her office and whispered, trying not to move her lips: "Why do you need a pistol?" I passed the test.)
After that I had to submit a request to a regional police licensing department. Several days later a district police officer came to see me in order to check whether I had a metal case to keep the weapons. I had bought it in advance and screwed on to the wall, as it ought to be. After a month-long inquiry into whether I had any previous convictions - and, I believe, my civic loyalty - I eventually received a license allowing me to buy a gun.
However, it transpired that I could buy and keep it, but not carry it. To be able to carry a gun, I had to be a member of a hunting-and-fishing club. To join, I had to pay another 1,000 rubles ($35), and pass a test. In order to pass this test I had to know, among other things, the differences between hunting hare and hunting bear. An obvious answer that the consequences for the hunter may be different did not go down well with my strict examiners.
In the end I bought a smoothbore, 10-cartridge, Saiga semi-automatic rifle, a clone of the famous Kalashnikov, for 12,000 rubles (about $430). The only difference between the two is that Kalashnikov is failsafe, whereas the Saiga, as it transpired later, sometimes gets jammed because of the poor quality of "civilian" cartridges. This year, 15,000 Muscovites bought guns like mine.
In total, the number of legal owners of guns in Russia has gone up 10 times over compared with the Soviet era. But this has not reduced the crime rate. Every year criminals still kill an average of 65,000 people a year, the same number as before.
Successful use of long-stemmed guns is depressingly rare. Burglars have already broken in while you're still fiddling with the key to the case to get hold of your favorite gun. It is not allowed to carry such guns, or have them assembled and uncovered in a car. As for a "rubber" pistol, an attempt to use it for self-defense often only infuriates the attacker.
As a result, the public in Russia is increasingly leaning towards a more liberal law on weapons. For the last half a year the State Duma has been discussing the possibility of giving the people real firearms, as is done in the United States, for one.
American statistics are the main argument of Russian firearms advocates. According to the U.S. Justice Department, 34% of all criminals were wounded or detained by armed civilians, while 40% have altogether given up an idea of an attack for fear of reciprocal fire. In those states that allow citizens to carry concealed arms, the level of murders is lower by 33 %, and of robberies by 37%.
Advocates of legalizing firearms in Russia often refer to the experience of neighboring Latvia: After the relevant law was adopted, street crime dropped by 80%, and the Latvian police force has been cut.
The Russian Interior Ministry is adamantly against allowing firearms. The ministry is afraid that the crime rate will go up, and especially family shootings. Gennady Gudkov of the State Duma Committee on Security voiced a typical opinion: "If we throw 10 to 12 million guns into the streets, any teenager will be able to seize a pistol from a woman. He will start shooting whenever he can. Guns will be stolen from cars and desk drawers. The number of lost weapons will go up hundreds of times, and they will be beyond control, i.e. ready for crimes. This is a dream come true for Russian criminals."
To sum up, so far the heated first debates in the Duma on this score have only produced one result: Permission for State Duma deputies to have combat pistols and revolvers. Only six MPs voted for national liberalization of arms.
Today I checked the locks of the case where I keep my gun. Everything was safe. But am I?