In December 1917, weeks after coming to power, the Bolsheviks launched a drive to confiscate all firearms from the hands of the Russian populace. They never gave them back.
Old habits die hard, and Russia’s restrictive gun legislation was never seriously softened over the past 100 years, despite regular calls to the purpose, the latest of which came last week from a pro-Kremlin senator.
Those who oppose firearms are wary of the temperamental populace, predicting shooting rampages and an increase in murder rates.
But some skeptics claim the real reason the Kremlin is not allowing the public to own firearms is fear that armed citizens will turn their guns on the country's notoriously corrupt bureaucrats.
“They’ll just start killing off officials,” said Mikhail Pashkin, head of the Moscow Police Labor Union.
Human losses from grassroots purges could potentially stand at several millions, too much for the demographically challenged Russia, Pashkin predicted in a bout of a policeman’s deadpan black humor. Some 14,000 murders and attempted murders were committed in Russia in 2011, according to the Interior Ministry.
Smile and Carry a Handgun
The discussion on gun control in Russia was revived after Senator Alexander Torshin of the ruling United Russia party proposed last week to legalize selling handguns to citizens.
In his report to the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the federal legislature, Torshin cited the example of the former Soviet Republic of Moldova, where after handguns became freely available for purchase in 1995, murder rates dropped by 20 percent.
There are six million guns already in private hands in Russia, Torshin said. But most of them are hunting guns not made to be concealed and therefore not a handy means of self-defense, he said.
Handguns “will make our society better,” Torshin said last week, media reported. “Look at America, everyone’s smiling there.”
Torshin called for a referendum on the proposal, but the Kremlin was fast to put a damper on his pitch.
“[The proposal] was not discussed and is only being worked out at the lower level, and the question is not on the agenda now,” Izvestia quoted presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying last week.
The proposal stood little chance anyway: the most recent poll, held last year by the independent Levada Center pollster, showed that 80 percent oppose the free sale of firearms, while only 13 percent support it and six percent are undecided. The survey covered 1,600 respondents nationwide and had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
Torshin’s proposal likely stems from gun industry lobbyists looking to tap a lucrative market with the help of legislators, said Alexei Mukhin of the Center for Political Information think-tank.
There are almost 11 million prospective buyers who can afford firearms, which could create an industry worth 1 trillion rubles ($31 billion) in five years, Torshin said in his report.
When the Second Amendment granted Americans the right to bear arms back in 1791, it was so they could protect themselves from the “tyranny in government,” not highway robbers, according to one of its authors, Thomas Jefferson.
No opposition activists in Russia have been bold enough to come out and claim that they need guns to keep the much-lambasted regime of President Vladimir Putin in check, not even after the Kremlin intensified a crackdown on political opposition in recent months, following a string of mass protests in Moscow that ended in riots on Bolotnaya Square in May. The police searched the homes of opposition leaders and charged, seemingly at random, a dozen riot participants.
However, many anti-Putin champions advocate lax gun rules, including famous whistleblowing lawyer Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin’s number one political enemy who campaigned for handguns for citizens as early as 2007.
“I used to advocate strict gun control, but I’m changing my mind now,” said Gennady Gudkov, a State Duma deputy with the oppositional Just Russia Party and a former KGB colonel.
“I guess this way, the government will finally be forced to develop some respect for its citizens,” said Gudkov, a co-organizer of the recent mass protests.
“I believe legislators think it'd be a shame if somebody else besides them had weapons,” agreed Rafail Ruditsky, who sits on the federal council of the Civil Arms Union, a pro-gun public group that helped create Torshin’s report.
A recent spell of Kremlin-backed legislation has vested the state with additional powers to curb most forms of grassroots activity, including non-governmental organizations, unsanctioned public gatherings and the Internet, which has replaced kitchens as the primary venue for criticizing the government. Radical legalization moves, such as free firearm sales, are unfeasible in this political environment, experts said.
In any case, both Ruditsky and Gudkov insisted that handguns are only needed to let private citizens protect themselves from criminals – even though crime rates have been decreasing since 2007, according to the Interior Ministry.
Mukhin of the Center for Political Information also denied that gun restrictions are political, calling them “plain common sense.”
The “tyrannical government” of the Second Amendment referred to Britain, a foreign power that threatened the very existence of the newborn American state – something that Russia is obviously in no danger of, Mukhin said.
At the same time, the country runs a risk of destroying public peace by making handguns accessible to millions of emotionally unstable Russians with no gun culture and many issues waiting to burst, he said.
The Enemy Within
Firearms are not necessarily a political risk, said Ruditsky. He pointed out that during the riots in Moldova after the disputed parliamentary elections in 2009, when the crowd stormed governmental offices, not a single shot was fired despite much of the populace carrying handguns.
But things are different in Russia’s North Caucasus republics such as Dagestan and Chechnya, where most people already own firearms, albeit illegally. While not resulting in a significant amount of gunfights among ordinary citizens, the practice has placed the police force under constant attacks, mostly blamed on a resilient Islamic insurgency.
Terrorist attacks in Dagestan have grown 50 percent over 2011, with 103 murders and hundreds of other assaults committed by extremists, regional police said in February, the latest statistics available.
“A policeman can get killed over an illegal detention there,” said Pashkin.
Similar cases already pop up across Russia, the most famous being the “Primorye guerillas” who hunted allegedly corrupt policemen in the Far East in 2010, killing two and injuring several others. Four members of the gang are currently on trial in Vladivostok.
The “guerillas” – who won the sympathy of 47 percent of Russians, according to a poll by Levada in 2010 – mostly used hunting guns, not handguns. However, in June, a Chechnya-born pensioner used a handgun to kill a district head in the Volgograd region, who allegedly harassed his business, turning himself in afterward.
“Politics are secondary here,” Ruditsky said about handgun sales. “But what do I care if a criminal is dressed in rags or a police officer’s uniform?”