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19 September, 2016  ▪  Andriy Holub

Everyone gets a piece?

Where is the debate on free ownership of firearms in Ukraine today

Make a selfie. In a recent online flashmob, public figures and users upload photos of themselves holding firearms. However, the majority of the population has a superficial view of the debate on gun ownership and does not delve into the specifics

An internet search in Ukrainian for "firearms legalisation" brings up dozens of articles with names like "Firearms legalisation in Ukraine: to be or not to be?" or "Legalisation of firearms in Ukraine: Pros and cons". Some authors cite the arguments of the two camps that society has split into on this issue. Others give statistical information on the regulation of firearms ownership in different countries. Much more passionate debates have flared up on numerous specialised forums.

The majority of the population has a superficial view of the debate on gun ownership and does not delve into the specifics. One piece of evidence for this is the behaviour of politicians who are usually very sensitive to the public mood. Several political figures recently participated in online flashmob #freepeopleownguns. They include, among others, Dnipro Mayor Borys Filatov, leader of the Radical Party Oleh Lyashko and MP Andriy Denysenko. Users were encouraged to upload photos of themselves holding firearms. Judging from the photos these politicians posted, it would seem that the discussion in Ukraine is mainly concerned with the right to acquire automatic weapons,at the very least. However, we should recognise that in this case the politicians lagged far behind their voters, many of which published photos with machine guns, grenade launchers or in front of tanks.

The subject of firearms legalisation started to crop up more frequently in the media from September 2015. At that time, a petition created by Heorhiy Uchaikin, head of the Ukrainian Gun Owners’ Association regarding the "legislative approval of Ukrainian citizens' right to defence" became the first to hit the 25,000 votes that were necessary for it to be looked at by the president. Uchaikin demanded the addition of a norm on the free possession of firearms to the Constitution and the immediate adoption of one of the draft laws on weapons submitted to parliament. Poroshenko gave a non-committal reply to the petition a la "we will have consultations on the Constitution, and laws are actually the responsibility of parliament". However, a few days later the president was forced to clarify his stance due to the media fallout. He said that according to opinion polls, 82% of citizens oppose the free possession of firearms and his position coincides with that of the majority.

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In a conversation with The Ukrainian Week, Uchaikin said that the term "firearms legalisation", used by the media, is incorrect, and it is instead necessary to talk about Ukraine's lack of a law governing gun ownership.

"There are legal weapons among the civilian population in Ukraine. Today, people can legally buy hunting rifles. However, in this case "legal" does not mean "in accordance with the law". Because the document that regulates their circulation among the civilian population is not a law, but an order," he said.

The Interior Ministry order that Uchaikin is talking about has a very long title and is better as simply Order 622. Today, this document regulates all issues relating to firearms in Ukraine. In particular, it stipulates that citizens have the right to own smoothbore and rifled hunting guns. To do this, it is necessary to obtain permission from the Interior Ministry, buy a safe for secure storage, get a medical certificate and complete a firearms ownership course. Permits are issued for three years, after which they should be prolonged.

Another Interior Ministry order, number 379, is marked "for official use only". It regulates the right to acquire non-lethal pistols (including guns that shoot rubber bullets – Ed.). This applies to law enforcement officers and their close relatives, court employees, journalists, MPs, civil servants, the military and members of civil defence organisations.

Both orders are almost 20 years old. There have been attempts to resolve the issue at the legislative level since 1995. The most recent draft law "On civil weapons and ammunition" dates back to 2014. It was authored by 34 MPs. Most of them were representatives of the Radical Party and Svoboda. However, there were also members of the Popular Front, including current Speaker Andriy Parubiy, and even two Poroshenko Bloc MPs. Uchaikin's petition pushed for the approval of this bill.

Chairman of the Interior Ministry Civilian Council, Volodymyr Martynenko, agrees that updating the regulatory framework on the circulation of weapons in Ukraine is a pressing issue. He believes that while there is no law, the system should still be modernised, and this could be done by amending the orders or passing a governmental decree.

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The official position of the Interior Ministry is that all the draft laws submitted to parliament require further work. Uchaikin, in turn, argues that the anti-gun lobby, particularly inside the Interior Ministry, is preventing the passing of the law, as well as the desire of MPs not to lose support by making a controversial decision.

If we look at the specifics of the debate on gun ownership, it comes down to the right to possess and carry short-barrelled firearms. Uchaikin asserts that a future law must add pistols and revolvers to the existing list of permitted weapons. "This is common international practice, and if we do not do this, the illegal market will constantly thrive due to demand that cannot be fulfilled in a legal way," he said.

It is impossible to accurately estimate the number of illegal firearms possessed by Ukrainians. The figures mentioned range from 2 to 6 million.

Martynenko is sceptical of the fact that legalising the ownership of pistols would reduce the number of illegal weapons. "I personally do not see any connection here. Even after the adoption of a law in Ukraine, the illegal firearms that were there before will remain so. No one will go to register them," he said.

All the firearms that civilians are permitted to own at present are long-barrelled. The main advantage of short-barrelled weapons for an owner is that they can be carried concealed. According to Uchaikin, this could guarantee peoples' right to self-defence and would lead to a sharp decrease in street crime.

Opponents of this approach, including Martynenko, argue that the weapons already available in Ukraine are sufficient for active self-defence. According to him, rifles and carbines are much more effective than pistols for home protection and non-lethal pistols (possession of which is limited by the "secret" Order 379 – Ed.) often make it possible to injure an attacker without killing him.

There is no consensus on the relationship between levels of street crime and the right to own firearms. Official UN statistics show that crime rates depend more on the social and economic development of a society than firearms laws. "About 475,000 people a year die from the illegal use of force – around half of them from wounds inflicted by handguns. Three-quarters of this number are in countries with low incomes and high levels of violence," concludes the 2013 UN CASA (Coordinating Action on Small Arms – Ed.) report.

Being a gun owner in Ukraine is not a cheap pastime, and it is doubtful that the cost would decrease significantly following firearms legalisation, in order to make it accessible for the general public. The price of a non-lethal pistol off the shelf starts from 10,000 hryvnias ($375), while a pump-action rifle is somewhat cheaper – from 4,500 UAH ($170).

Martynenko names the fight to control the market as one of the factors affecting the current debate on the right to own firearms.

It is impossible to estimate the potential size of the civilian firearms market if gun ownership were to be legalised, because today there are no relevant statistics. Some commentators are talking about tens of millions of dollars.

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"If the law is passed, there would be more licensed gun shops, more shooting complexes, more repair shops, and conditions will be created for foreign investors to enter the market. There would be the opportunity to create a huge amount of training centres. More than 2 thousand are planned. This would mean loads of new jobs, hundreds of thousands," says Uchaikin.

Today, licences for business activities involvingfirearms are issued by the Interior Ministry. The petitioners demand that this function be transferred to the Justice Ministry with the Interior Ministry taking on a supervisory role, as the current system is corrupt.

Volodymyr Martynenko has declared that the Civilian Council he leads is working on amending Order 622 to reduce corruption. Changes are promised in the near future. The working group has proposed the introduction of lifetime firearms possession licences, provided that a district inspector keep track of secure storage.

"One of the main proposals is to transfer the firearms register to a service centre at the Interior Ministry. Service centres would issue licences, whereas the National Police would monitor gun circulation,” concludes Martynenko.

Iryna Bekeshkina, head of the Democratic Initiatives pollster said in a comment to The Ukrainian Week that the latest opinion polls on gun ownership were carried out last year. Respondents were asked the question "Do you support the sale of firearms to citizens?".11% answered affirmatively. Bekeshkina says that roughly the same figures were recorded in previous years. The highest support for arms sales was in the west (17%), the lowest in the east (5%). In this regard, residents of the liberated Donbas were a reflection of Ukraine as a whole: 12% for and 81% against. The survey found that even among hunters only 22% support legalisation, with 69% against.

"There is one specific group – the people who support vigilantism and think that it is the only way to restore justice. Out of them, 26% support and 64% oppose. In fact, the only group whose support is quite high is those who believe that private armed groups should be allowed in the country. These people make up 11% of the Ukrainian population, and 40% are for (the sale of firearms to citizens – Ed.). Their opinions were evenly split," said Bekeshkina.

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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