When a French friend invited me to the local shooting range here in my canton in the south of France, I was simultaneously intrigued and a little horrified, in a reticent British way. Guns are not really respectable in England. The carnage wrought by firearms in America would seem to make anyone advocating the right to own them something of a pariah.
The French have a different attitude. Guns are legal to own here. Not just shotguns for hunting and clay pigeon shooting. But semi-automatic rifles including assault-type long guns and more or less any kind of handgun, except for the ones that fire armour-penetrating bullets.
Here’s what I discovered at the shooting club. Shooting is, quite literally, a blast. After a couple of hours learning the basics of the Glock semi-automatic pistol, I was hooked.
My shooting club is located in the garrigue about 20 minutes away. An old railway car serves as the clubhouse. On the wall hang pictures of distinguished alumni: a French champion pistol shooter and a young woman who went on to join an elite police firearms squad. It’s officially a sport here and is an Olympic discipline. Baron de Coubertin, who revived the Olympics, was a keen competitive shooter.
There are two ranges. One is 100 metres for the hard-core distance shooters with their precision rifles. Another is 25 metres for pistol shooting. It’s all closely supervised by senior members of the club, called monitors. The rules are strict. No more than five shots in succession. Ear defenders compulsory. No human-form targets. And don’t you dare point a weapon anywhere but downrange. After an initial ‘baptême’ accompanied by an existing member, there are a series of hoops before you’re entitled to join the club and receive a permit to buy firearms and ammunition.
There are slightly different rules for small-calibre rifles and heavier duty weapons like an AK-47 or a handgun. I went for the most unrestricted version allowing me to own a 9mm pistol with a 17-round magazine. The first obstacle is to prove you are not mad. This requires a sign-off by your doctor. Typically, he will ask if you’ve ever wanted to shoot anyone. ‘I have a long list,’ will not be regarded as a conforming reply. The second is to attend an interview at the Gendarmerie where you must produce evidence that you have a gun safe, securely fixed to a masonry wall, capable of storing your arms and ammunition.
‘Have you ever been in prison?’ asked the officer when I showed up with my dossier of attestations and photographs. ‘Not yet,’ I replied, an answer that seemed to satisfy. Then the file gets sent to the prefecture, and in due course you’ll get a permit allowing the purchase of firearms, and for pistols and larger calibre long guns, a limited quantity of ammunition.
You are obliged to keep your guns under lock and key except when traveling to the range when they must be kept in a locked boot of the car. The gendarmerie might visit at any time, to check your guns are correctly registered and that storage conforms to the rules. There’s no open carry or concealed carry of weapons unless you can demonstrate an overwhelming need.
Buying guns here can be done by visiting an ‘armurerie’ or over the internet. Having upscale tastes, I bought a lovely Smith & Wesson .22 calibre target pistol with a five-round magazine, a gorgeous Finnish rifle with a walnut stock and what the salesman described as a ‘bolt like teenage sex,’ and an exotic Swiss-made 9mm parabellum pistol. For a while I went to the club every weekend. Shooting is zen. To get five shots into the centre of the target requires total mental calm. I learned to empty my mind of everything. And after a few months of practice, I became not terrible. Say it discreetly but guns are interesting and some represent craftsmanship of a high order. I suppose there must be something Freudian about this – it’s not hard to draw a connection. But the guys I shoot with seem perfectly normal. The gun club seems as much a reason to get away from trouble and strife than as a therapy for impotence.
France is amongst the most heavily armed nation in Europe with an estimated 31 guns per hundred people – many fewer than the United States, which has an estimated 120, four times as many. The UK has an estimated five guns per hundred people. Although compared to Britain, France is awash in firearms, guns hardly occupy the obsessional position they do in America. The cops in France are routinely armed but they are far less trigger happy than they seem to be in America, or as blatantly intimidating as British police with their Heckler and Koch machine guns. The rules of engagement for the police here are strict. A Gendarme friend tells me she was forbidden to shoot, even when an enraged man rushed at her and colleagues with a hatchet. They eventually took him down without a shot fired. The cops in Britain seem often to shoot first and ask questions later.
France has a serious gun problem. Urban gangs are heavily armed. There have been regular shootings by terrorists and criminals. But it’s extremely rare for a licensed gun owner to be implicated in any kind of crime, although hunting accidents and suicides are common. That’s probably because to own a gun here you must pass a rigorous vetting.
The right to bear arms in France is not as explicit as in the United States and is rooted in the post-revolution idea that everyone is entitled to hunt, not just the aristocracy. It remains ferociously regulated. It’s not impossible that a legally licensed gun owner in France might flip-out but it just doesn’t seem to happen.
I’ve sold my pistols because frankly keeping up to date with the paperwork was becoming a pain. But I’ve still got some long guns in the safe and admit, I quite like the idea of being able to defend myself against marauding zombies, should the need arise. And the reality is that if guns are outlawed completely, this will do little to arrest the proliferation of guns, or the adoption of other lethal weapons. This has certainly been true in Britain where police carry machine guns to defend themselves against outlaws with unregistered guns and legally bought machetes.
A grown-up debate is going to require an admission from abolitionists that their goal is utterly impossible and from gun owners that they must submit to serious regulations, as in France. Realistically however, neither is likely to eliminate the horrors we see in America.