Intelligence Briefing: Gun Owners in Russia

06.08.16 08:00
Intelligence Briefing: Gun Owners in Russia

    In the United States many consider their right to own a weapon the most important right that assures their freedom. There are literally more guns than people in the United States, with 317 million people in America and over 357 million guns in the hands of it's people. In Russia, private firearms ownership does not have a similar tradition. On April 14th of this year, President Vladimir Putin, announced the formation of a new National Guard, and declared one of its key functions would be to control firearms. "We are creating the National Guard to limit the circulation of weapons in the country," he told the Russian people during his annual "direct line" national call-in show. What wasn't clear was whether Putin was referring to guns legally owned by law-abiding Russians or to the stockpiles of illegal weapons flowing throughout Russia, fueled by the numerous wars on its borders.

 Russia has a short history of private gun ownership — it was rare during the Soviet era — but the new Russia has started to push for greater access to firearms. Despite the government's apparent willingness to make concessions, statistics still show that many gun-owning Russians prefer to skirt the bureaucracy and keep their unregistered guns off the radar, like many Americans — for one reason or another.

  Up until now, the Kremlin had shown little sign of obvious concern. Yet, as millions of unchecked firearms flow through a nation reeling from western aggression on it's borders, some of their calculations are changing. According to the most recent international surveys, roughly 9 percent of Russians own a firearm. Of the estimated 13 million guns in civilian hands, only around 60 percent are legally registered. If Putin indeed intends to use the National Guard to track down these weapons, it wouldn't be without precedent. "We have already seen a progressive tightening of the rules for citizens and private security firms alike," says Mark Galeotti, an American "expert" in Russian security services and criminal affairs. "But even after attempts to clean up the registration of firearms, there are many illegal guns in circulation in Russia."       There are, however, reasons to doubt the National Guard has really been set up to search for guns. They have no investigative capacity and the only way to fulfill such a task would be to conduct house-to-house searches, an invasive and labor intensive process.The types of illegal weapon used for the most serious crimes in Russia — contract killings, terrorism and similar types of activity — are often not unregistered shotguns, but military-issue firearms that Russian citizens don't have access to. "In other words," says Galeotti, "they are stolen from official stocks, essentially through corruption."

  You don't need to be a corrupt policeman or military officer to procure weapons in Russia. There are many other options, ranging from the physical black markets peppered around Moscow to more modern, darker sources. These are the markets based in far-flung corners of the Internet, absent from the usual indexing services like Google or Yandex. Those with the requisite technical savvy can get their hands on almost anything they want, provided they know where to look. One source, on condition of strict anonymity, directed The Moscow Times to one such online black market.The process of getting there requires navigating to the labyrinthine depths of the dark web, and inputting a complicated chain of letters and numbers. Once there, you can access anything from drugs and weapons to information on building bombs. All transactions are facilitated anonymously via the Bitcoin currency.

  Such markets provide troves of information for would-be gun criminals. For example, one forum explains to first time buyers that a gun bought in central Russia costs up to $3,000, while weapons in Crimea are closer to $2,000.If Interior Ministry statistics are any guide, Russians are more likely than ever to attempt to procure illegal weapons. The ministry recorded 27,000 violations over the course of 2015, an all-time high. The trend coincided with a rising crime rate of 8.6 percent, according to Some illegal guns are antiques, others are hunting rifles, but they have not been registered. Black-market guns have proliferated while gun ownership laws restrict the number and type of gun legally available. 

   Just as there is a National Rifle Association or NRA in the USA, in Russia there is " The Right to Bear Arms." The organization is run by Maria Butina from Siberia and currently has 10,000 members contrasted with the 5 million plus members the NRA uses to exert political muscle in the American elections. While the Russian government looks at ways of increasing public safety by reducing gun onwnership, Butina's movement argues the opposite is the only answer. When crime increases, they say, ordinary people should be armed. "We know a simple truth," says Butina. "More legal guns equal less crime. If a country bans guns, only criminals have access to them. We believe in evening the odds for the average Russian." Many types of weapons, such as pistols and revolvers, remain off-limits to the Russian public. When they were developed, gun ownership laws were designed to enable Russians to hunt whereas in American many weapons are combat or military by design.

  The bureaucratic procedure to legally own a gun in Russia is complicated.Any Russian choosing to legally own a gun is initially limited to a single shotgun, which is subject to a permit. That permit is only granted after a citizen undergoes background checks, investigations into their criminal history, neighborhood circumstances, mental health and invasive home inspections. They also submit to future snap inspections by police. Five years after receiving a shotgun permit, they can then buy a hunting rifle. Regulations, that by American standards would be considered totalitarian to be generous.

   Some western analysts say Putin's comments on the National Guard suggest that the Kremlin isn't as keen on the idea of armed citizens as Butina's group would hope. But she is now backed by the Russian gun industry, which — if the U.S. model is any indication — can be a powerful ally. Russia's gun industry, which is actively targeting civilian gun markets abroad, is also pushing for increased access to firearms within Russia. Ruslan Pukhov, the head of Russia's Association of Gunsmiths, is confident of progress. According to Pukhov, the clear trend for gun rights in Russia is toward liberalization. "It's two steps forward and one step back," he says.

  Keeping in mind that the NRA is only 5 million of the hundreds of millions of gun owners in America, it is an interesting parallel that Russia's version represents a small version of the total number of gun owners as well. But as Russia's arms industry encounters closed markets abroad, one may find that President Putin's desires for a well armed national guard of citizens may be a match made in heaven for gun owners in the new Russia.



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