February 6th, 2013


Guns in Spain

The United States is debating guns and gun control. There’s no debate in Spain – and no right to bear arms. It has the toughest gun laws in Europe. The Constitution of Spain gives the State “exclusive authority” over “regulations for production, commerce, ownership or use of weapons and explosives.” (Article 149.1.29)

You can, of course, get guns: 3,516,681 weapons are in the hands of private owners, and another 320,903 belong to the police, Guardia Civil (Civil Guard, sort of a national police force), or military. Private owners possess 2,793,614 shotguns and 299,226 rifles – hunting is popular in Spain – and 191,636 revolvers or pistols, 189,785 carbines, and 42,420 other weapons. Machine guns and submachine guns are banned from private ownership. (2011 figures)

This works out to 10.4 firearms per 100 people. Spain ranks 18th in the world ranking of privately owned guns by country, and 61st in the rate of private gun ownership per population, according to GunPolicy.org.

To get a gun, you have to apply to the Guardia Civil (this is their symbol) for a license, as explained here.

You must prove that you are mentally and physically able to use weapons properly without causing danger, injury, damage, or difficulties to other people or yourself. You must know how to store, maintain, and use arms. You must store the weapon properly: in a 300-kilo safe anchored to the wall or floor. The number of arms you may possess at any one time is limited: only six shotguns and one handgun, for example.

After you buy your weapon, it will be delivered to the nearest Guardia Civil office, where you will pick it up. For long weapons, your licence will be reviewed every five years, and every three years for short weapons. The Guardia Civil will check to see that the weapon has not been altered and is stored properly. You can lose your gun license for any criminal conviction, including speeding and drunkenness.

When you buy bullets, you must present your ID and gun license, and your purchase will be reported to the Guardia Civil. You may buy no more than 100 bullets per year for short weapons and stockpile no more than 150 bullets at any time. You may buy 1000 bullets or cartridges per year for long weapons and stockpile no more than 200 at any time.

You can get a license to possess a weapon for self-defense, but you have to convince the Guardia Civil that you really need it. The Guardia Civil says only several hundred such licenses have been issued in Madrid. I have heard that most jewelry stores are armed, which would account for a lot of those licenses.

The rate of gun death in Spain is much lower than in the United States. Again, according to GunPolicy.org:

• Spain had 90 gun homicides in 2009, compared to 9,146 in the US. The rate of gun homicides was 0.2 per 100,000 people, compared to 2.98 in the US.
• Spain had 399 homicides by any method in 2009, compared to 15,241 in the US. The rate in Spain per 100,000 people was 0.9, compared to 4.96 in the US.
• Spain had 170 gun suicides in 2005, compared to 17,002 in the US. The rate of gun suicide per 100,000 people was 0.39 in Spain, 5.75 in the US. The rate of suicide by any method was 7.94 in Spain (1998) and 10.17 in the US (2001).
• Spain had 3 handgun homicides in 2008.

Of course, illegal weapons exist, more than a million according to some estimates. Organized crime groups, largely international, regularly kill rivals to settle scores, according to news reports. Despite that, the overall homicide rate remains low. Spaniards don’t seem to want to kill each other by any means for any reason.

Spain maintains a low homicide rate in spite of being exposed to the same violent movies and video games that you can get in the US. They’re popular, in fact. School bullying is endemic. “Mobbing” is group bullying in workplaces; it happens often enough to have a name. Violence at soccer games surprises no one. A recent report on domestic violence was titled My husband hits me the usual amount. Spaniards hardly behave like angels. But they don’t kill each other regularly.

Improved mental health is being proposed in the US as a way to prevent shootings, especially mass shootings. Spain’s socialized health care in theory covers mental health care, but in practice it has only one-third the mental health specialists as other European countries. The government will not release data (the party currently in power opposes socialized medicine and does not want in-depth analysis of socialized versus private care), but mental health care workers say the care is inadequate.

In practice, the care for people with mental illnesses in Spain falls on the family. The mother of shooter at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, was trying to care for her son as best she could. But no Spanish mother would have had that much firepower or could have taught her son how to use it.

Some people have said a return to religious values will help prevent gun violence. In a Gallup Poll, 49.5% of Spaniards said religion was important in their daily life, while 65% of US citizens said it was. You can compare charts on the importance of religion with rates of gun-related violence and see that there’s no obvious relationship.

Gun supporters in the US often say they need their guns to protect themselves from the government in case it turns authoritarian. Spain’s gun controls did begin during the Franco dictatorship, but they continued because ETA terrorists were systematically killing government officials and civilians, even children. ETA used guns and bombs, assassinating up to 93 people in 1980, and 829 people in all, so stopping them became paramount. ETA killed no one last year; relentless police work has undermined the organization.

Meanwhile, Spaniards became used to living at peace with each other, and despite tempestuous politics and economic disaster, no one is calling for less arms regulation. They remember their recent past too well.

Spain can offer an important lesson about what happens in a civil war. Spain’s began in 1936 with a pro-Fascist military coup. Fascism enjoyed significant popular support, as did democracy: that’s why there was a war.

Some gun owners in the US might rise up against an oppressive government, whether left- or right-wing, but other gun owners will support the government. History predicts that neighbors will start shooting each other.

More than 100,000 people still lie in unmarked mass graves in Spain as a result of the Civil War and its aftermath.

— Sue Burke