Italy learns to love the gun


ROME— At a po­lice con­ven­tion in Oc­to­ber, Mat­teo Salvini, the most pow­er­ful fig­ure in Italy’s pop­ulist gov­ern­ment, ran his hands over an enor­mous mil­i­tary-grade sniper ri­fle and posed with a sub­ma­chine-gun. Be­fore elec­tions this year, he cam­paigned at a gun show and signed a co-oper­a­tion pledge with a group ad­vo­cat­ing looser gun laws in Italy.

“It’s tra­di­tion,” Salvini said of hunt­ing and re­spon­si­ble gun own­er­ship when he signed the pledge. “It’s cul­ture.”

Ital­ian cul­ture, linked in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion with fine art, fash­ion and good food, does not typ­i­cally con­jure up the image of as­sault weapons. But in Septem­ber, the gov­ern­ment loos­ened gun laws, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to own more guns like the AR-15, an as­sault ri­fle that has been used in nu­mer­ous mass shoot­ings in the United States, most re­cently a Penn­syl­va­nia syn­a­gogue where 11 were killed.

Op­po­nents of Salvini won­der why he would want to im­port the free­wheel­ing gun cul­ture so as­so­ci­ated with the United States, which is far and away the de­vel­oped world’s leader in mass shoot­ings and other gun-re­lated vi­o­lence. The easy an­swer seems to be pol­i­tics.

As in­te­rior min­is­ter and deputy prime min­is­ter, Salvini is chang­ing many things, work­ing from a pop­ulist play­book.

He has cracked down on im­mi­gra­tion, de­clared a war on drugs and spread the sense of a pub­lic safety emer­gency, even though crime in Italy has been drop­ping for years.

De­pend­ing on whom you ask, Salvini is ei­ther mak­ing Italy safer or pur­pose­fully stok­ing fears at a time when vot­ers across Europe are look­ing to strong­men.

Italy does not have a gun lobby any­where near as pow­er­ful as the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion in the United States. But Salvini is in the process of cre­at­ing his own fol­low­ing as he pro­motes him­self as a law and order tough guy.

The looser gun laws are only part of the pic­ture as Salvini tethers im­mi­gra­tion to se­cu­rity is­sues, even load­ing his “Se­cu­rity De­cree,” passed Wed­nes­day in the Ital­ian Se­nate, with tough mea­sures against mi­grants.

Among other things, the de­cree, he says, would make Ital­ians safer by mak­ing it eas­ier to de­port mi­grants, se­verely re­strict­ing their path­ways to le­gal sta­tus and clos­ing cen­tres fo­cused on in­te­gra­tion. The mea­sure, which the lower house of Par­lia­ment will vote on later in the month, would also give Taser guns to more po­lice.

Crit­ics ar­gue that the new de­cree will only in­crease crime by push­ing mi­grants out of the sys­tem and into the shad­ows. But Salvini has re­jected that no­tion, as he has re­jected that he is arm­ing Italy up, say­ing he just wants to give good guys a chance to de­fend them­selves.

And he is ap­par­ently per­suad­ing more civil­ians that is a good idea. In a re­cent sur­vey, 39 per cent of Ital­ians said they were in favour of mak­ing it eas­ier to get a gun for self-de­fence — up from 26 per cent in 2015.

Al­though there are no re­li­able statis­tics on gun own­er­ship, a re­cent study es­ti­mated that 4.5 mil­lion Ital­ians (out of a pop­u­la­tion of ap­prox­i­mately 60 mil­lion) live in a home with a firearm.

And the num­ber of sport shoot­ing li­censes — the li­cense of choice for or­di­nary cit­i­zens who want to keep a gun at home for self-de­fence — has sky­rock­eted from ap­prox­i­mately 400,000 in 2014 to nearly 600,000 this year. (Italy’s as­sorted crim­i­nal mobs, who are heav­ily armed and run guns, do not bother with li­censes.)

In a vic­tory for Salvini, law­mak­ers in the Se­nate re­cently took an im­por­tant step to make it eas­ier for peo­ple who in­jure or kill in­trud­ers to claim their ac­tions were “le­git­i­mate.”

“De­fense is al­ways le­git­i­mate! From words to ac­tions,” Salvini wrote on Twit­ter re­cently.

The sen­ti­ment wor­ries some. “Our op­po­nents have taken pos­ses­sion of cer­tain words, and they use them to ex­ploit the fears of many cit­i­zens,” said Dario Nardella, the mayor of Florence and a mem­ber of Italy’s Demo­cratic Party, at a re­cent con­ven­tion for lib­er­als. “Se­cu­rity,” he said, was the most abused of them.

Salvini said in a tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ance last year that he did not have a gun li­cense and did not want one. But he and his party have been will­ing to pub­licly as­so­ciate them­selves with gun groups, an anom­aly in a coun­try where as­sault weapons carry a cer­tain stigma.

Nev­er­the­less, he has seen some no­table re­sults.

In 2015, Italy’s pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment, led by the Demo­cratic Party, put strict lim­its on how many mil­i­tary-style weapons li­censed cit­i­zens could own. To get a gun li­cense in Italy, cit­i­zens must sub­mit to a back­ground check and pro­vide doc­tors’ notes cer­ti­fy­ing that they are in good men­tal health. Crit­ics say those re­quire­ments, which have gen­er­ally re­mained in place, are not enough.

The new law dou­bled the num­ber of “sport” weapons that li­censed cit­i­zens could own, a cat­e­gory that in­cludes some semi-au­to­matic weapons such as sev­eral mod­els of the AR-15. It also loos­ened lim­its on mag­a­zine ca­pac­ity. It was a lot of what Italy’s gun as­so­ci­a­tions had hoped for.

The pop­ulist gov­ern­ment’s move to in­crease the cap on semi-au­to­matic weapons was a nec­es­sary con­ces­sion to gun own­ers who le­gally pur­chased such weapons be­fore 2015, when the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment’s anti-ter­ror­ism law came into ef­fect, Mag­nani said.

Gun con­trol ad­vo­cates dis­puted that in­ter­pre­ta­tion and said that the gov­ern­ment was need­lessly en­dan­ger­ing pub­lic safety.

“I’m con­vinced there was al­ready an agree­ment be­tween th­ese as­so­ci­a­tions and the gov­ern­ment, and par­tic­u­larly the North­ern League,” said Gior­gio Beretta, a re­searcher who tracks gun vi­o­lence in Italy, re­fer­ring to Salvini’s party by a pre­vi­ous name.

It is al­ready too easy to get a weapon in Italy, said Beretta, who only co­in­ci­den­tally shares the name of a ma­jor Ital­ian gun man­u­fac­turer.

There is no of­fi­cial data avail­able on how many crimes in Italy are com­mit­ted with reg­is­tered, as op­posed to il­le­gal, firearms, but some high-pro­file at­tacks have made the news.

In Fe­bru­ary, a right-wing ex­trem­ist named Luca Traini went on a shoot­ing ram­page in the town of Mac­er­ata, tar­get­ing mi­grants with a Glock hand­gun. It was later re­ported that Traini had a gun li­cense for sport shoot­ing.

The eas­ing of gun con­trol laws, and the ef­forts to ex­pand the def­i­ni­tion of self­de­fence, are alarm­ing to Ital­ians who see Salvini’s em­pha­sis on se­cu­rity is­sues not as a step to­ward a safer coun­try, but as a slip­pery slope to­ward a more dan­ger­ous place.

Francesco Minisci, the pres­i­dent of Italy’s na­tional as­so­ci­a­tion of mag­is­trates, said in an in­ter­view that the self-de­fence change was un­nec­es­sary and dan­ger­ous, and could lead in­di­rectly to an in­crease in gun use.

“We’re tak­ing great risks,” Minisci said.


Changes to Ital­ian law could put more semi-au­to­matic weapons in the hands of reg­u­lar cit­i­zens, in­stead of just the po­lice and mil­i­tary.


In Fe­bru­ary, a right-wing ex­trem­ist named Luca Traini went on a shoot­ing ram­page at a café, tar­get­ing mi­grants in Mac­er­ata, Italy.

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