Questioning the efficacy of gun control in Europe after the Charlie Hebdo shooting


Parliament Street’s Helen Chandler-Wilde compares views on gun control policy in Europe and in the US after Charlie Hebdo massacre

On 7th January of this year, two masked gunmen forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo in the 11th arrondissement. The two perpetrators of this attack, thought to be brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, used powerful military-grade firearms to kill twelve people including two police officers, and injure eleven more.

Just hours after this brutal attack, as the whole of the free world was in shock and mourning, US property tycoon Donald Trump tweeted his views on the cause of the attack being strict gun control in France:

If the people so violently shot down in Paris had guns, at least they would have had a fighting chance.

Remember, when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns!

Isn’t it interesting that the tragedy in Paris took place in one of the toughest gun control countries in the world?

Public opinion understandably orientated around Mr. Trump being a ‘moron’ and completely insensitive for such remarks made so soon after the attack.

However, these sentiments and the horrific nature of the attack have set off a conversation about why we in Europe have such stringent gun controls compared to our transatlantic cousins, and whether or not our way is working.

The difference between the US and Europe on this issue

Despite the US and European countries sharing many liberal values, opinion on gun control differs greatly between the regions; the right to bear arms is codified in the Second Amendment of the US Bill of Rights, whereas tight gun control in Europe is often said to be influenced by the so-called ‘right not to get shot’.

Gun control is essentially a real-world example of game theory: it’s best overall if no-one has guns and worst overall if everyone has them. However, it’s worse for you personally if your neighbour has a gun and you don’t.

The American view on the necessity to bear arms takes a fairly dismal view of human nature and society: everyone is a possible threat; police protection isn’t good enough; therefore there is a need to carry around an extremely dangerous weapon to protect oneself.

The so-called ‘right not to get shot’ takes a much more optimistic view: other people aren’t necessarily a threat; our police force does a good job of tackling those who are; therefore society would be in a better position if we removed unnecessary and lethal weapons.

Perhaps gun control is an issue whose possible outcomes are influenced by both the American philosophy of individualism and the European history of socialism. In the USA, this means a feeling of ‘everyone for themselves’, where only the benefit to the individual, not society at large, is analysed when writing policy. Alternatively in Europe there is some sense that society can pull together and co-operate for the best outcome.

What the statistics show

Mr. Trump’s most misguided remark was surely this one:

Isn’t it interesting that the tragedy in Paris took place in one of the toughest gun control countries in the world?

His insinuation here is that without gun control the Charlie Hebdo tragedy would have either not happened or the number of fatalities would have been far fewer.

Perhaps had this attack happened in Phoenix instead of Paris, things would have been different: the victims might have had a chance to draw weapons on their assailants and stopped them from issuing some of their bullets.

On the other hand, guns would have caused thousands more deaths, both intentionally and accidentally.

According to a UNODC survey, every year 2.97 persons per 100,000 of the population are killed in firearm-related deaths, compared to 0.06 in France and 0.07 in England and Wales. Deaths from firearms in the developed world are typically lower than those elsewhere, but the America’s outlier numbers puts them next to Mexico and Argentina. This is no surprise when the US has the laxest gun ownership laws in the developed world.

These numbers for the USA aren’t particularly surprising when you put them into context of the huge number of mass shootings and accidental gun-related deaths which appear in the media on a near-daily basis. A report by Everytown published last year showed that in the year 2012-2013 alone, nearly 100 children were killed accidentally with firearms in the USA.

This is not to mention the horrific stories of school massacres which are all too prevalent in the US. The worldwide media has almost grown tired of reporting on them as they have become that frequent in the past twenty years.

Use it or you lose it

There is certainly a game theory argument for owning a gun: if everyone else has one then it puts one at a disadvantage not to. A Gallup survey found that personal safety is the top reason for gun ownership for 60% of American gun owners.

Another 5% of gun owners in the US claimed that their top reason for owning a gun was simply to practise their Second Amendment right, saying that the best way to keep a right is to exercise it. When comparing the US to Britain, where many of our other rights such as that to free speech are restricted, the firm American pride and firm belief in the importance of their Bill of Rights can only be commended.

Other ways to protect France’s citizens

It is clear to see that having more guns in a country, as Donald Trump suggested, does not prevent shootings. We can see through a simple a priori argument that guns cause shootings. It is, however, true to say that perhaps had the employees had a way to defend themselves they would have used it to the best they could. Yet, it is difficult to see that amateur gun-users terrified and shocked would have been able to defend themselves sufficiently any better than the armed policemen who were tasked with protecting them, and still were so easily shot down.

Although arming citizens may not be a particularly effective way of keeping them safe, there is a case that France could have significantly improved its surveillance and other counter-terrorist systems. Neither the Kouachi brothers, nor Amedy Coulibay, who killed a policewoman and killed another four people in a Jewish supermarket, were unknown to the authorities before the attacks. Chérif Kouachi had been to gaol twice, once in January 2005-October 2006, and once more in 2008, where he was sentenced for terrorist activities. Both the brothers had been questioned by police for their part in a 2010 plot to break fellow radical Islamist Smain Ait Ali Belkacem from gaol, although both were released due to a lack of evidence. Coulibay had a long history of criminal offences, most of which were drug-related and was also linked to the deadly Buttes-Chaumont jihadist network. However, even this was not enough for French authorities to properly monitor the men. Only Chérif Kouachi had been under surveillance, which was subsequently dropped as French authorities regarded him as a ‘low-risk’ individual.

The radicalisation of these brothers was also fostered by failures in the French prison system. In Chérif’s first gaol spell in 2005-2006, he met Djamel Beghal, who became his ‘mentor’ in his later terrorist efforts. Beghal is now seen by the US government to be a primary organiser of ISIS.

France’s counter-terrorism clearly is not working well enough, and serious changes need to happen if state-controlled environments like gaols have become terrorist breeding grounds.

There is a lot to be said about increased surveillance in France. GCHQ now has one of the most advanced and sophisticated surveillance in the world, where instead of having to search through millions of data to find the needle in the proverbial haystack we are now able to create tools which act as magnets to draw out the needle from said haystack. Yes, Benjamin Franklin once famously said ‘Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither’ (and liberté is indeed highly valued in France). However, today’s threats are completely different to any before. Without some form of technological surveillance, we are leaving open the most powerful tool a jihadist could have: the internet. The small scale threat of small terrorist cells, not whole states, means technology is becoming a more powerful weapon than ever before to connect terrorist cells and recruit new fighters.


As with everything else, national threats have modernised in the 21st century. An amateur Home Guard of civilians with guns simply won’t be enough to stop threats any more. Donald Trump may have been correct in saying that arming citizens may have helped repel any invasion of France by another country fifty years ago, but realistically that sort of warfare in Western Europe is now over. France should instead concentrate on increased intelligence and surveillance, ensuring it doesn’t let men like Coulibay or the Kouachi brothers out of their sights again. Making it easier for civilians to purchase guns will only fuel more atrocities like the ones which we saw last week.

One Comment

  1. There is a huge hole in your logic, in saying Americans want everyone to be armed and Europeans think everyone can be disarmed, ignors that Europe still arms at least some police (varying from nation), and the millitary. Gun control not only violates the right not to get shot by making it harder for peopleito legally defend themselves, it violates the right to not get shot by police, and the right to not be arrested for a non violent act, by making it easier for police to lable people as bad guys for not having the right paper work for their gun.