Last fall’s siege of the Dubrovka theater by armed Chechens sparked much debate on how the attack could have been prevented. A new organization believes it has the answer: Let the population arm itself.
That way, the group’s members say, instead of accepting their fate, the hostages could have pulled out their legally registered handguns and fought off their captors.
“It would have been impossible to hold [hundreds of] people if one in 10 potential hostages were armed,” said Andrei Vasilievsky, head of the newly formed Civil Arms Union, or Soyuz Grazdanskoye Oruzhiye, which is lobbying for all Russians to have the right to carry arms.
Less than a week after the end of the siege, Vasilievsky and his supporters sent a letter to the government, calling for the repeal of gun control laws.
Current legislation allows Russian citizens to buy smooth-barrelled firearms for hunting and self-defense after undergoing a mental examination and a background check for any past criminal record. Those guns must be kept at home in secure metal containers.
The idea of loosening gun control in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world may seem foolhardy to some, but the union insists it would allow a population buffeted by crime and left vulnerable by ineffective law enforcement to defend itself properly.
The front page of the union’s web site declares: “If you understand that the policeman cannot protect you from attack in your favorite place, from your home’s entryway to the wild forest … you’re with us. Because weapons are independence and responsibility.”
The staunchest opposition to the union comes from the Interior Ministry, the federal agency that oversees the country’s police force.
“The Interior Ministry’s position is negative,” Leonid Vedenov, deputy head of the ministry’s organized crime department, said in a recent interview. “And so is public opinion.”
Vedenov said those lobbying for the right to carry arms are doing so in the interest of gunmakers.
Vasilievsky said the ministry opposed the union’s proposals because of its conservatism and because it was trying to preserve its profitable private security business.
He also said the strict gun possession laws now in effect help police when they need to frame somebody. A single shell found on a person could be used “to fabricate criminal cases,” he said.
Many of the union’s arguments echo those of the powerful U.S. organization, the National Rifle Association.
Like the NRA, the union considers the carrying of arms to be a civil right and protection not only for a person’s life but for his property.
“If we want our society to be democratic, this is one of the rights we have to have,” said Andrei Nasomov, a supporter of the arms union and an advocate for the rights of small business.
Nasomov said small businesses were in special need of self-defense, squeezed from both sides by criminals and corrupt police.
The union also says the right to bear arms would cut crime figures rather than boost them, citing recent increases in gun crime in Britain and Australia since the introduction of tighter gun control.
Although more than 6 million guns are legally registered nationwide, they are used in only 1,000 out of the 5,000 to 7,000 crimes involving guns annually, said Valery Polozov, an expert with the State Duma’s Security Committee and a supporter of the union
Matthew Bennet, spokesman for Americans for Gun Safety, said he was skeptical about the union’s arguments.
“There’s no evidence that criminals are worried about victims carrying guns,” Bennet said in a telephone interview from New York. “There’s no relation between the loosening of gun control and a drop in the crime rate.”
Gun control advocates need not worry yet about measures allowing the public to arm themselves. Vasilievsky, who is vice president of the political think tank Panorama, admits that his initiative has little public support.
In the run up to December’s Duma elections, the union will send out questionnaires to candidates asking them to declare their stand on gun control. The results will be publicized in a tactic used successfully by the NRA in the United States. The union’s eventual aim is to form a nonfaction group in the Duma to back their cause.
Kept afloat for now by activists’ payments, the group hopes eventually to attract the support of the gun industry.
“We will need three to four years to build up,” said Polozov, adding that there is no support at present in the Duma.