French Gunman’s Arsenal Spotlights Illegal Arms Trade
As France asks itself whether it could have done more to prevent Islamist gunman Mohamed Merah shooting dead seven people in a killing spree that shook the nation, there is one question that refuses to go away: how did he obtain so many guns.
The size and nature of the arsenal amassed by Merah - who stockpiled at least eight guns including a Kalashnikov assault rifle and an Uzi machine pistol - has focused attention on the easy availability of illegal weapons in France and their growing use in ultra-violent crimes.
As an angry online reader of the daily Le Figaro newspaper put it: “How was he able to buy all these guns, like one buys yoghurts, when he was under the surveillance of the DCRI (the French intelligence agency)?”
Just weeks after France tightened gun laws which were already among the strictest in the world, the issue has blown into the political debate ahead of an April-May presidential election.
On Friday, Francois Bayrou, a centrist candidate who is supported by around 12 percent of voters in opinion polls, demanded a crackdown.
“How is it possible for a man with his background, a young man like him, to get hold of guns used in wars,” he asked the France 2 TV channel, adding that it was time to devise a plan to choke off the flow of illegal arms.
“The availability of guns must be placed at the centre of our national concerns,” he said.
Some of the weapons Merah obtained are more typically found on a battlefield.
His arsenal reportedly included at least three Colt .45 pistols, the U.S. army’s sidearm of choice during the Second World War, a 9mm Sten submachine gun, a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a pump-action shotgun, an Uzi machine pistol, as well as a Colt .357 Python revolver.
AN UNLIKELY GUN OWNER
Merah’s killing spree in the southern city of Toulouse has shaken up the presidential battle between conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande and has turned upside down a campaign that was dominated by economic concerns.
Merah’s profile did not, at first glance, suggest someone capable of amassing an illegal arsenal that would have cost at least 10,000 euros ($13,000) to purchase, according to gun experts.
Just 23 years old, he was an unemployed panel beater and was claiming state benefits worth only 475 euros ($625) a month.
He had, however, been involved in petty crime and appears to have used the proceeds to quietly build up his arsenal.
Francois Molins, a Paris-based prosecutor, said that Merah had told how he had funded his collection before he was killed by a police sniper on Thursday.
“He explained that he got his hands on all these weapons because he had pulled off break-ins and burglaries that provided him with money to buy guns and ammunition,” Molins said.