Explainer: Revision of EU rules on the import and export of firearms

Why is the Commission proposing a revision of EU rules on import and export of firearms?

The Commission is proposing a revision of the current Firearms Regulation to better facilitate the legal trade of firearms for civilian use, while tackling security aspects linked to firearm trafficking through improved traceability of firearms and better and easier exchange of information between national authorities. This comes as a follow up to the 2020-2025 Action plan on firearm trafficking.

Under the current rules, it is not mandatory for Member States to provide data on import and export of firearms. This hinders the development of targeted policies and research in the field of firearm trafficking. There are an estimated 35 million illicit firearms owned by civilians in the EU, corresponding to 56% of the estimated total of firearms. To prevent their trafficking, it is important to keep track of all of them. Better data and information exchange between national authorities will also reduce the risk of firearms legally manufactured and exported from the EU being diverted into the illegal market. For example, on 25 September 2019, the Moldovan authorities received a request to import 130,000 cartridges from Slovakia, the same day the same authorities received a request to export the same amount of cartridges to Belarus, a country subject to a weapons embargo.

Clearer, harmonised rules will facilitate the trade and movement/ of firearms for firearms manufacturers, dealers, and users. The proposal will decrease the administrative burden significantly through digitalisation and improved knowledge of the rules throughout the EU, while national authorities will benefit from a unified process and control mechanisms.

Is this proposal linked to the current situation in Ukraine?

 The main aim of the proposal is better regulation of  legal imports, exports and the transit of firearms for civilian use, which was  announced in the 2020-2025 EU Action plan on firearm trafficking. Therefore, there is no link between the proposal and the export of firearms for military purposes to Ukraine.

 What is the scope of this revision?

The scope of this revision is to better regulate the import, export and transit of firearms for civilian use, essential components, ammunitions and alarm and signal weapons. It does not regulate transactions or direct sales of the armed forces, the police, or public authorities, regulated by a Council Common Position governing control of exports of military goods. The proposal aims to balance the need for increased security and the facilitation of legal trade of firearms.

Current EU legislation presents a lack of clear objective criteria set in both the Firearms Regulation and the Common Position to establish whether firearms, essential components or ammunition are of military or civilian nature. This leaves room for divergent interpretations and inconsistencies in the application of the correct export regime to items that fall in this area.

What are the key elements of the proposal to revise the Firearms Regulation?

The proposal provides an updated framework of rules that will improve the traceability of firearms, the exchange of information between national authorities and harmonise rules at EU level.

It will include:

Harmonised import rules: the current Regulation ((EU) 258/2012) lacks rules on import authorisation. It only indicated that the Firearms Directive is applicable when importing firearms. As a result, currently there is no harmonisation or standardisation of rules when importing firearms for civilian use in the EU. Today’s proposal introduces a full new chapter on import rules: containing clear provisions for all the different actors involved.

Harmonised export rules: the evaluation of the current Regulation shows that not all rules were implemented in a harmonised manner. The proposal clarifies certain export rules to ensure harmonisation.

Administrative simplifications for hunters, sport shooters and exhibitors    importing or exporting firearms, their essential components and ammunition. For example, hunters that decide to temporary travel outside the EU with their firearms, will receive authorisation for this movement through a simplified procedure. They would not need prior import or export authorisations; the customs declaration will be sufficient.

New rules for alarm and signal weapons, which are devices manufactured to only be able to fire blank, tear gas or irritant ammunition. These will need to comply with the technical standards of non-convertibility (prove that the device cannot be converted to expel a shot, bullet or projectile), or else they should be imported as firearms.

A better overview of the buying and selling of semi-finished components of firearms: only licensed dealers and brokers will import them, reducing the threat of home-made firearms without marking or registration (“ghost guns”).

A new EU electronic licensing system for firearms manufacturers and dealers to apply for import and export authorisation, will replace the diverse, mostly paper-based national systems. This new paperless system will save applicants time and simplify the process, as requested by stakeholders who participated in the public consultation. The system will also connect to the EU Single Window Environment for Customs, in line with the Commission plan towards streamlined customs controls and trade facilitation through enhanced digital cooperation between authorities at EU borders.

Clear rules for improved cooperation and information exchange between national authorities. Exchanging information between Member States on refusals to grant an import or export authorisation will stop individuals ‘shopping’ around in the EU to obtain such an authorisation. Furthermore, a clear division of tasks between customs and competent authorities helps the implementation of the rules and increases the harmonisation throughout the EU.

What is the difference between military and firearms for civilian use?

The main differences are the specific characteristics, especially calibres and the use of them. Nowadays there are many models of firearms which are equipped by Armed Forces for a military purpose (assault rifles, sniper rifles, pistols, etc). These models come in military standard calibres, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) or STANAG (STANdardisation AGreement).

Models manufactured for civilian use, even if they share some characteristics with military models, come with civilian calibres and can be acquired and possessed by civilians. They are intended for purposes such as shooting sports and hunting, and fall under specific requirements set out in the Firearms Directive. Some models of firearms designed for military purpose can also be acquired and possessed by civilians under specific circumstances and more restrictive security measures.

What are alarm and signal weapons?

Alarm and signal weapons are devices with the appearance of a firearm, but whose mechanism allows only the firing of blank ammunition, irritants, or other active substances. They are usually used for recreational purposes, films or shooting practice. They are defined in Article 1(4) of Firearms Directive.

If properly manufactured according to technical specifications stated in Implementing Directive 2019/69, they are declared as non-firearms, which would make procedures for import and export much easier. The revision establishes clear rules for competent authorities to assess the non-convertibility of such devices at the moment of import. 

Why do we facilitate legal trade of firearms?

There are many legitimate reasons for which people may own and trade firearms legally, such as hunting, shooting sports, collecting or for professionals working in the security field such as private security firms. This proposal will facilitate legal trade by creating a level playing field and reducing the administrative burden placed on firearms manufacturers, dealers and users. The digitalisation of the procedure will facilitate the requesting and granting of import and export authorisations. The current, often still paper-based, procedure was clearly identified as burdensome during the public consultation. Having harmonised rules will also prevent firearms manufacturers and dealers from being subject to different rules across the EU. This will facilitate the equal trade for all involved stakeholders.

Even though this proposal is facilitating legal trade, this is balanced with added security measures. For example, only licensed dealers and brokers will be authorised to import semi-finished components of firearms. This, together with the introduction of a certification that the buyer is the final recipient of the goods (end-user certificate), will reduce the risks of diversion in the hands of criminals.

Around 150,000 people are working in the trade and manufacturing of firearms for civilian use in the EU.  Revenue from sale of this kind of firearms, alarm and signal weapons, their parts and components, and ammunition reached over €4.3 billion in 2020. The EU27 is a net exporter of firearms for civilian use, alarm & signal weapons, their parts and components and ammunition to third countries. The total value of exported good reached €1.342 million in 2020, while the value of imported goods was around €462 million. Moreover, the EU is not only a net exporter but is, on aggregate, the first exporter of firearms for civilian use, alarm and signal weapons, parts and components, and ammunition in the world in terms of export value (2020) followed by the USA.

Does the proposal limit the acquisition and possession of firearms for EU citizens?

No, on the contrary, the proposal will facilitate legal importation of firearms for civilian use for EU citizens. It will harmonise the rules among Member States; reduce the time of operations through digitalisation, and simplify procedures in case of temporary importation or exportation for hunters, sport shooters or movements linked to exhibitions, for example, where firearms manufacturers and dealers organise conferences to show their products.

The only limitation will be on the importation of semi-finished firearms and their essential components, which is restricted to dealers and brokers. Sport shooters and hunters will therefore still be able to buy spare parts through licenced firearms dealers in the EU.

The hunters operating in the EU already have to comply with the requirements of the Firearms Directive on control of the acquisition and possession of weapons and hence will not be affected by the new provisions in the Regulation that aim to ensure coherence between the Firearms Regulation and the Firearms Directive. Besides the limitation on the semi-finished firearms and components, there are no extra limitations added.

The new rules will alleviate some of the administrative burdens currently experienced by the hunters, sport shooters and collectors. For example, if a sport shooter has to go outside of the EU for an event or a hunter wants to join a hunt outside of the borders of the EU, they can use the EU firearms Pass, go to the border and fill in the customs declaration, without the need to go through the process of asking for an export authorisation for their firearms, essential components or ammunition. This procedure also facilitates the re-import of these firearms, essential components and ammunition. The current Regulation already had such a provision but it was not applied in a harmonised way in the EU. The proposal will make sure that it is. Furthermore, there was no such simplified procedure for the temporary import of firearms, their essential components and ammunition. The proposal amends this.

How will the proposal help address security issues related to firearms trafficking? 

Firearms trafficking is one of the main serious and organised crime activities in the EU, a key enabler also for other types of crime, such as drug trafficking.

The threat of violent incidents has increased by frequent use of firearms in public. This generates a sense of insecurity and undermines public confidence in national authorities. A  study by the Flemish Peace Institute, identified 23 mass-shooting incidents in Europe from 2009-2018, which killed 341 people and injured many more. Europol reported that most terrorist attacks in 2020 were perpetrated by simple means, including stabbing, vehicle ramming and arson, but firearms were used in the deadliest attacks of that year: the right-wing terrorist attack in Hanau (Germany) on February 2022 and the jihadist attack in Vienna on 2 November 2020.

Almost all firearms are legally manufactured and brought to the market. However, firearms have a long lifespan, even over 100 years. Some are diverted, stolen, or lost and end up in the illegal market. Improving their traceability is key. The Commission proposal focuses on improving exchange of information between law enforcement, licensing authorities and customs, to make sure that all shipments of firearms, entering, exiting, or passing through the EU, are known, and can be traced.

The new proposal introduces authorisation for intra-EU transit. This means firearms which transit through the customs union before being imported into the EU or after being exported from the EU, and an authorisation for external transit, so firearm shipments which pass through the territory of the customs union without the intent of being imported.

When granting import or export authorisations, competent authorities will have to check the Schengen Information System II database to establish whether the firearms are subject to the authorisation request have been reported lost or stolen. Also, when granting import or export authorisations, this initiative obliges competent authorities to check the criminal record of the applicant in the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS), which connects national criminal databases.

Moreover, the initiative also establishes the obligation to exchange information regarding refusals to grant authorisations, to avoid individuals ‘shopping’ around in the EU for authorisations. Competent authorities will have to check the central system, containing all refusals, before granting an import or export authorisation.