Arms: Cheap guns boom in Europe

Ekol Tuna, star of the gun trafficking scene.
Ekol Tuna, star of the gun trafficking scene.
19 November 2010 – NRC Handelsblad (Amsterdam)

As the EU cracks down on firearms, illegal trafficking in altered alarm guns is booming on the Continent. They’re cheap, easy to alter, impossible to trace – so they’re becoming the criminal’s weapon of choice.

At the age of 10, Massimo Tanfoglio was already packaging pistols in his father’s factory. Now, age 57, he manages theFratelli Tanfoglio firearms factory in Gardone Val Trompia, in northern Italy. Strolling down the streets of this small town, you’ll see small arms manufactories everywhere and signs saying ARMI, FUCILI, CARTUCCE or just plain GUNS. Gardone (pop. 12,000) has already been sustained by the arms industry for 500 years in the mountains that provide a winning combination of iron ore, wood and hydroelectric power. It has roughly 80 companies, ranging from small-scale family manufacturers of hunting rifles to the world-famous Beretta.

Tanfoglio pistols, highly esteemed by shooting enthusiasts, have become a benchmark for firearms experts. But in recent years, somewhere between 1500 and 2,000 Tanfoglio model GT 28 guns have been used to commit crimes in The Netherlands. This is a cheap alarm gun that has transformed into a firearm – in backstreet workshops in northern Portugal.

Booming market

After the recent fatal shootouts in the Netherlands, the Dutch have been up in arms about how easy it is to come by handguns and how hard it is to trace them. Gas pistols and alarm guns have been selling like hotcakes all over Europe. They have a number of advantages for felons: they’re cheap, sold over the counter in a number of countries, and easily altered. Seeing as they are not registered, the police have a hell of a time tracing them. And as gun control laws tighten up, the demand for guns that don’t need to be registered is soaring.

Massimo Tanfoglio knows full well that criminals misuse his low-priced alarm gun (€100). According to the Dutch police, doctoring it is child’s play: a sufficiently skilled cutter will be able to bore through the cap of the barrel and replace it. "French and German police questioned me about our alarm pistol,” recalls Tanfoglio. He says he has stopped making the GT 28 to protect his reputation. It turns out the alarm guns passed quite legally into Portugal via Tanfoglio’s Portuguese importer. But that’s where the grey zone begins: they were illegally altered in small workshops near Valença do Minho, along the river on the border to Spain.

The Portuguese police closed down these workshops in 2005, and national gun control laws were shored up in 2006. Alarm and gas pistols are now banned in Portugal. But not yet in neighbouring Spain. In October 2008, the police in Seville arrested a gang that had their firearms altered in Portugal and then illegally reimported. In Spanish argot these doctored weapons are invariably referred to as portuguesas.

DIY manuals on the web

Guns are also doctored in Spain. The police in the Murcia region recently raided a workshop run by a gang in the south of Spain. According to Alfredo Perdiguer of the Spanish police officers’ union, alteration offers are legion on the Internet – from as little as €80.

Even as the Tanfoglio source seems to be drying up, gun dealers are finding new suppliers and roundabout routes: Swedish police, for example, recently seized a sizeable stash of Turkish-made gas pistols altered in Kosovo. In certain cafés in Pristina, dealers ask €80 for guns the size of the palm of your hand.

Turkish gun sales are soaring. The Ekol Tuna, for instance, manufactured in Istanbul by Ekol Voltan, is a dead ringer for the Tanfoglio GT 28, the shape of which is not patented, though the technical part is.

No crisis in the gun trade

The Dutch police suspect Tanfoglio of having sold a licence and maybe even some equipment to the Turks, which Massimo Tanfoglio vehemently denies. The Italians are keeping a wary eye on the booming arms business in Turkey. To the general dismay of Gardone’s townsfolk, the Turks have even bought up the respectable Bernardelli family factory and kept its prestigious name.

Along with Germany and Italy, Turkey has now joined the ranks of the top three suppliers of firearms in Europe. Crisis or not, 2009 was a year of record sales for Turkish gun dealers: exports jumped 16%. Ekol Voltan makes between €1.3 and €3 million a year, mainly on sales of compressed air guns and alarm guns.

Patent expires after 25 years

Mesut Cakici, in charge of Ekol Voltan’s exports, is momentarily nonplussed at the photographs of altered Tanfoglios and Ekol Tunas. How does he account for the striking similarity between his pistol and that of the Italians? Without batting an eyelid, he admits that the Ekol Tuna is a perfect copy. "Everyone knows we sell a copy. That’s what customers ask for.” Berettas, Brownings, all the famous pistol brands are imitated in rival factories. Patents expire after 25 years, after which they’re fair game for everyone. Does Cakici know his Ekol Tunas are found in the Netherlands morphed into real firearms? “I’d be lying if I said I’d never heard of such practices.”

Every gun made in or imported to Europe has to be tested and approved by the state. Not so in Turkey, where the only requirement is to pass the gun serial numbers twice a month to the Turkish police. "It’s easy for the Turks," remarks Massimo Tanfoglio. "But the EU is heaping more and more regulations on us. All the permits are checked by the police and every gun leaves the country with its own ID card. But criminals don’t care. Look at Britain: since 1998 the sale of handguns has been completely banned, but the crime rate has only gone up and up!”

And so we come full circle: it was Venice fighting the Turks that spawned the Gardone arms industry in the first place, 500 years ago. And now the little town is being beaten by Turks – with their own weapons.

Bram Vermeulen and Merijn de Waal contributed reporting from Istanbul and Madrid, respectively.

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