Reportage. We visited the HIT Show in Vicenza, where Italian gun lovers poured over the weapons that they call ‘toys.’ The number of gun licenses issued in Italy for sporting purposes has increased by 27% in the last three years, but there has been no corresponding increase in firing range memberships.

Italians now own over 1.3 million guns, many for ‘self-defense’

They travel in groups, and the vast majority are men. They walk around the grounds of the fair with rapt gazes: everything on display is shining and sparkling, like in a jewelry store. We are at the HIT Show in Vicenza, the largest Italian trade show dedicated to firearms, and the shining objects on display are not jewels at all, but the barrels of guns and rounds of ammunition that have been polished for the occasion. 

An endless stream of visitors crowds the stands. Nobody is satisfied with just looking: everyone wants to touch the guns, playing with them until they leave the grips greasy with sweat. The item that gets the most attention is a sniper rifle in shades of khaki, clearly the biggest gun on display at the fair. “It’s like a toy, you fold it up and take it in your backpack,” says one of the attendees. Children play among the stands, and they are eager to get their hands on the guns, despite the regulations that prohibit this. From the lecture hall, we hear the echo of applause marking the end of a debate on the right to keep guns in one’s household. 

There’s no getting around it: in Italy, more and more people are getting initiated into the world of firearms. Some are doing it for fun, others for fear of a break-in at home. The result has been a dramatic increase in gun circulation: the data from the Interior Ministry as of July 2018 tells of 1,315,700 licenses for gun ownership issued across the country.

More fear, more guns

In recent years, Italians’ interest in hunting has fallen sharply, but the number of applications for licenses to carry guns has increased. While there has been a decline in the number of licenses issued for self-defense purposes—which are much harder to obtain—and a 9% decrease in gun licenses for hunting, the number of gun licenses is being buoyed up by a sharp increase in licenses issued for sporting purposes: 27% over the last three years. However, there has been no corresponding increase in the membership rolls of firing ranges. 

“If you look at the number of members of the Italian Target Shooting Federation, you see that there are at most 150,000 members, while the number of gun licenses granted is 600,000,” says Giorgio Beretta from the Permanent Observatory on Light Weapons (OPAL). “It is clear that most applicants don’t apply in order to practice the sport, but because this is the simplest and quickest procedure to be allowed to keep guns at home.”

According to Luca di Bartolomei—the son of Agostino di Bartolomei, the legendary soccer star and captain of AS Roma who killed himself with a gun in 1994—this trend is due to the socio-economic conditions in the country: “The new generations feel like they have no future, and the economic earning capacity of the middle class has been greatly reduced. Those who are arming themselves are doing so to defend their property at all costs, because they see the few possessions they have as representing everything that distinguishes them as individuals.”

In March, Di Bartolomei published the book Dritto al cuore – armi e sicurezza: perché una pistola non ci libererà mai dalle nostre paure (“A Shot to the Heart – Firearms and Safety: Why a gun can never deliver us from our fears.”) 

“It scares me, the way in which guns are being kept at home, often easily accessible to everyone. More firearms will lead to an increase in accidents and domestic homicides, and the idea simply terrifies me that the father of one of my kids’ young friends could also do what my father did, after buying a gun with the full conviction that he would be able to handle it.” In the book, Di Bartolomei describes what he calls an “enormous oxymoron”: 80% of Italians say they have confidence in law enforcement, but at the same time they feel insecure and want to defend themselves on their own.

Italy is one of the safest countries in Europe, with crime rates that are getting lower every year. But people’s perception of the situation is very different. Given the widespread sense of insecurity that is now prevalent, the new law on self-defense, a pet project of Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, has found fertile ground, leading to the start of a grand debate between the pro-gun and anti-gun side.

However, there is plenty of discontent with the law even on the pro-gun side. Maurizio Piccolo, president of the Association of Gun Users (AUDA), thinks the law on self-defense is just an “electoral hustle.”

“It’s absurd to limit its effects to private homes and businesses,” he said. “I do not understand the point of adding restrictions to a rule that should apply in any context.” Piccolo lives just outside Milan, and makes no secret of his willingness to use the guns he owns for self-defense.

Daniele, 27, a young man from Ostia, has a gun license for sporting purposes. He owns three guns, which he keeps at home, and is a member of the Pisana Shooting Club in Malagrotta (municipality of Rome). “I had many toy guns as a child. I’ve kept this passion alive through the years, and now I have simply gotten myself new toys.” Unlike Piccolo, Daniele is keen to specify that for him, guns are to be used for sport, not for self-defense. “Just having them there in a case doesn’t make you any safer—quite the opposite. The things that make me feel safer are cameras, security doors and alarm systems.”

He adds that he finds it absurd that many people own sports-type guns without ever going to a firing range. “If you’re not training yourself for shooting on a mental level, you won’t know how to behave in a dangerous situation, and you’ll just put your safety at risk even more.” At the same time, he opposes all legislative proposals that would force gun owners to leave them at the shooting range: “I like to know where my things are, and I don’t see why I should be forced to leave them there.”

The psychiatric patient

Gabriella Neri, who has been passionately fighting home gun possession for years, disagrees. On the morning of July 23, 2010, her husband Luca Ceragioli, head of Gifas Electric, a company in Massarosa (LU), and his co-worker Jan Hilmer were gunned down by Paolo Iacconi, a former employee of the company. The murderer had left his job there many years before due to health problems, but on that day, he asked his former employers for a meeting. 

“During the meeting,” Neri recalls, “this person pulled out a gun and shot Luca and Jan. Then he set fire to the offices and took his own life in the restrooms.”

Iacconi had a gun permit for sporting activities, even though he suffered from serious mental problems. He had attempted suicide several times and had been subjected to involuntary commitment for psychiatric treatment. 

“Despite his condition, no one let the police know that he was a gun owner for over 20 years: neither his family nor the psychiatric facilities where he was being treated, because Italian law does not make it mandatory to notify the police of such situations.” After the death of her husband, Neri started the NGO Ognivolta, which is fighting for the establishment of a common database shared between law enforcement and the psychiatric wards of hospitals, in order to avoid issuing gun licenses, and revoke existing ones, in the case of persons who are not mentally competent.

AUDA claims that Neri’s story is an extreme case, and that it should not be taken as a pretext for unqualified criticism against the existence of legally owned weapons. Piccolo says that “the problem is not the number of legally owned weapons, but the checks which must be performed on the owners. Lawful gun owners are not criminals, but a minority that should be protected.”

Common sense licensing rules

In early 2019, Professor Paolo De Nardis, from La Sapienza University of Rome, presented the first study conducted in Italy on homicides committed using legally owned firearms, entitled Sicurezza e Legalità, le armi nelle case degli italiani (“Security and legality: guns in Italian homes”). The study focuses on the year 2017, finding 16 cases of such killings. 

However, OPAL’s Beretta put out a statement criticizing the study’s methodology, claiming it left out many other relevant cases, such as unintentional homicides, homicides committed by individuals carrying guns in connection to their profession, and, most importantly, murders committed with weapons that were legally owned by family members of the killers.

“If you take into account all these cases, we see that the total is not 16, but 42,” he said. “It’s a big difference.”

Beretta adds that “lowering these casualty numbers would be much easier with one simple measure: tying gun licenses to the respective fields of activity for which they are granted. If a person gets a gun permit for sporting purposes, they should be required to register with a shooting range and keep their guns stored there.” he said. “On the other hand, if they want to keep a gun in the home for self-defense, it is right that they should go through all the bureaucratic red tape and the procedures set out for this particular purpose.”

Edoardo Venditti, Mattia Giusto Zanon are graduates of the School of Journalism of the Basso Foundation

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