Czech gun rights, the EU, and the spectre of a year ending in eight
In 2017, gun rights became a hot-button issue in Czech politics. It did so in response to moves by the European Union, but it was also an expression of an older anxiety that will accompany 2018’s bevy of historical anniversaries.
One of the legislative highlights of 2017 in the Czech Republic was an attempt to constitutionalize gun rights. Citizens can keep and bear arms under an ordinary statute from 2002 that Czech gunowners praise as one of the best firearms laws in the world; it does indeed seem to strike an exemplary balance between regulation and access. There would have been no impetus to disturb domestic law but for a change in the European Union’s law, the Firearms Directive of 1991. After a wave of terrorist attacks across the continent, the European Commission proposed several amendments to the directive: to combat weapons trafficking and misuse of deactivated or historical guns, to improve record-keeping and information-sharing, and to expand the list of arms in Category A, which cannot be owned by private persons. The revisions were strenuously opposed by national and transnational lobbies and by the legislatures of several member-states. Their interventions softened but could not stop the changes, which were approved by the European Parliament in March 2017 and promulgated in May.
In response, the Czech government filed a complaint at the Court of Justice of the EU, arguing that the changes impinge on the primacy of national governments in matters of crime and security and are not a proportionate counter-terrorism measure. But even earlier, anticipating the European Parliament’s vote, a cross-party group in the Czech legislature had proposed an amendment to a 1998 constitutional act on national security.[i] The proposed addition would guarantee Czech citizens “the right to acquire, keep and bear arms and ammunition for the fulfilment of tasks referred to in clause 2”. From the original text of the act, it emerges that these tasks are “ensuring the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Czech Republic, protection of its democratic foundations and protection of lives, health and property values”.
The amendment easily passed the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, on 28 June 2017, with 139 of 168 deputies present voting in favour; only 9 voted against it. It then had to go to the Senate, where it was received very sceptically in committees and was twice taken off the schedule for a floor vote. Whereas the Chamber had been moved to act by an approaching election and by affinity for key interest groups — many deputies disclosed that they held gun permits or were among the 63,000 members of the hunters’ association — the Senate had to be pressed by a petition organized by Pavel Černý of Euro Security Products (a Prague firm that runs training courses and sells tactical gear) and signed by more than 100,000 people. That compelled the Senate to hold a public hearing in October, and a debate and vote on the constitutional amendment on 6 December. Although the Senate was happy to issue a resolution echoing the petitioners’ objections, the constitutional amendment died, falling seven votes short.
In the realm of the symbolic
As several senators explained on 6 December, they understood the purpose of their chamber to be a roadblock to hasty or token constitutional changes. The proposed amendment to the 1998 act, as many senators saw it, was that sort of a gesture: a signal of sympathy for the grievances not just of gun owners, but of everyone who currently resents any decision of the European Union (for example, its attempts to compel each member-state to accept a quota of refugees). Lawyers pointed out that the amendment would not release the Czech Republic from its obligation to transpose the changes to the Firearms Directive into domestic law by September 2018. Proponents of the amendment, such as Interior Minister Milan Chovanec, countered that since the directive’s modifications were themselves largely symbolic — so that the EU be seen to be doing something in response to terror attacks — it was appropriate for the Czech Republic to reply on that level: “Politics is about symbols. So I just ask you for this symbol. Nothing more, nothing less”.
The Senate, however, was unconvinced that it should relax its commitment to minimizing constitutional change in order to engage in a badminton of signals and ripostes.
In the grip of the historical
But the proceedings in the Czech legislature had yet another dimension, one beyond and deeper than the immediate issues of guns and the powers of the EU. Speakers were venting a deep-rooted anxiety about national security as the country approached a year ending in eight. With that comes the decennial gauntlet of anniversaries that stir up wrenching, inconclusive “what if” discussions of how the nation has handled challenges to its safety and self-determination.
· In October 2018, Czechs will mark the centenary of the founding of the common state with Slovaks that was both a great success and a grand failure.
· In August comes the fiftieth anniversary of the “Prague Spring”, the brief relaxation of Communist rule that was interrupted by the armies of the Soviet Union and four other “allies”.
· In February it will be 70 years since the Communists seized power and in September it will be 80 years since the Munich Conference awarded parts of Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s Germany.
The “Munich Syndrome” from 1938 in particular lurks as a ghost to be exorcised; as the historian Milan Hauner wrote more than forty years ago, it gnaws at the Czech national consciousness in three ways:
— as a moment of lamentable capitulation before the dictate (diktát) of a superpower;
— as a revelation of the Czechoslovak state’s failure to consolidate itself internally and externally after twenty years in existence;
— as an ethical and emotional memento that defies objective, dispassionate historical analysis (such as whether there was a realistic alternative to surrender).
In this year’s debates on the constitutional amendment, its proponents often claimed that there were distinct regional cultures in Europe owing to different experiences of defining moments in the past century, and they accused the western part of wanting to impose its lifestyle on the eastern. There was also an implicit fear that even if the Czech people were willing to make a stand, their leaders would let them down as Edvard Beneš had in 1938 and 1948, and Alexander Dubček in 1968. History and contemporary fiscal reality were understood as teaching that the state should have primary responsibility for national security but that the state alone cannot suffice.
As Pavel Černý of Euro Security Products told the public hearing at the Senate:
After two harsh dictatorships, people in the Czech Republic know best what freedom and democracy truly are. And what their true price was. And so they don’t want to give up their weapons, and not just them. Because it’s not just about the weapons themselves, but about our rights. For today it’s the weapons, who knows what it will be tomorrow? In sum, private weapons have now become a certain symbol. Whenever a government starts to take legal weapons away from people in a democratic society, as has been shown many times in human history, it is not exactly a good sign for the freedom of citizens. And it applies likewise whether our politicians were perhaps just idly to overlook such a thing or, worse still, initiate it themselves on the basis of some nonsensical foreign diktát forced upon us. And we Czechs with our troubled history [po své pohnuté historii] are particularly sensitive to exactly this. […] This new legislation should now change and prevent the arbitrary acts of Brussels [bruselské zvůli]. […] And so our citizens are obviously preparing a little bit for, I’m not afraid to say, another humiliating capitulation in our history [další potupnou kapitulaci v našich dějinách].
Here and in remarks during the Senate’s discussion of his petition Černý described the EU directive as a diktát, a term associated with the 1938 Munich decision and the 1968 “Moscow Protocol” that forced Czechoslovakia’s Communists to reverse their liberalization. It was also used by Senator Jiří Cieńciała (an independent and Silesian Pole): “I don’t know why we should have to liquidate something that is good and works very well, and be directed by a diktát that most of our citizens clearly do not support”. He then allowed himself “a bit of emotion” and read from a Polish poem written after WWII, adding that “I believe that such a situation will not arise, but who would have said a few years ago that Yugoslavia would not happen, that Ukraine would not happen, that Crimea would not happen?”
Senator Václav Láska (KDU-ČSL/Greens/Pirates) told the public hearing:
Everyone who keeps a weapon really understands it as an expression of personal freedom, the right to defend oneself, a certain independence. […] This argument over Western Europe being used to living without weapons, Eastern and Central Europe having the custom of living with weapons. And it is wholly evident that some want to force their lifestyle on others. And it is not entirely fair that such a discussion is conducted under the mantle of the struggle against terrorism.
At the end of that hearing, the Senate approved a resolution that included the objection that
some points of the [Firearms] Directive pursue the goal of disarming the public to the level that is normal in some EU member-states, rather than of fighting terrorism.
According to Karel Rais, a deputy from ANO:
History has taught us many times that taking on opinions, whether they come from the West or the East, has often caused problems, sometimes to a catastrophic extent. And what do we see today? What is demanded of us? First, that we give up our moral principles, which flow from European and old Czech traditions, with our current arming, and it is demanded that we uphold the agreements of the EU that we signed, especially the agreement on free movement of people of often unknown origin, which by their nature are oriented against civilized humanity.
Jaroslav Holík, of Tomio Okamura’s Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD), chimed in:
Yes, it’s been said here that this law [the amendment] will change nothing about the European [Firearms] Directive. But we have to show here in any event that we are a proud sovereign state, and that we will not bow down as Brussels orders us to. Again I ask — are we citizens of a proud republic, or just sheep that let themselves be driven into a corner?
Ivo Valenta, an independent senator from central Moravia, couched the matter not just in terms of cultural-historical differences, but also implied that the EU itself behaved in ways that reminded citizens in the east of totalitarian regimes:
Regulating the legal possession of arms will in no way lead to the elimination of the risk of terrorism or crime, but rather to an increase in the illegal arms trade. It is something that belongs far more to totalitarian regimes that generally fear armed people and try to disarm them under the threat of the highest penalties.
Miloš Vystrčil, a senator from the Civic Democratic Party, suggested that Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission and a native of gun-banning Luxembourg, would prefer that no one had any weapons at all and would want to revisit the directive in the near future to make it tougher still:
We knew a time when everyone was without weapons except those who had instruction and permission, so I say to you that some other directive could come. What should a responsible state do? […] Or are we going to take care of ourselves, our property, our families, our communities, our state and say that we want it there because we have a certain historical experience, which Poland and Hungary, which joined us [in opposing the directive], also have, and which Switzerland, Austria, Germany, etc., do not have? And thus they did not join us. They do not have that historical experience.[ii]
It may seem odd to exempt Germany from the family of countries with memories of gun-controlling totalitarian regimes, but it has to be seen through the lens of victims versus perpetrators of international aggression. The timing of the European Parliament’s vote on the directive, on 14 March, played into this perfectly, as it allowed Pavel Černý and the hunters’ association to hold a protest on Wenceslas Square the following day, a date forever associated with the Nazi German invasion of Bohemia and Moravia in 1939.
A special contempt is reserved in these debates for the countries that betrayed Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938: Britain and France.
· Two of the amendment’s most active co-sponsors from opposite sides of the political spectrum, Jana Černochová (Civic Democrats) and Roman Váňa (Social Democrats), suggested that Britain’s problems with crime and terrorism were the unintended consequence of its very restrictive gun laws.
· Jaroslav Pekařík, a co-organizer of the petition to the Senate, complained that the rest of the union was being forced to change its laws because of France’s failure to get its own house in order.
· Bohumil Straka, a representative of the hunter’s association, warned the Senate that “we do not want to end up like England or France” with the crime rate of an African country while the Czech Republic was the sixth safest place in the world. (The flaw in this reasoning is that France has a far higher rate of gun ownership per household than the Czech Republic.) Straka claimed that “Many people don’t know this, but the initiators of the European Directive were France and Great Britain, supported by Italy” — the very states that arranged the Munich Conference in 1938.
History, however, can be used by both sides in a dispute like this one. The memory of the Communist seizure of power in February 1948 with the assistance of “People’s Militias” was evoked by opponents of the amendment, such as Senator Jan Horník, who was troubled that its keenest co-sponsors included members of the present-day Communist Party:
And so that this parallel not be misinterpreted, I do not for a moment think that our hunters, recreational shooters and almost 100 percent of most gun owners in the Czech Republic would want to become a tool of the Communists for a new seizure of power. But let’s be vigilant. What today seems utterly unrealistic could become quite real tomorrow, thanks to a few gun owners succumbing to the eastern propaganda being spread by present-day Communists. […] We are living in the middle of Europe in relative comfort, but appearances are deceptive. On the contrary: we are undone from within, and I truly have no interest in a new February seizure of power.
The amendment was also contextualized as an overdue enforcement of a commitment made twenty years ago to greater civic readiness and national resilience. When the Czech Republic was preparing to join NATO and end compulsory military service, its parliament passed a bundle of laws that included Act 222/1999, paragraph 52 of which envisioned a comprehensive programme in schools, co-organized with nonprofits and associations, to train citizens to assist the state in an emergency or war.
The idea of general readiness training apparently went unimplemented after the end of conscription in 2004, as attested by its repeated endorsement in documents such as the government’s 2011 Security Strategy, a 2012 white paper from the defence ministry, and then government decrees 139 from 19 April 2017 and 431 from 5 June 2017. In the final months of the Sobotka cabinet, the defence ministry was drafting a bill to put it into practice, and consulting NGOs.
Work is likely to proceed along these lines, even if the coming year remains politically unsettled. Andrej Babiš’s government programme is committed to voluntary military training for non-reservist civilians and to introducing “preparation of the elements of defence skills” in schools while minimizing the impact of the Firearms Directive: “We emphasize the responsibility of each citizen of the Czech Republic and his ability to react adequately to a hazardous situation without fear of subsequent criminalization”. Babiš has entrusted the defence portfolio to Karla Šlechtová, who in June posted a photo on Facebook of herself aiming a rifle at the camera.
Czech officials have been researching existing models in Finland, Estonia and Lithuania, which entail a state-run supervisory body coordinating a myriad of private associations and maintaining a database of qualified gun permit holders.[iii] It is these small states, especially Finland and Israel with their legendarily plucky Winter War and Six-Day War, that inspire Czechs wanting to escape the lot of a country that in the past century was at the mercy of greater powers. Lawmakers such as Martin Lank and Zdeněk Soukup combined respect for those countries with a marked lack of confidence in the current Czech state to bear the burden of security alone, owing to vacancies in the overstretched police force and small number of combat-ready soldiers. As David Karásek, a leading member of LEX — The Association to Protect the Rights of Gun Owners, blogged:
In the modern state of the twenty-first century, the purpose of the state is not concentration of power in the hands of the government, but the security of citizens and protection of their rights. In protecting these values, such a state not just can, but in essence must relinquish somewhat its monopoly on the use of force. For if a situation arose in which the lives of people are threatened and the state is unable to protect them, it must allow them to defend themselves and it must enable them to do so, even if it would mean giving up a bit of its power. The opposite approach would mean that the state ensured that citizens not only are not protected by the state but are not protected at all and… will simply perish.
One of the most vocal (and controversial) proponents in the Chamber of Deputies was Zdeněk Ondráček, a Communist and an officer in the pre-1989 security forces. Invited to speak on behalf of the constitutional amendment in the Senate (most of the other co-sponsors had not been reelected in October), he argued:
There is a number of foreign systems from which we can take inspiration, for example Finland, Switzerland, the Baltic States, possibly Israel. In conclusion, it can be said that constitutional acts should indeed be changed only sparingly. In this case, however, an extraordinarly serious issue is being discussed, one which both links aspects of questions of our defence capability and especially our willingness to defend ourselves, to prepare ourselves for this task. The question of the active involvement of the public is fundamental in this proposal. We can keep saying that the professional branch of the state should provide security, but they cannot be everywhere all the time. The state is not an isolated entity. We all create the state and where necessary we should also defend it.
Bohuslav Chalupa (from Babiš’s ANO and before 1989 a specialist in the army’s chemical forces and radiation unit) likewise endorsed the creation of auxiliary civilian “defence societies” (branné spolky) under the supervision of the state, following the examples of Poland, Finland, the Baltic states and “of course we are studying the lessons and experiences of the State of Israel very, very closely”.
Gun-rights advocates in the Czech Republic are adamant that there is one country they do not want to emulate: the United States. The proposed addition to the constitutional act was not envisioned as a Second Amendment that could be interpreted to demolish the Czech Republic’s rigorous tests, registration requirements and physical and mental wellness exams for applicants and permit-holders. Pavel Černý took pride in the fact that the Las Vegas murderer, Stephen Paddock, would not have been able to amass his arsenal under Czech law: “We most definitely do not want a United States or Wild West here, nor more accessible weapons for anyone. Not just Western Europe but America too could learn here from us”.
It is true that the United States could learn a great deal from how the Czechs regulate gun ownership, just as it is prudent that the Czechs are learning about civil defence from the Finns, Estonians and others. But in a conversation charged with emotion and memory, it is easy to lose sight of the greatest threat: the banal everyday dangers, posed by American lawnmowers and Czech ladders, by trampolines and by gravity in general, by neighbours, colleagues and relations, by ourselves to ourselves.
[i] A constitutional act is a law passed by a three-fifths majority that is not inserted into the 1993 Constitution but is treated as part of the country’s broader “constitutional order”.
[ii] The vote in the European Parliament was 491 in favour, 178 against and 28 abstained. Hungarian MEPs, despite their intense partisan divisions, in fact all voted for the directive, as did the majority of Slovak and Romanian MEPs; the majority of MEPs from Poland, Bulgaria and Slovenia as well as the Czech Republic voted against it.