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Estonia: Government Withdraws Insistence on Proposed Gun Ownership Restrictions

(Jan. 28, 2016) On January 8, 2016, the Deputy Chancellor of the Estonian Interior Ministry announced that the government will not insist on keeping restrictions on private gun ownership, introduced in legislation proposed by the Interior Ministry in 2015, if these restrictions are removed from the text by legislators. (Official Says Number of Guns for Self-Defense Probably Won’t Be Limited by Law, ERR.EE (Jan. 8, 2016).)

The Weapons Act Amendment Bill was introduced by the government in December 2015 as a response to the changing security situation in the country. The government cited the European migration crisis, terrorist attacks, and sanctions against Russia as reasons to reevaluate firearms policies and prevent guns in private possession from falling into the wrong hands.  According to the Ministry of the Interior, during the last five years, 42 guns have been stolen and 626 lost, while approximately 28,000 people among the population of 1.3 million own about 66,000 guns.  (Liis Velsker, Ministry Wants to Allow One Gun Only for Self Defence, POSTIMEES.EE (Dec. 28, 2015).)

Current Law on Firearms

At present, gun ownership in Estonia is allowed based on firearms permits issued by local governments. Under the Weapons Act, a citizen or legal resident who is 18 years of age or older can apply for a permit.  (Weapons Act of June 13, 2001, Riigi Teataja (the Estonian official gazette) 2001, No. 65, Item 377 (click on “Authentic Text” tab for text in Estonian).) The Act allows citizens and permanent residents to acquire, hold, possess, and carry weapons for purposes of hunting, sporting exercises, professional activities, collection, self-defense, and the protection of property.  Depending on the purpose of a gun purchase, firearms permit applications must be supported by possession of a hunting certificate, proof of membership in a sporting society, or a recently issued health certificate.  (Id. §§ 28 & 29.)

Existing legislation does not regulate the number of firearms an individual can own and 2,645 people have two or more guns for personal safety reasons.  (Acquisition of Weapons by Physical Persons, Police and Border Guard official website (last visited Jan. 22, 2016); Velsker, supra.)

Features of the Amending Legislation

Calling firearms a source of public danger, the government stated in the explanatory note to the amending legislation that gun ownership should be restricted and possession allowed only on a need basis. A high-ranking Ministry of Interior official noted, “the more weapons in civilian use, the bigger the risk of these being lost, stolen, and ending up in illegal arms trafficking.”  (Velsker, supra.)  The legislation as it was introduced in December provided for a limit of one gun per owner for self-defense and safety purposes, and specified that a pistol or revolver can be acquired if they will be used for self-defense purposes only.  The legislation did not impose limits on hunters and sportsmen.  “The Interior Ministry is of the opinion, that one’s life and assets cannot be defended from several firearms at a time, thus the prescribed limit,” said the official.  (Id.)

Among other new provisions, the amending legislation includes requirements for firearms permit applicants to justify the reasons and substantiate the need for gun ownership, a provision on the transfer of guns in excess of the established limit to police or border guard offices for storage, and the requirement that firearms permits be renewed every five years. The legislation also provides for an increase in the minimum age for certain gun purchase.  Thus, an 18-year-old person may obtain a gas pistol, and a firearm suitable for personal protection may be purchased by a person who is at least 21.  (Priit Luts, Estonian Ministry Wants to Limit Number of Firearms for Self Defense to 1, ERR.EE (Jan. 6, 2016).)

The legislation was widely discussed. Gun owners viewed the imposition of limits on the number of guns in private possession as a violation of their fundamental rights.  (Velsker, supra.)