Based on an international survey, Estonia is one of the countries where relatively few people have died, or die, in firearms accidents. The number of violent fatalities has decreased by at least half in the last decade. According to the Ministry of the Interior, the strict conditions for applying for the weapons permit have therefore been justified.
The firearms incident in Lihula on Saturday, March 6, in which two people died, sparked a wider debate on the conditions for applying for weapons licenses in Estonia. ERR's science portal, Novaator, examined in the light of the incident, what Estonian firearms accident statistics are in the international context, and how accident statistics are related to strict arms permit regulations.
Current regulations are justified
According to the data from an international survey, the Small Arms Survey (SAS), two people in Estonia died in the firearms accident in 2018. It implies that in the international context, Estonia is among the countries with the fewest deaths caused by weapons. Furthermore, violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in Estonia have also halved in 2008 to 2018 (see infographic below).
According to Sven Põierpaas, Adviser for the Law Enforcement and Criminal Policy Department at the Ministry of the Interior, the statistics confirm that the legislative directions, prevention and supervision implemented in Estonia have been effective. He adds that since 2004, weapons rules in Estonia have been based on the European Firearms Directive and its amendments. The arms regulations have tightened, especially in response to terrorist acts in Europe in recent years.
"For example, the possession of large caliber firearms is more dangerous to society, and has been subject to increased requirements with other Member States, as well as closer and more thorough state supervision," explains Põierpaas.
Although Europe is demonstraing the main directions of change, the Estonian Arms Act LINK has also been amended according to local needs. For example, Estonia's digital capability has enabled the state to switch to an electronic weapons permit.
"In addition, a firearms licence is not issued to an individual who can be a danger to the security of the state," adds Põierpaas. "Only firearms owners who possess firearms for self-defense must prove their ability to handle the weapon safely when exchanging a firearms permit."
In addition to this, according to the adviser, the issuing of a weapons permit to foreigners has been tightened in Estonia, and unlike many other European countries, a permit must also be applied for in Estonia to acquire a gas-operated weapon.
"This all gives us confirmation that not only permission to possess a weapon or the ability to shoot the firearm is important, but also the responsible and law-abiding behavior of weapons owners and the effective exercise of state supervision are very important in all of this," acknowledges Põierpaas.
Who can get a gun license in Estonia and how?
According to Sven Põierpaas, it is relatively difficult to apply for a weapons permit in Estonia, as in the entire EU. As stated above, member states apply the Union Arms Directive in the same way in their legislation.
"An 18-year-old can apply for a firearms permit for hunting and shooting. An applicant for a rifle weapon for the purpose of self-protection and the protection of property must be at least 21 years old," says Põierpaas.
To apply for a weapons permit, an applicant is first referred for a medical examination.
"Health examinations are carried out by a family doctor, involving a psychiatrist and, if necessary, other specialists," the Adviser describes.
"An applicant for a weapons permit who meets the health requirements will be issued a corresponding certificate, which they must submit to the Police and Border Guard Board. The applicant must also have undergone first aid training in advance."
The Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) then processes the submitted application. The PPA will check that the information provided is correct, and whether the applicant has previously been convicted of a criminal offense. The PPA also collects information on possible ongoing criminal proceedings, or previous possible activities which might endanger national security.
The applicant will also assess whether the latter is at all suitable for acquiring the desired type of weapon. "Their current lifestyle must not endanger the safety of another person and their behavior must be appropriate for a law-abiding gun owner," Põierpaas notes, adding that a person who has successfully passed a background check will be referred to a firearms exam.
According to the adviser, the weapons exam consists of two parts: A theoretical and a practical exam. "The theoretical part consists of a written test to make sure that the applicant for a firearms permit knows the legislation governing the handling of weapons.
If the applicant passes the weapons examination, he or she will be issued an electronic permit for the desired type of weapon. In order to apply for a permit for another type of weapon, a person only needs to retake the practical part of the examination.
Strict law alone is not enough
"The more effective and substantive the control, the more likely it is that the weapons will not fall into the hands of people who have behaved in a way that endangers their own or another person's safety," says Sven Põierpaas, the adviser to the Ministry of the Interior.
He adds that a strict law alone is not enough to prevent gun crimes or accidents. "It is important that the arms owners themselves are aware and responsible, and that the state exercises well-thought-out and coordinated supervision," he says.
According to the adviser, the majority of firearms in Estonia belong to hunters and sports shooters. The latter, however, are social hobbies in which people act together and keep an eye on each other's behavior. "A weapon owner who does not follow safety rules will be called to order quickly by their companions. None of us wants to be endangered by someone's careless use of weapons," notes Põierpaas.
The third group of weapons owners are those who own weapons only for their own protection and property. According to Põierpaas, these weapons owners practice and handle firearms more privately.
"However, they must prove to the police their skills and knowledge in the safe handling of their weapons every five years, after the expiry of the weapons permit."
At the same time, according to the adviser, the health status of a weapon owner is important. It is regularly assessed by a family doctor, a psychiatrist and, if necessary, a specialist, each time a firearms permit expires and the weapon owner wishes to renew it.
Editor: Katriin Sein