When hundreds of women were sexually assaulted on New Year’s Eve in several German cities three years ago, Carolin Matthie decided it was time to defend herself. The 26-year-old Berlin student quickly applied for a gun permit, fearing many women would have the same idea and flood the application process.
“If I don’t do it now, I will have to wait maybe another half year,” she recalls thinking.
Gun ownership is rising across Europe, a continent that until recently faced far less gun crime and violence than much of the globe. Not long ago it was rare to see armed British police.
The uptick was spurred in part by insecurity arising from terrorist attacks—many with firearms, and reflects government efforts to get illegal guns registered by offering amnesty to owners.
Europe is still far from facing the gun prevalence and violence in Latin America or the U.S., which lead the world. World-wide civilian ownership of firearms rose 32% in the decade through 2017, to 857.3 million guns, according to the Small Arms Survey, a research project in Geneva. Europe accounts for less than 10% of the total.
But Europe’s shift has been rapid, and notable in part because of strict national restrictions. In most European countries, gun permits require thorough background checks, monitored shooting practice and tests on regulations. In Belgium, France and Germany, most registered guns may only be used at shooting ranges. Permits to bear arms outside of shooting ranges are extremely difficult to obtain.
Strict registration requirements don’t account for—and may exacerbate—a surge in illegal weapons across the continent, experts say.
Europe’s unregistered weapons outnumbered legal ones in 2017, 44.5 million to 34.2 million, according to the Small Arms Survey. Many illegal weapons come from one-time war zones, such as countries of the former Yugoslavia, and others are purchased online, including from vendors in the U.S.
“Europe represents the largest market for arms trade on the dark web, generating revenues that are around five times higher than the U.S.,” concluded a recent Rand Corp. report.
With more weapons comes more gun-related violence. National police statistics in France, Germany and Belgium show an uptick in gun law violations since 2015. Europe doesn’t have current continentwide statistics.
Armed robbery and similar crimes often entail illicit guns, while legally registered firearms tend to appear in suicide and domestic-violence statistics, said Nils Duquet of the Flemish Peace Institute, a Belgian research center.
“It’s clear that illegal guns are used mostly by criminals,” he said.
In July 2016, an 18-year-old shooter killed nine people in Munich using a gun authorities concluded he bought illegally off the dark web.
In Germany, the number of legally registered weapons rose roughly 10%, to 6.1 million, in the five years through 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to Germany’s National Weapons Registry. Permits to bear arms outside of shooting ranges more than tripled to 9,285, over the same five years.
Permits for less lethal air-powered guns that resemble real guns and shoot tear gas or loud blanks to scare away potential attackers roughly doubled in the three years through the end of 2017, to 557,560, according to the registry.
Ms. Matthie first bought an air gun, which her permit allowed her to carry with her.
She has since become a sports shooter, using live ammunition at shooting ranges, and is now applying for a firearm permit. She posts a daily video blog where she advocates armed self-defense.
In Belgium, firearm permits and membership in sport-shooting clubs has risen over the past three years.
Belgian applications for shooting licenses almost doubled after the terrorist attacks by an Islamic State cell in Paris in Nov. 2015 and four months later in Brussels, offering “a clear indication of why people acquired them,” said Mr. Duquet.
In Paris, the suicide bombers also used machine guns to mow down restaurant and nightclub patrons—weapons they acquired on the black market and were tracked to a shop in Slovakia.
Belgium has for years tightened regulations in response to gun violence, such as a 2006 killing spree by an 18-year-old who legally acquired a rifle.
“Before 2006, you could buy rifles simply by showing your ID,” recalled Sébastien de Thomaz, who owns two shooting ranges in Brussels and previously worked in a gun store.
“They used to let me shoot with all my stepfather’s guns whenever I joined him at the range,” said Lionel Pennings, a Belgian artist who joins his stepfather at one of Mr. De Thomaz’s shooting ranges on Sundays.
Mr. Pennings recalled that in the past he could easily fire a few rounds with his stepfather’s gun. “Now it’s much stricter,” he said. “You can only use the guns you have a permit for.”
A Belgian would-be gun owner must pass almost a year of shooting and theory tests, plus psychological checks, said Mr. De Thomaz.
The gun-range owner questions the impact of that policy. “With each terror attack, the legislation gets stricter,” he said. “For the black market, everything stays the same.”