The Path to Death
How EU Failures Helped Paris Terrorists Obtain Weapons
By Stefan Candea, Jürgen Dahlkamp, Jörg Schmitt, Andreas Ulrich and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt
When Yohan Cohen died, he was lying on the floor of the Jewish supermarket where he worked.
Next to him lay three dead bodies. Cohen had been shot in the face and chest by the man wielding two assault rifles. Cohen whimpered and screamed in pain. The gunman asked his other hostages what he should do with him: Should he shoot him so that he finally falls silent?
"Don't kill him," the others begged. But at some point, the screaming and whimpering ceased on its own. Cohen, a 20-year-old student, was dead.
"We are such stuff as dreams are made on:" Cohen had posted the line from Shakespeare on his Facebook page as a promise of all he had hoped to achieve in life. But now, there were no more dreams left to dream -- everything had ended just as the Shakespeare sentence ended: "and our little life is rounded with a sleep."
Cohen died in Paris, in the Hyper Cacher supermarket where, on that Friday in January, 2015, Jews were buying kosher groceries for the Sabbath. The murderer, Amedy Coulibaly, a criminal since his youth who had been radicalized in prison, was carrying two Ceska Sa vz.58 automatic rifles. One of them was the short version, which had once been modified so that it could only fire blanks -- transformed into a harmless noise-maker. But it had since been converted back into a lethal weapon.
It was this Ceska that Coulibaly used to shoot Yohan Cohen -- deadly shots from a weapon that should not have been available on the open market any longer.
Jan. 9, 2015 was the last day of Cohen's brief life. But it was also the last day of a long lead-up to the crime that took his life. It was a crime that began fully six years and 233 days before Coulibaly walked into the Hyper Cacher store in Paris.
The first day was May 21, 2008, the day the European Union announced it was planning to push through stricter rules pertaining to assault rifles. The regulations would allow weapons aficionados to decorate their living rooms with assault rifles if they so desired, but only if they had been deactivated such that they could never again be used to fire live ammunition. The EU said that the new guidelines would contain extremely strict technical standards for such deco-weapons.
But then nothing happened -- for six years and 233 days. Worse yet, blank-firing guns and other so-called alarm weapons weren't included in the proposed regulations. If one irreversibly modified an assault weapon into a rifle that could only fire blanks, the EU bureaucrats weren't interested. Brussels was only interested in weapons that could no longer be fired at all, not even blanks.
As early as 2013, though, Slovakian police had warned Europe how easy it was to reactivate such modified weapons so that they could once again exert deadly force. The EU knew about it, talked about it and recognized the danger. But did nothing. Until Jan. 9, 2015 when Coulibaly shot and killed four people with such a weapon. Officials in Brussels have since come to the realization about just how easy it is in Europe to obtain an automatic weapon capable of firing live ammunition -- and how difficult it is for the authorities to take action against the flourishing black market.
An Uncontrolled Illegal Weapons Market
In total, Islamists wielding firearms killed 150 people and wounded 400 in Western Europe in 2015. That includes the January attacks in Paris on the editorial offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and on the Jewish supermarket. It includes the November massacre in the Bataclan and the Kalashnikov attacks on Paris street cafés. It includes the February attack on a synagogue and café in Copenhagen. And the failed, would-be mass murder on the high-speed Thalys train from Amsterdam to Paris. As the attacks in Brussels on Tuesday have once again made clear, Europe and the Europeans have lost their sense of security: The hope that they could keep terror at bay has been exposed as an illusion. The symbol for this lack of security is the illegal weapons market -- a market that the authorities do not have under control.
Today, investigators know that they are dealing with an entire arsenal of deadly weapons. It's not just reactivated blank-shooting weapons like Coulibaly's Ceskas or his Tokarev pistol, a weapon which went through the same transformation -- from deadly weapon to blank-firing pistol and back. When European terrorists are looking to acquire a tool of murder, they have a wide range of choices available to them. There are the old reliables like the Russian-made Arsenal revolver model 1895, made in 1932 -- one of which was found in Coulibaly's apartment.
Or the Belgian FN Browning of the type obtained by Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a participant in the Paris attacks.
But weapons stolen from militaries or police forces are also available, as in the case of the Copenhagen attacks, which resulted in two deaths. And then there are all of the Kalashnikovs from the Balkans that find their way on a variety of paths to Western Europe. Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, police confiscated two such weapons used in the killings; after the Paris massacres last November, they impounded six of them.
An international team of journalists belonging to the newly established European Investigative Collaboration, of which SPIEGEL is a member, spent the last three months searching for clues.
The reporting has revealed the first precise look at the weapons used in the January and November attacks in Paris and has led to weapons traders and to an alleged French police informant who apparently supplied part of Coulibaly's arsenal. The reporting also shows how easy it would be for terrorists to obtain weapons in Germany as well -- and how one of Germany's most dangerous right-wing extremists did exactly that.
Our reporting shows that obtaining a weapon in Europe is hardly an insurmountable hurdle to the carrying out of an attack. Indeed, the EU has essentially fostered an easily accessible weapons bazaar for terrorists. The research reveals years of European Union failures.
Death on Command
Sometimes, all it takes is two words to uncover the vast ineptitude of officialdom. Or, more precisely, the lack of two words. On Nov. 18, 2015, the European Commission announced a proposal to strengthen firearms control in the EU. The announcement concerned the Firearms Directive, which determines who in Europe is allowed to buy and sell firearms, what is permissible and what is not. The announcement came far too late for Yohan Cohen, the Jewish student, who had by then been lying in a Jerusalem cemetery for 10 months. But the EU finally sought to send a strong signal. Weapons laws in EU member states were to become stricter in the awake of the terror attacks and controls were to be strengthened.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker accompanied the announcement with a few words that likely said more than was intended. "Organized criminals accessing and trading military grade firearms in Europe cannot and will not be tolerated any longer," the statement reads in the French original. "Any longer?" Is that perhaps an open admission that the EU tolerated such a thing for far too long? Is it the admission of European failure? In the official English and German translations, the two words "any longer" are missing.
Back in 1991, the EU tried to regulate the proliferating weapons market for the first time. The result was the Firearms Directive, which had primarily a single goal: That of guaranteeing free trade to the degree possible -- even for firearms -- within the European market. The directive expressly excluded alarm weapons. They weren't considered to be firearms.
It took 17 years before the EU realized that the greatest danger presented by weapons was not that over-regulation could infringe on free trade, but that criminals could use them to kill and injure people. The result was a modification to the directive in May 2008, one which seemed to contain the solution to the shortcoming of the original directive: "The Commission shall ... issue common guidelines on deactivation standards and techniques to ensure that deactivated firearms are rendered irreversibly inoperable."
It sounds good, but the directive lacks two elements -- omissions that would later cost Yohan Cohen and three others their lives in the Hyper Cacher supermarket. First, a date by which all EU member states were to have fulfilled the EU standards. And second, alarm weapons were left out: distress flares, starter pistols and blank-firing guns, all weapons where everything in the rear part of the weapon is still fully functional, including the magazine and the breechblock.
Otherwise, it wouldn't be able to fire blanks.
A Warning from Slovakia
Such weapons are used in films, for firing salutes and by all kinds of crazies and showoffs who want to let out their inner Rambo. For the EU, these kinds of shooters were a blind spot. They were not considered firearms because they did not expel bullets from their barrels, but they also didn't fall under the category of deactivated weapons because they still went "boom."
The new 2008 directive contained a fundamental absurdity. It announced strict regulations for weapons that, due to having been deactivated, could no longer shoot -- the decorative weapons.
But the EU paid no attention to how live weapons could be transformed into alarm weapons: guns that could still shoot, even if only blanks. Yet it was exactly this category of weapon that was much more interesting for terrorists and other criminals, as the 2015 attacks show. It wasn't a former decorative weapon that was used. On the contrary, Coulibaly had an entire arsenal of once active weapons that had been modified to fire blanks. They were much easier to re-modify such that they could again fire live ammunition.
In September 2013, EU member state Slovakia sent out an alert -- in English so that it could be understood everywhere. Slovakia had particularly weak regulations when it came to the modification of deadly weapons into alarm weapons. Two metal pegs in the barrel were considered sufficient. The Slovakian authorities were concerned and they published a poster with 16 images.
The poster noted that alarm weapons from Slovakia were being "reactivated increasingly often." All it took, the poster noted, was "simple modifications:" simply removing the two pegs from the gun barrel. It was also extremely easy to purchase such weapons at stores. Buyers only had to be 18 years old and present a valid ID. The poster showed a pistol that that had been transformed into a blank-firing weapon by a company called Kol Arms and a Ceska vz.58 automatic rifle that had undergone the same procedure. Both weapons were later reactivated.
The message was heard in Brussels. In October 2013, just a month after the Slovakian warning, a European Commission report noted that law enforcement authorities in the EU were concerned that "alarm guns, air weapons and blank-firers are being converted into illegal lethal firearms." The Commission, the report stated, was aware of "significant differences in deactivation standards between Member States" and that homicides had been committed using such weapons. The report concluded that it was necessary to "evaluate the necessity of legally binding common standards for the whole EU."
The report came fully five years after the 2008 Firearms Directive, yet virtually nothing had been done. Now, an evaluation was to take place. When that evaluation was finally completed at the end of 2014, Brussels had succumbed to an oversight: According to EU definitions, deactivation standards only apply to firearms that are made totally unusable. Alarm weapons were again left out. The Slovak alert had fallen through the bureaucratic cracks.
It is unclear how that happened, but there are indications that it may have been intentional. In May 2014, there was a meeting in Brussels of EU experts on the weapons black market. When asked about what the consequences were for countries that did not fully implement the 2008 directive, an official with the Directorate-General Enterprise and Industry replied that there had only been a couple of inquiries and that no further steps had been taken. The official noted that the directive was consistent with the "minimum harmonization principle" -- which means there was plenty of leeway.
When it comes to other issues, that may be a good thing and work well. The principle that the EU only regulates what is really necessary keeps the union together and people happy. But when it comes to EU security, the principle costs human lives. The freedom of movement for persons and goods becomes laxity, laxity becomes carelessness and carelessness becomes deadly risk.
Seven months after the meeting in Brussels, Amedy Coulibaly stormed Hyper Cacher. For years, he had been in close contact with Chérif Kouachi, who, together with his brother Saïd, had created a bloodbath at the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo two days before. By the time Coulibaly took his hostages in the supermarket, the Kouachis had barricaded themselves inside a printing shop outside of Paris.
Inside Hyper Cacher, Coulibaly shot a man in the back as he was trying to run out of the store.
He then shot a second person to death and shot Cohen. Coulibaly murdered a fourth person, a student, when he grabbed for one of his weapons. By the time Coulibaly died in a hail of police bullets, he had held 23 people hostage for more than four hours. He was armed with two Ceska vz.58 assault rifles, one of them manufactured in 1961, the other in 1964 -- really nothing but decommissioned military scrap. The French investigation files note that they were in terrible condition. But they killed nonetheless.
The Slovakian police poster had warned of exactly this type of weapon, the Ceska vz.58. The ones used by Coulibaly bore the seal of the company Kol Arms, which had modified the first to shoot blanks in 2013 and the second one year later. The second carried the serial number 63622, and fired the bullet which killed Yohan Cohen. Both guns were sold in 2014, before being reactivated.
"This kind of reverse modification is much easier than for weapons that have been completely deactivated because it only involves the barrel," a ballistics expert with the Paris police wrote. One can obtain such weapons "via the Internet and in the mail." The extra short model, called a Subcompact, costs slightly more than €500. The longer version, known as Compact, costs between €230 and €280.
Coulibaly was also carrying two Russian-made Tokarev TT33s, which cost around €300 each.
These weapons, too, were old, manufactured in 1951 and 1952 -- and modified into blank-shooters by Kol Arms in 2014. They too were reactivated by simply removing the two metal pegs from the barrel.
Two such Tokarevs were discovered near Marseille in October 2012, followed by more and more such finds. Paris recorded the first reactivated Tokarev in July 2014, according to French investigators. Coulibaly had four of them stashed in his hideout in southern Paris.
But how did he get his hands on this arsenal? The last link in the chain is still missing, but the trail leads to a shop in Slovakia, and into the depths of French police work. According to the French investigation, the weapons that ended up in Coulibaly's possession were ordered from this shop -- by a police informant.
The informant claims that he made the purchases at the behest of the police as part of an investigation into a network of weapons suppliers. If that is true, if it was a secret service operation carried out by the state, then it spun out of control -- a mistake that four people, including Yohan Cohen, paid for with their lives.
Container after Container
The shop where Coulibaly's weapons were purchased is called AFG Security and it is located in the town of Partizánske, a two-and-a-half hour drive from Vienna. The store is in the basement of a two-story apartment building on a dead-end road near the train tracks. Stairs lead down below street level and inside, a camouflage net hangs from the ceiling. A bottle of Cabernet, emblazoned with a picture of Adolf Hitler and the words "Mein Kampf," stands in a display case.
This shop, located in the middle of nowhere, is the source of thousands of deactivated weapons that have been sold across Europe. Firearms from here have ended up in the hands of Islamist terrorists in France, gangsters in Great Britain and a man who was once one of Germany's most dangerous neo-Nazis. Over the course of years. The AFG website continues to claim that the weapons are just "for fun" -- for the reenactment of World War II battles, for example. But the key part comes later: "Most of the expansion weapons (Eds. Note: alarm weapons) are originals (originally 'sharp') with minor modifications which disable the shooting with original - 'sharp' ammunition." The word "sharp," in the clumsily written English version of the website, refers to the ability to fire live ammunition.
The guns are mostly decommissioned weapons from the Slovak military. Container after container of these firearms wound up in the hands of companies like Kol Arms, which then converted them from lethal weapons into alarm rifles. By the time the weapons left AFG Security, they were considered harmless -- at least according to the law. For the lawless, however, they were the hottest new thing on the market. AFG sold an estimated 14,000 alarm weapons abroad, mostly over the Internet, according to the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). The agency currently has 33 open investigations into customers in Germany.
Many of the shop's customers apparently appreciated how quickly the weapons could be re-converted into active firearms. French investigators recently tried it out for themselves: It took only two hours for a locksmith of modest talent to reopen the barrel. Doing the same with German-made alarm guns isn't nearly as easy.
Investigators from several EU countries have been monitoring the shop since 2014 after being tipped off by packages from Germany mailed to Alexander M., alias "Smokey," a serial burglar from London who has since been sentenced to life in prison. The packages included four fully functioning vz.61 Scorpion submachine guns, which are as small and deadly as the name implies. Smokey ordered the guns from jail using his smartphone.
Initially, the authorities had no idea who the supplier was. They knew only that the person had been active on the anonymous trading platform Agora on the so-called Darknet. British and German police dispatched cyber investigators to order weapons in a sting operation. The tracking number of the packages led them to a mechatronics student named Christoph K. in the Bavarian city of Schweinfurt.
Christoph K. is a slender young man in his mid-twenties with technical ability, good business acumen and few scruples. One morning in January 2015, police raided the campus of the University of Applied Sciences in Schweinfurt where Christoph K. was pursuing his studies.
Further arrests and legal proceedings followed all across Europe.
'Unaware of the Consequences'
Christoph K. had been reactivating the AFG alarm weapons in his basement workshop and then reselling them for 10 times the price. Four weeks ago, the Schweinfurt regional court sentenced him to four years and three months in prison. Defense attorney Jochen Kaller said his client had been "unaware of the consequences" of his actions.
Christoph K. wasn't AFG's only regular German customer. The company's weapons registry, which the BKA has obtained, also includes the name Alexander R., 39, who bought two Kalashnikovs and three dozen Scorpions. In Ferlach, a hub of the Austrian weapons industry, he obtained raw tubes for the new barrels needed to reactivate the weapons.
Officials at the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the German domestic intelligence agency responsible for monitoring extremism, had already had Alexander R. on their radar.
Back at the end of the 1990s, he had been part of weapons deals with a former leader of Hoffmann, a right-wing extremist paramilitary sports group. At the time of their arrest, police seized close to a dozen submachine guns along with five hand grenades. After his conviction, R. spent more than four years in prison. While in jail, he wrote to his comrades that he planned to destroy "the regime of the Federal Republic of Germany." Police found a pamphlet in Alexander R.'s possession stating that the undercover agents who caught him should be shot and their corpses left with a warning note in their mouths. "Perhaps together with his dick and balls."
After his release from prison, Alexander R. initially kept a low profile. But beginning in mid-2013, he began purchasing large quantities of weapons from AFG in Slovakia. Operating under the assumption that the company was under BKA surveillance, R. drove several times directly to Partizànske, where he paid in cash rather than ordering over the Internet. On the telephone, he once spoke of a "Big Chainsaw," a friend of "Beans," terms a regional court in Rhineland-Palatinate is convinced refers to weapons and ammunition. A few months ago, the court sentenced Alexander R. to six years in prison. His application for appeal was rejected on all major points. Meanwhile, the convict hasn't revealed the location of the three dozen submachine guns.
Claude Hermant, 52, who had previously worked for the right-wing populist Front National party's security service in France, also placed a major order with AFG in 2014. The stalwart right-winger has paramilitary training and is also known to have spent a few months in jail in Africa, where rumors circulated about his alleged links to a failed coup attempt.
Found at the Scene
Hermant runs a survival shop near Lille, France. Through the firm, he placed an order with AFG for pistols, submachine guns as well as Ceska vz.58s that had been deactivated by Kol Arms. During a search conducted later, investigators seized an additional 15 vz.58s as well as a Tokarev TT 33 pistol along with cases of ammunition. But three of the weapons Hermant ordered from AFG -- a Ceska and two other Tokarevs -- had already been located. Police found the vz.58 machine gun at Hyper Cacher, where it had been used to kill Yohan Cohen. The two Tokarevs were also found at the scene.
So was Hermant an unscrupulous merchant of death? Police also found two reactivated Beretta pistols in his possession. But Hermant told investigators a different story following the Coulibaly attack: He claimed he had purchased the weapons in 2014 with the knowledge of the French federal police, the Gendarmerie, as part of a sting against arms traffickers. He said that some of the weapons had been sent to a dodgy underworld figure based near Roubaix. Hermant claimed that he explicitly asked for permission from his police contact man. The official, Hermant says, gave him the "green light."
Police officials have since been forced to admit that Hermant had been a "registered informant" since 2013 and that they were interested in obtaining information about weapons sales and had even told him that. "But I also manage 30 sources -- that's complicated," a police official said at a hearing in Lille convened after the January shootings. The official claimed that no sham weapons deal had taken place under police observation. To this day, the French government has kept its contact reports with Hermant classified.
It remains unclear how Hermant's weapons ultimately wound up in Coulibaly's hands. Nor is it clear who provided the Islamist with the other Ceska vz.58. It is known that it was purchased on location from AFG by a Belgian weapons collector. But from that point the trail is lost.
The Balkans Bazar
On July 23, 2015, a white Mercedes disembarked from the ferry in Rødbyhavn, Denmark, after making the 45-minute crossing from Fehmarn, Germany. Sanel H., a Bosnian man, was at the wheel, but he didn't get far. During a routine inspection, Danish investigators uncovered a cache of weapons in the vehicle, discovering 10 hand grenades and 13 rifles, including four machine guns. Sanel H. told investigators he was acting alone and had no accomplices. Nor did he reveal what he intended to do with the weapons. Officials found a scrap of paper on him bearing the name of the Danish city Aalborg with a telephone number on it, but Sanel H. claimed it wasn't his writing and that he knew nothing about it. Danish police then questioned him about a former police officer from Bosnia. Sanel H. admitted he had known the man, and that he had been "a very honest guy" who had nothing to do with weapons trafficking.
Two months later in Aachen, Germany, a police swat unit arrested the "very honest guy" at an autobahn on-ramp. The German authorities had been tipped off by colleagues in Bosnia. They seized 25 hand grenades, two explosive devices and four disassembled Zastava M70s, Serbian Kalashnikov knock-offs. A German accomplice was traveling with the ex-cop in the vehicle. At the same time, police in Bosnia-Herzegovina arrested additional members of the gang.
When the Kouachi brothers holed up in a printing shop after the bloody rampage at Charlie Hebdo in January, they were armed with Zastava M70s. Investigators also found an M70 on the floor of the Bataclan concert hall after the November massacre. In addition, police found three of the weapons in the black Seat Leon car out of which some of the terrorists in the November attack fired on people at sidewalk cafes.
The Zastavas used in the attack didn't come out of the Slovakian supply chain: They're weapons of the sort that terrorists in Western Europe have always clamored to get their hands on -- old automatic weapons from the Balkans that were never deactivated. There are believed to be almost as many of these faux Kalashnikovs as there are people in the region -- people with very little money and who sell the weapons in order to make some.
The Zastava found at Bataclan was delivered to Sarajevo on May 26, 1981. It had been shipped to the local Yugoslavian Territorial Defense Forces, the military reserve units that would later become the core of the Bosnian forces during the civil war when Yugoslavia disintegrated. It is believed that the second of the three Kalashnikovs used in the Bataclan attack likewise originated from the Balkans -- a Chinese Norinco that used to be common in the Albanian military. It's also possible the third weapon used, a machine gun built in 1985 in Bulgaria, may also have come from the region. It is not always possible to trace the paths of weapons used in the Balkan wars.
It's also possible that German weapons from the stockpiles of East Germany's National People's Army may have fallen into the wrong hands. During a meeting last September of the EU's Standing Committee on Internal Security (COSI), a French official noted that "the perpetrators at Charlie Hebdo used an automatic rifle from the former GDR." The ballistic reports, which have been obtained by SPIEGEL, provide no evidence to suggest this however.
Germany's Left Party made an official request for a response to the claim by the German government, but officials stated that they would not comment "about the origins and dissemination of the weapons because there was still an open investigation." Still, it wouldn't come as a surprise if German weapons had made their way into terrorists' hands. MPi-Ks, the East German version of the Kalashnikov, have surfaced several times in Belgium. It is believed they came from the Balkans and that they had been sawed apart and then welded back together. Belgian security sources claim that decommissioned East German weapons were also sold to parties in the civil war.
As for the Bulgarian Kalashnikov used in the Bataclan attacks, it's also possible that it came straight from Bulgaria. As is the case in many former Eastern Bloc countries, Bulgaria is home to massive warehouses filled with stockpiles of old guns. For one study, Bulgaria reported a surplus of more than 46,000 small arms and light weapons. For years, the standard practice for these countries had been to sell whatever could be sold and to destroy what was left over. It's a rule of thumb apparently also followed by Romania (which has a surplus of 1.25 million weapons), Albania (259,000) Serbia (90,000) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (53,000).
But those are only the weapons to be found in government arsenals. It's possible that the weapons supplies of private individuals are even larger. When Albanians plundered their army's warehouses in 1997, 550,000 weapons and more than 1.5 billion rounds of ammunition went missing.
The EU and the United Nations donated a few million euros to collect and destroy automatic rifles, mortars and hand grenades in the Balkans, but the sum fell far short of what would have been needed to solve the problem. Besides, the suddenly independent Balkan states had neither the money nor the strength or even the will to address the problema.
Today, traveling traders buy up the Kalashnikovs and send them north along the roadways.
Only a fraction of the hundreds of passenger buses that depart for Western Europe each day are checked, not to mention the vans and private automobiles. Customs officials don't have much of a chance, and some are also bribed, as a report by the French broadcaster Canal Plus recently documented.
That is also how the Bosnians who were caught last year in Rødbyhavn and Aachen made it into the EU. Or the Montenegrin Vlatko V., who was stopped last November on the A8 Autobahn with eight Kalashnikovs in his VW Golf. The German government says that such discoveries of weapons from the Balkans are a regular occurrence. In 2014, 264 weapons of war were confiscated by the BKA. But Berlin stops short of calling it a "disconcerting trend."
Still, the situation was such that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged planner of the November attacks in Paris, had no difficulties at all obtaining weapons. Abaaoud died five days after the attacks when police stormed his hideout, but three months prior to the attacks, in August 2015, Reda H., who had returned from Syria, provided testimony about Abaaoud to the French secret service agency DGSI.
"He told me that I should find a soft target, a concert, for example, a place with lots of people," Reda H. said of Abaaoud. When it came to weapons, "he said that accessing weapons was no problem at all. I should just tell him what I needed. I think they had a supply network."
The Business of Death II
Allegedly, things have now improved in Slovakia. A new law was passed last summer forbidding Internet sales and sales to private individuals. The Slovakian Interior Ministry also says that the law includes "new technical standards" to prevent weapons from being reactivated.
There has also been a change to the website of AFG. Now, a popup window informs visitors that the pages are only intended for professional weapons traders. Proceeding past the notice is confirmation that the visitor "is a holder of arm licence (sic)." What hasn't been changed is the fact that the Ceska vz.58, modified to only shoot blanks, is still available for €330. The Slovak description of the weapon praises its accuracy over 400 meters in addition to "very satisfactory results over a distance of 800 meters" when targeting groups -- an odd portrayal for a weapon modified to fire blanks.
The sentence noting that most of the alarm weapons are originals that have undergone only minor modification so that they cannot fire live ammunition can also still be found on the website. But a salesman at the shop recently sought to reassure a customer: Now, not only are the barrels blocked to live ammunition (using a more secure method than in the past), but the magazines and breechblocks are also modified.
Does that go far enough? Or does it just mean that reactivating them will now take four hours instead of two? "The new changes mean that these alarm weapons can no longer automatically reload," says Hamburg-based weapons expert Lars Winkelsdorf. "But they can still shoot. And by way of quite simple modifications, they can be turned back into live, fully automatic weapons. All you need are freely available replacement parts and a bit of work on the barrel."
Making purchases over the Internet is likewise still possible for weapons dealers. Or pseudo-dealers, like one of the journalists from the EIC consortium. We wrote an email to AFG saying we wanted to buy alarm weapons of the Ceska vz.58 model. To identify ourselves as a dealer, we used papers that anyone can download from the Internet. AFG immediately registered us as a "wholesaler" and gave us rights to place orders via the Internet. We then ceased all contact with AFG so as not to fall afoul of the law.
Does the practice not continue to violate the EU Firearms Directive? A European Union spokesman told us it does not. "The existing directive does not pertain to alarm weapons," he said. The only changes the EU has made are stiffer technical requirements, which will go into force in April, for completely deactivated weapons. But the new requirements don't pertain to alarm weapons because they are merely additions to the directive currently in place. A directive that does not include alarm weapons.
The spokesman did note that change may be coming, in the form of the "common criteria concerning alarm weapons … to prevent their transformation into fully functioning firearms" that Commission President Juncker proposed. When might that happen? The spokesman was unfortunately unable to say.