by Dave Kopel & Carlo Stagnaro
Chronicles, December 2001, pp. 53-54. More on Italy, ancient and modern.
One of the important reasons for the sweeping election victory of Silvio Berlusconi and his House of Liberty was concern about public safety – which ranks as the number one public concern in some polling. Berlusconi promised to do whatever necessary to make people feel safer, and his platform affirmed that:
"Safety of the people, preservation of their security and protection of their goods, is the base of the contract between citizenry and institutions, without whom the government lose its historical and moral legitimacy."
Public safety is leading some Italians to rediscover the virtue of people being able to protect themselves.
An online poll conducted by Publiweb (a major Italian web portal) found that asked "Is it legitimate to defend one's property with guns?" Fifty-nine percent said "si," while 36 percent would allow firearms use only in an extreme emergency. A mere three percent categorically rejected firearms use for property defense.
Italian citizens do not enjoy a constitutional right to arms, and, unlike the Commonwealth countries, there is no common-law tradition either. Purchase of a firearm requires a police license and registration. As of 1996, there were 757,240 people licensed to possess shotguns for sporting purposes.
Handgun permits are much harder to obtain. Usually, permits are granted to those whom the government decides have a "need" to carry firearms for self-defense, such as jewelers or other persons who carry valuables for business purposes. These licenses have declined from 42,396 in 1996 to 31,850 in 1998.
Dr. Paolo Tagini, assistant editor of the gun monthly Armi Magazine explains the complexity of Italian laws:
"There are. . .fifty Italian gun-control laws, which have been passed over the last sixty years; such a 'legal stratification' has made possible the introduction of ever stricter laws, that have often failed in protecting honest citizens. The Italian system doesn't work with regard to the illegal import of guns (especially from the Adriatic Sea); on the other hand, honest citizens often must suffer useless torments whose never-stated goal is to move them away from guns."
Italy has a thriving illegal import/export trade in firearms, especially with Albania.
Actual use of a firearm for protection often leads to criminal prosecution. In one case in southern Italy, a man was relaxing in his terrace, when a gang started to shoot in his direction. He returned fire, and shot a 15-year-old gangster. The man was criminally prosecuted for injuring the gangster, under the theory that he should have taken shelter behind a parapet, rather than shooting back.
In Brescia, a man had been robbed three times. One a night, he heard suspicious noises from the courtyard. He looked out the window and saw a gang trying to jimmy his door. He took his gun and fired, killing one. He is being prosecuted for intentional homicide.
A hunter kept his gun in an armored cabinet, as the law requires. One day, his son stole it and used it to shoot another adolescent. The hunter was prosecuted for failing to store his weapon safely.
The media are worried about rising Italian sentiment in favor of self-defense. As noted columnist Corrado Augias wrote in the liberal daily La Republica:
"What would be the result, if everyone carried guns? The Far West or, whether you prefer a nearer and only apparently more graceful picture, Romeo and Juliet's Verona. It took centuries to limit right to self defence, I don't think we should get back."
In the hardcore communist daily, Il Manifesto, Massimo Carlotto deplored those who believe in "the necessity of self-defense . . The time has come to understand and seriously monitor the phenomenon, with the goal to restrict the gun trade." His view is typical among gun control supporters, for whom any system short of total prohibition is seen as full of loopholes.
Modern Italian gun control laws date from the Fascist period; the Public Safety Act was passed in 1931 as one of a series of measures designed to put an end to leftist violence. Addressing the Italian Senate Benito Mussolini explained:
"The measures adopted to restore public order are: First of all, the elimination of the so-called subversive elements. ... They were elements of disorder and subversion. On the morrow of each conflict I gave the categorical order to confiscate the largest possible number of weapons of every sort and kind. This confiscation, which continues with the utmost energy, has given satisfactory results."
Yet after the fall of the Fascist regime, the gun-control law remained and was gradually made even more stringent. In response to Communist terrorism in the 1970's, a variety of laws were passed to disarm law-abiding people. More recent amendments force those who need the permit to carry firearms to demonstrate a "necessity," and to give the government extremely personal information, such as medical certificates.
In the United States, at the annual Gun Rights Policy Conference (run by the Second Amendment Foundation), delegates habitually adopt a "NATO Doctrine" resolution, whereby an attack on one form of gun ownership is considered to be an attack on all. This resolution, and the consciousness behind it, mean that practitioners of obscure shooting disciplines (e.g., .50 caliber long-range target shooting) can count on energetic support from the full spectrum of gun owners.
Italian gun owners, however, rarely defend a comprehensive right to arms, but instead focus narrowly on the interests of their particular shooting discipline. Hunting groups do not support gun ownership for target shooting, or for self-defense. Target shooters ignore the rights of hunters. And almost no-one discusses the most important element of the right to arms: the duty of a free people to resist tyranny. Supposedly, a civilized Western republic would never lapse into tyranny – although Italy did so under Mussolini and under the Caesars.
But there are signs of a growing solidarity among some gun owners. The Associazione Difesa del Cacciatore is a pro-hunting group that also advocates the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense. The group's President, attorney Mauro Cecchetti argues that:
"Italian hunters should immediately take what was stolen from them: their sacred and inviolable right to freedom of hunting, freedom to own and carry guns for hunting activity, for sports. . .for personal and home defense."
Leonardo Facco owns a publishing firm (http://www.libertari.org) in Treviglio. He publishes libertarian authors such as Murray N. Rothbard, Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Carlo Lottieri, who argue that an armed citizenry is insurance against tyranny. A new book by Lottieri, Il pensiero libertario contemporaneo (Macerata: Liberilibri) offers a history of libertarian thought that explains that, without right to self-defense, there are no rights at all. Publisher Facco promises: "My intention is to promote pro-gun theories -and gun facts."
Even on the political side, something is developing. Prof. Antonio Martino of the Forza Italia movement (www.forza-italia.it) is a noted conservative who served as Foreign Minister in the first Berlusconi administration, in 1994. He has been appointed Defence Minister in the new Berlusconi government, and he endorses private gun ownership:
"Even though I am not armed, I strongly oppose the regulations in force, which disarm only honest citizens, not criminals. Such a near-prohibition on gun ownership is harmful and anti-liberty. It also is a good example of the damage caused by the idea of a 'crime of danger' - a victimless crime -- an idea which is a real aberration, but which is spreading and thus eating away our own liberties."
Prof. Martino is also a strong critic of militarization of law enforcement.
The Forza Italia has no official position on guns, and as Defense Minister, Prof. Martino plays no direct role in gun policy. But his statements help gun owners exit the ghetto in which statist culture has confined them.
Likewise the Lega Nord has no official position on guns, Cesare Galli, a member and prominent intellectual property lawyer, promoted a petition in his hometown of Brescia, to ask for stronger public safety measures, including the right of honest citizens to keep and bear arms:
"The right of the people to defend themselves should be granted; such a goal can be pursued only by giving them the opportunity to be armed. The government can't legitimately prevent people from owning firearms, leaving them therefore helpless in the face of criminals."
Another Lega Nord member, Giancarlo Pagliarini --member of Parliament and former Budget Minister -- often says that, "If one gets in other people's house without their consent, one is looking for a bullet."
Will Italy reform its statist, pro-criminal gun laws? That the question is even a subject of serious political debate is a measure for how much Berlusconi has changed the political dialogue.
Dave Kopel is research director of the Independence Institute. Carlo Stagnaro is a freelance journalist in Italy and coeditor of the libertarian review Enclave.