The Flemish Peace Institute is an independent
institute for peace research at the Flemish Parliament.

Illicit firearms trafficking in Europe during and after COVID-19


The current health crisis and its societal consequences will increase the opportunities for illicit firearms trafficking into and within Europe. A proactive approach focused on international cooperation is needed in the EU to tackle this threat.

Flexible, adaptive and used to uncertainty: by nature, organized crime groups seem well equipped to deal with and even benefit from the current health crisis. At present, most attention is paid to high profile shifts of criminal activity, particularly towards procuring and selling much-needed medical equipment such as mouth masks. With the public limelight on new developments, few thoughts have been put into exploring the impact of this crisis on illicit firearms trafficking in Europe. Having always been more of a crime enabler, rather than a core business of most outfits in Europe, illicit firearms are often not prioritized, despite of their often inglorious role in providing criminals or terrorists the tool to forcefully exercise their will, hurt or even take human lives. The Illegal trade of firearms on the old continent is a multi-layered problem and involves various supply chains and perpetrators. A main type of trafficking involves the so called “ant trade”: cross-border smuggling of relatively small numbers of firearms and ammunition which are generally hidden in vehicles and often transported together with other illicit goods such as drugs. Firearms transported this way often originate from post-conflict countries, nowadays especially in the Western Balkans, and are smuggled by both organised crime groups as well as opportunistic individuals. Yet, also many other types of trafficking have been observed in Europe in recent years. For example, the trafficking of deactivated firearms and easy-to-convert blank firing weapons, the illicit conversion of such weapons and the online purchase of gun parts and components which are delivered by fast parcel and postal services. In addition, several types of domestic diversion have been observed, including firearms thefts from a variety of legal gun owners and government stockpiles. Once diverted or trafficked into a country illicit weapons generally end up on local criminal markets where they are delivered to or purchased by criminals and even terrorists. If and how the current pandemic will impact illicit firearm flow in the short and long rung is thus not an abstract question for law enforcement experts, but one which concerns the safety and nonviolent co-existence of European citizens.

What do we know from previous crises?

We do not walk on unknown roads when analysing the impact of crises on firearms trafficking. The financial turmoil that started in 2007/8 for example fortified the importance of the illicit trafficking route connecting the Western Balkans with the rest of Europe. Many citizens in this region still possess firearms that were diverted from government stockpiles or smuggled into the country during the independentist wars which raged in the former Yugoslav republics in the 1990s. Up till the financial crisis however, civilians had mostly held onto their  weapons for reasons of personal attachment, due to the financial investment they had made into firearms during the war, and for reasons of personal security. Trafficking of these ‘conflict legacy weapons’ to criminals in the rest of Europe already occurred before 2008, but at lower levels then today.  In a deteriorating economic situation, pressure rose on private citizens to sell valuable items to get by financially. This way the crisis triggered the activation of a formerly (largely) dormant supply of civilian held military grade firearms, which then began to spread from hidden attics in South-Eastern Europe to respond to criminal demand across the European Union. Albeit being the most prominent example, this problem was not confined to the Western-Balkans: In Spain, also hard hit by the financial crises of 2007-2008, some firearms collectors were caught selling illegally acquired weapons to middlemen with criminal ties as a resort to cope with economic troubles. Similarly, German firearms experts, for example, were already concerned before the current pandemic, that difficult economic circumstances for small and mid-sized firearms dealers might drive some of them to sell firearms under the counter. To make a long story short: the financial crisis has shown us that the diversion of firearms into the criminal sphere is more likely during times of economic hardship than it would be under normal circumstances.

What is Covid-19’s current impact on illicit firearms trafficking in Europe?

Realtime evaluation of crises is a communicative paradox, especially in policy relevant areas such as illicit firearms trade. On the one hand, it is important to give clear assessments, on the other hand it is necessary to highlight the underlying uncertainties and the dynamically unfolding knowledge that a crisis implies. Armed with this awareness: what do we know, and what can be reasonably assumed about Covid-19’s impact on firearms trafficking? We believe this crisis might boost demand for firearms, increase opportunities of diversion, influence the dynamics of trafficking, and put a strain on effective detection and investigation of illicit trafficking of firearms and ammunition.

Crises provide fertile ground for uncertainty and fear to grow, which, in turn, cultivate a desire for security.  For some, this means a deep felt need for physical security, coupled with a muddled longing for self-protection. With upticks of (legal) gun sales in countries such as the US, and Hungary following the announcement of the recent Covid-19 measures, symptoms of such desire can arguably already be observed. Similar increases in demand for firearms were also noticeable as a reaction to the ‘migrant crisis’ a few years ago.  Such demand can turn to illegal sources quickly, as illegal purchases of guns shooting high velocity rubber projectiles in Germany have shown. These arms were sold through an anti-migrant website during the refugee crises. In other words, given strict legislation on legal gun ownership in the European Union demand for self-protection may potentially also extent to illegal live-firing firearms. Furthermore, according to a recent Europol report, the European drug trade is likely to undergo increased volatility, competition and violence in the post pandemic period. Since criminals involved in the drug business are often those most heavily armed, a growing demand for firearms can also be expected on that front.

On the supply side it can be expected that economic difficulties will inevitably follow the current health crises in many EU countries. This increases the risk that firearms held by civilians — legally, or illegally — will be sold into criminal circles, in order to cope economically, as examples from the financial crisis have shown. Also the safety and security arrangements for government stockpiles of firearms and ammunition could suffer as a result of staff shortage during the COVID-19 measures. More firearms could thus potentially end up on illicit gun markets across Europe. Places where individual financial hardship meets criminal purchasing power are often to be found online. One pre-pandemic example from Spain are second hand websites where allegedly deactivated weapons are offered by citizens, which are then purchased by knowledgeable illegal arms dealers. These dealers often recognize from uploaded images that these weapons are still fully functioning and are not deactivated as advertised.

Most of the cross-border illicit firearms trafficking in Europe, however, involves the afore mentioned physical transport of weapons by individual perpetrators by car. Upon arrival at the destination country, firearms are usually handed over to a local criminal armourer who then completes the transaction with a customer in face-to-face meetings. The limited movement of ordinary passengers caused by the current strict border controls, will largely restrict the use of this so called “ant-trade” smuggling model. Also, face-to-face transfers of firearms within countries have become more difficult in some member states, due to temporary restrictions of outdoor activities. These restrictions of common criminal modus operandi may lead to a re-orientation of logistical chains for delivering illegal guns to some extent. With the temporary closure of various types of shops, online sales are currently thriving. We believe this also provides criminals with additional opportunities for trafficking weapons as it reinforces the previously observed trend of illicit online trade of firearms in Europe. This type of trafficking is strongly connected to the lack of a harmonised legal framework between different EU member states, implying that  criminals are purchasing blank-firing guns, Flobert firearms or gun parts online in countries where they can be acquired legally, without a prior authorisation. These weapons are then generally shipped by fast parcel or postal packages to the homes of customers in countries where such weapons are illegal. Once delivered these firearms can often easily be converted into live-firing firearms or the separately delivered parts can be assembled into fully functioning weapons. The online trafficking of firearms also involves dark web transactions that are the result of connections made in online communities such as ‘private’ fakebook groups used by persons interested in firearms or in other online fora used by leisure time collectors. In short: the crisis has the potential to create more links between ordinary citizens and criminals and threatens to boost online firearms trafficking, a trend which could erode the boundaries of traditionally closed criminal firearm markets. Monitoring illicit online transactions as well as the detection of firearms, ammunition and firearm components in postal packages is notoriously difficult. This potential evolution may thus make it more difficult for law enforcement agencies to combat illicit firearms trafficking effectively.

Next to demand and supply mechanism of firearms, the capacities of law enforcement agencies are also affected by the current circumstances. Combatting illicit firearms trafficking was already not a priority in many countries before the Covid-19 measures and this is not likely to change in the coming months. Where possible, police work is currently done from home, and shifted online in many countries according to a recent Europol report. This entails well known challenges of coordination, technical difficulties and learning new forms of communication also presently experienced by many other economic and public sectors. Moreover, sick leave,  quarantine, but also absenteeism due to fear of infections have the potential of lowering the availability of police officers: a challenge in times when the police is temporarily tasked to control compliance with lockdown rules in many countries. For criminal investigations including those working on illicit firearms trafficking, this means that investigations may be put on hold or are slowed. Investigative work, may further be hindered by more structural challenges of digitalizing documentation and decision making in the justice sector.

How can we think about illicit firearms trafficking in Europe after Covid-19 pandemic?

Nobody knows when the current crisis situation will end. The length of preventive measures (lockdown, closed borders, social distancing) will also determine to what extent illicit firearms trafficking will adapt, and how enduring this change might be. In spite of this uncertainty some trends seem likely. Firstly, the current health crisis is probably followed by a sustained economic crisis. This has the potential to re-enforce the described transfer of civilian owned firearms into criminal hands. Vice versa, desires for physical security and self-defence might not disappear, when worries about health give way to economic uncertainties and financial worries, driving up civilian firearms demand. In contrast, after the crisis, traffickers can again rely on cross-border smuggling, complemented by improved methods of illicit postal trade, which are increasingly being tested and perfected during the crisis. As long as there are significant differences between the national legal frameworks for gun control in Europe, this phenomenon of online trafficking with postal deliveries will continue to exist and fuel illicit gun markets across Europe. The impact on law enforcement activities is hard to predict. If the 2008 financial crisis is any indication, then cuts in public budget to alleviate inflated public debts, may affect the police and justice sector across the EU, which in turn may affect lesser prioritized security subjects such as illicit firearms. Moreover, new responsibilities such as an expected rise in trading of counterfeit medical products such as vaccines will provide new challenges.

In conclusion: Even with all the uncertainty surrounding the current health and expected ensuing economic crises, we anticipate that international firearms trafficking in Europe will not be fundamentally changed. That said, we believe that civilian demand for illicit firearms and opportunities for diversion will increase and that trafficking methods such as illicit online transaction followed by postal deliveries will be strengthened. At the same time pressure on law enforcement agencies to adapt to these changes will increase during a period where budget cuts in the public sector are likely. We also expect that the described developments will take distinct shapes in different EU members states, depending on their particular problems with firearms trafficking and their capabilities to deal with them. However, a European response to illicit firearms has been developing over the last decades, for example as part of EU legislation and knowledge exchange and transfer between European law enforcement agencies. More and closer cooperation will be needed to pool expertise and tackle an inherently borderless phenomenon such as illicit trade in guns in times of crisis and beyond.

Matteo Dressler and Nils Duquet