Letter from Prague

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To teach us how rotten capitalism was, the Communist authorities never failed to inform us about all shooting accidents in the west in which a madman shot dead a whole class and the pupils' teacher in addition. Such tragedies happen from time to time, but I remember how badly I felt and how I always asked myself - why do they allow so many people to carry a gun? Nowadays, a gun is considered as one of the freedoms one enjoys as a citizen of a democratic country, and so I did a little research about how easy - or difficult - it is to get a gun in the Czech Republic.

To teach us how rotten capitalism was, the Communist authorities never failed to inform us about all shooting accidents in the west in which a madman shot dead a whole class and the pupils' teacher in addition. Such tragedies happen from time to time, but I remember how badly I felt and how I always asked myself - why do they allow so many people to carry a gun? Nowadays, a gun is considered as one of the freedoms one enjoys as a citizen of a democratic country, and so I did a little research about how easy - or difficult - it is to get a gun in the Czech Republic.

Every Czech citizen from the age of 21 can apply for a gun license. He must have a clean police record and has to submit a certificate from his doctor that his physical and mental health will allow him to shoot. Then he proceeds to a commissioner where he undergoes tests in basic knowledge about weapons and takes shooting exams: the main requirement for him is to strike a target from a distance of 10 metres. Finally, he obtains a stamp from the police, but when the applicant has met all the aforementioned requirements, the police simply cannot say 'no'.

Some psychiatrists say that a person's motivation to obtain a gun is always a bit pathological. But only a small percentage of applicants undergo psychological tests. These are compulsory only for an applicant sent by his general practitioner who is aware of his patient's psychological problems.

While this whole procedure costs around a thousand and a half crowns, getting a gun is more expensive. They range in price from several thousand to up to a hundred thousand crowns. Naturally you can get a gun on the black market as well, and it might not be a hard job - some say if you are interested in getting one you can do so within an hour. But to own a gun illegally is a crime.

Last month the Senate approved a new law which is said to be more liberal than the previous one, because it reduces the role of the police in the process of getting a gun. Police officers had advocated a stricter version, but their calls were not heeded. What they resent most is the fact that the gun licence can be taken away only after repeated violation of the arms law - break the law only once and you do not lose your gun . So while in previous years the gun could be taken away from its owner who was fighting in a pub, now he has to do it at least twice before his gun can be taken away from him.

This sounds like a real nonsense to me. And all the more so when I read statistics which revealed that of 55 murders committed last year with a gun, 32 were committed by registered gun owners. When I think about what a real democracy is, the right to own a gun does not come to mind.