Finland: a nation armed to the teeth
By Tommi Nieminen
Retired Lieutenant.Colonel P.J. Virtanen leads the way deep into the bunker-like gun vault in the centre of Hamina. Behind an ordinary garage door, the way leads into the garage itself. From there he goes through another locked door, after which he opens a third door. It is about as thick as a family Bible, and a special key is needed to open the lock.
In the first vault there is a further locked door, leading to a hallway. There are four closets in the cellar filled with guns and gun parts: rifles, pistols, swords, locks, bolts, and barrels.
“Weapons need to be stored so that neither robbers or children can get to them”, Virtanen says.
He is a very pedantic man - a legal weapons dealer, as most weapons dealers are. The basic assumption is that about 95 per cent of the world’s arms trade is legal.
In addition to hunting and target practice weapons, Virtanen’s company PJ-Waffen-Guns sells old collectibles: Finnish, German, and Soviet rifles and pistols dating back to the Second World War. He has bought the weapons from the estates of war veterans, from auctions organised by the police and the Defence Forces, and from abroad.
“Handgun sales are over now”, Virtanen says. “After Kauhajoki I have sold one revolver and one pistol.”
Under pressure, the police have tightened the licencing process for guns. Petitions are being addressed to Parliament calling for a full ban on handguns.
Gun dealers, for their part, claim that a full ban would only increase the number of illegal weapons in Finland.
“They would be imported illegally, or they would be stolen”, says Virtanen. “A total ban would also mean massive losses for gun dealers.”
About 650,000 Finns have firearms permits. That is about one in eight of us. There are about 1.6 million registered guns. About 1.2 to 1.3 million of them are legal hunting weapons, and 200,000 - 300,000 of them are legal handguns. Then there are tens of thousands of other legal weapons.
That is quite a network of firearms. More than a million and a half guns in a country with a population of five million. When the network of guns is combined with the propensity to abuse intoxicants, with domestic violence, and with hopelessness among the marginalised, the result is headlines like these:
Herttoniemi shooter used military pistol (30.10), Head of family shoots mother, two children, and finally himself (19.10), Young man fires shots in Pudasjärvi (30.9.), Man accidentally shoots neighbour’s television (8.9.), Men with shotguns break into officer’s home at night (29.8.), Man shoots other man in foot with handgun in Vuosaari (24.8.) Bravado ends in shots fired in Kannelmäki (18.8.)
After the Kauhajoki tragedy, the top brass of the police have appeared to be split and confused, and no wonder. The police face a nearly impossible task in trying to control the sale, exchange, theft, and import of firearms.
Just keeping tabs on legal weapons is difficult for police, as about 60,000 - 70,000 weapons change owners legally in Finland each year.
Furthermore, the firearms register of the Ministry of the Interior is outdated. It is difficult for the police to get significant information quickly from there, as the firearms register is not linked with the criminal register, for instance.
The register also contains plenty of inaccurate information. Many mistakes were made in 1992, when information about Finland’s legal weapons was moved from paper cards into an electronic file, For instance, hundreds of thousands of wartime rifles used by the Civil Guard were registered according to the number of the model, and not by any individual serial numbers. Therefore, police are unable to trace individual weapons of the type.
“We have many Lugers in Finland, whose serial numbers are marked as 1916, 1917, or 1918, because that is what is written on the side of the weapon. The number is the year in which they were manufactured”, P.J. Virtanen says.
In his hand Virtanen holds a deactivated Thompson submachine gun. The gang of Chicago gangster boss Al Capone used such weapons to kill seven men on St. Valentines Day in 1929.
It is illegal to repair a deactivated weapon to render it useable again, without express permission.
The market in deactivated weapons is growing in Finland. Old submachine guns are bought as ornaments to hang on walls. Now police are worried that such unlicenced and unusable weapons are being restored to working order in illegal workshops.
“Those who do this commit an aggravated firearms crime”, Virtanen says.
Different estimates put the number of illegal weapons in Finland at between 20,000 and 100,000.
Typical unlawful firearms include individual sawn-off shotguns and handguns held by criminals, as well as unauthorised weapons inherited from deceased war veterans, which the soldiers brought back from the front.
There are also larger caches.
This year police found four hand grenades, four automatic weapons, four rifles, nine handguns, dozens of cans of mace, and a shotgun in the hiding place of one criminal group.
That is enough for a small insurrection.
On the kitchen table lies a jelly donut and a Glock pistol. Timo Huikkala, owner of the gun dealer Asetalo Oy, handles the Austrian weapon - the same kind that is used by police.
The place is the centre of the municipality of Virrat, at a shopping centre built in the 1970s.
Thousands of firearms pass through the premises of the somewhat inconspicuous weapons wholesaler. Huikkala imports them from the United States, Brazil, Central Europe, Bulgaria, and Russia.
They are sold to holders of gun licences - healthy or insane; who can tell just looking at a person’s face?
Huikkala has refused to sell a gun to a few licence holders who have appeared intoxicated. Now and then someone will ask about getting an undocumented weapon.
“To put it bluntly, here in Finland people can wait in trepidation to see when the next one will happen”, he says, on the subject of school shootings. “You can never tell what kind of a tool will be used. In Myyrmanni [a shopping mall in Vantaa where seven died in October 2002] it was a homemade bomb.”
The windows of the shop have bars and steel locks.
Alarm systems are state of the art.
Although weapons have been stolen from Huikkala only twice in the past 23 years, he knows from experience that no gun dealer is 100% inaccessible to the criminal element.
In 2002 at the Tampere Security Fair, a gun cabinet was stolen from him.
“It seemed to be a theft for hire. The guys came into the fairground at night, and took it, even though the organiser of the fair had arranged for guards. I believe that there were seven Glocks in the cabinet”, Huikkala says.
“Then once, a box of weapons that I had ordered from Germany had been opened from the corner, and a few guns were taken.”
Stealing a gun from a gun shop is difficult.
It is slightly easier at a firing range.
In early November a man of a foreign origin rented a .22 calibre handgun at a shooting range in the centre of Helsinki, fired some shots, after which he simply walked with it into the bustling street, without any interference.
A much greater problem than theft is the practice surrounding gun permits, says gun dealer Huikkala. ¨
He has a radical proposal: those applying for their first firearm permit should allow police to check their health records, including what medications they have been prescribed.
The police should also be given access to detailed information about the applicant from the Defence Forces, the Social Insurance Institution (KELA), and social welfare officials.
“It angers me that doctors oppose this by saying that they cannot predict anyone’s future on the basis of a 15-minute discussion”, Huikkala says.
“But it would be something if they told about the present, and a little bit about the background.”
Gun dealer P.J. Virtanen agrees . “Officials need to make sure that an applicant for a gun permit is not mentally unstable in any way. It needs to be done even at the expense of the right to privacy.”
Firearms permits have been mainly granted by the local police - an elder police constable who knows what is going on in the heads of the old men in the village. That will change when the division of the police into new jurisdictional districts takes effect next year.
“Previously, firearms permits here in Virrat were granted by the local police chief who knew the boys of the village. Next year, permit matters will be handled in Tampere”, Huikkala says.
A young gunsmith at Asetalo, Lassi Sipilä, takes handguns out of a cardboard box and places them on a table. They have been deactivated. They include an FN pistol, a Beretta, two Mausers, and a Steyr.
Onto another table he places a German wartime Steyr submachine gun, and a Russian PPS-41 submachine gun.
Deactivated guns can be bought without a firearms permit. Only cash is exchanged. They are not registered anywhere, so police are not able to monitor the movements.
Sipilä shows how the Mauser has been deactivated . The process involves drilling a hole through the barrel, and welding a tempered steel plug into that hole. The tip of the hammer has also been shortened.
If the granting of gun permits is made more difficult, trade in unlicenced guns is likely to increase.
More deactivated weapons are likely to be repaired in clandestine workshops.
The regulations on gun deactivation are fairly lenient in Finland. In Germany, for instance, the barrel needs to be nearly welded shut, and even then, the gun is kept in the firearms register.
Huikkala says that Finland should also make deactivated guns subject to a licence, or require that they be registered.
But how easy is it to restore a deactivated gun? Can it be done in an ordinary home workshop?
“It cannot be done without special tools and skills”, says gunsmith Sipilä. “A grinder, a lathe and a welding machine are needed.”
Rumours about clandestine gun workshops are frequent. Police have uncovered some of them. In Iisalmi a number of men were sentenced to prison in 2006 after they had restored at least 50 pistols and revolvers, two Suomi submachine guns, a Jatimatic submachine gun and an assault rifle.
The weapons were resold.
One of them was used in a case of indiscriminate shooting on the main square of Iisalmi. In that incident, a bystander was injured in the foot.
These do-it-yourself gunsmiths certainly do not want for professional pride, at least on Internet message boards:
“It’s ridiculous to claim that a tempered plug cannot be drilled out ... Really, nowadays almost any machine shop has hard metal bits in use.”
In 2004 instructions were found on one message board on how a deactivated Suomi submachine gun could be reactivated. The writer of the instructions claimed to be a regional leader of the nationalist Suomen Sisu organisation.
The most famous shady gun deal in recent Finnish history was the Lahti pistol case.
In April 2002 and May 2003 the Defence Forces auctioned off massive amounts of gun parts. A group of gun merchants and gunsmiths in the west of Finland acquired a total of 2,350 gun parts.
One gunsmith from Nivala, who did not have a licence to manufacture weapons, assembled a total of 106 Lahti pistols, five M/39 rifles, and 12 Suomi submachine guns.
Four of the submachine guns were built for sustained fire, which made them especially illegal.
The weapons were resold.
The dealer was sentenced to a year and a half in prison for a firearms violation, fraud by a debtor, and embezzlement. The gunsmith got a ten-month suspended sentence for a firearms violation and an explosives violation.
Gun dealer Virtanen is angered by the case. He is especially upset that guns that had been originally bought from him were involved in the mess. Virtanen did not violate any laws. He testified in court that the gun dealer who was sentenced should have had the safety of the weapons that he had bought from Virtanen checked before selling them on.
“I was criticised within the business. Runo K. Kurko screamed at me, saying that there is no need to inspect the weapons”, Virtanen says.
Kurko is a former gun dealer, and something of a grand old man of Finnish gun hobbyists.
He is also the chairman of the Finnish National Rifle Association, and subscribes to the notion that as unrestrictive a gun law as possible is the best guarantee of safety.
In March, a Finnish gun dealer got a fax offering a container full of deactivated weapons from Norway for sale.
The guns included weapons that had been used by the army of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Red Army in the Second World War.
They comprised rifles, automatic weapons, pistols, and revolvers.
Later it came out that the case might be linked with a trial in which a Norwegian businessman was charged with importing 1,200 guns from Ukraine. The weapons had been delivered by Ukrinmash, a large gun shop in Kiev.
Old guns flow into the EU countries from the east, because large caches of weapons were left over from the Red Army in places such as Ukraine and Transdnistria, the rebellious region of Moldova, whose economy is largely dependent on smuggling.
Guns from these areas come all the way to Finland - some of them illegally.
The route taken by the weapons goes first from Ukraine and Transdnistria to Bulgaria and Romania, both EU countries. They are often imported in a deactivated state, and are restored to working order within the EU.
It is easy to transport them within the EU, because in official papers they are classified as deactivated weapons - essentially scrap metal.
Old East German ammunition also reaches Finland, and some apparently finds its way onto the grey market.
One way that this happens is that a group of about 20 Finnish gun hobbyists will place a joint order for 100,000 - 200,000 rounds, and acquire an import licence for the purpose of target shooting. After that, the ammunition is sold illegally on the Internet, or from the back of a van at gun shows.
The four wars in the Balkans that took place in the early 1990s are also reflected in the firearms market in the EU. Especially in Serbia and Croatia, assembly lines churned out copies of well-known models. When the wars came to an end, the armouries were sold off.
Soon they began to show up in Finland as well, both legally and illegally.
Hand grenades, apparently dating back to the wars in the Balkans, were found in the possession of a Finnish criminal group known as the Bat Club; the name refers to a small tattoo between the members’ fingers.
“I cannot say how many weapons have come from the Balkans to Finland”, says Virtanen. “But imagine how many weapons were acquired as spoils of war from the Soviet Union - Tokarevs, Nagants. It was one of those that a pensioner recently used to shoot his wife and children.”
Virtanen shows a Nagant revolver. In June this year an 88-year-old veteran used one of them to shoot his wife, two mentally disabled children, and himself.
The drawers and cabinets of relatives of war veterans hold many such weapons.
The Internet is the biggest gun store in Finland. Weapons on offer ranging from basic shotguns to rare collectors’ items are sold online among childrens’ clothing and kitchen utensils.
Professionals in the business can also be found online.
I sent an e-mail to a few gunsmiths. I identified myself as a gun hobbyist from Lappeenranta, and asked about the possibility of restoring a deactivated Suomi submachine gun.
One of the gunsmiths said that the price would depend on how it was deactivated.
There was no question about permits, but he said that because of a backlog of orders, he would not be able to accept the project for another six months. Another gunsmith asked about a permit in his first e-mail. When I asked about the possibility of fixing the weapon without a licence, he said that it would not be possible.
I then look into whether or not it would be possible to buy an unlicenced weapon through online sales sites maintained by gun hobbyists, and on the Huuto.net auction site, as those sites are used by rather large dealers as well.
One seller, using a pseudonym, is selling a total of 66 old weapons, some of which do not require permits.
The dealers whom I ask require a firearms permit. This means that to get an illegal weapon, it is necessary to make enquiries on the street.
I call an old acquaintance in Helsinki who knows people in the business. He calls a man in Helsinki, after which we sit in a beer bar in Sörnäinen. The man, who has a familiar face, is serving a suspended prison sentence. I ask about the possibility of buying an illegal weapon.
“One guy I know in Punavuori has had a piece available since the summer”, he says.
He says that he can get the gun in a few days. I just have to put EUR 800 on the table to get a Luger. The price is high.
“Naturally, I get some of it”, he says.
From what the man in Sörnäinen says it appears that the deal would be a complicated one.
I would probably have to be on guard for several days, make strange phone calls, agree on meeting places and buy beer for people, and it can be that even after that mess, I could end up a man without a gun.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 16.11.2008
Previously in HS International Edition:
Prime Minister open to ban on private possession of handguns (24.9.2008)
Eleven die in shooting bloodbath (24.9.2008)
Interior Minister would compromise on data protection for gun licence applicants (11.11.2008)
Medical certificate requirement slows handgun sales (31.10.2008)
No indication that police action prompted Saari to move up Kauhajoki attack (29.9.2008)
TOMMI NIEMINEN / Helsingin Sanomat