Following a shooting spree on Saturday by a lone gunman which has so far cost the lives of seven people, questions are bound to be asked about how the killer, who reportedly used a fully automatic weapon, got his gun and ammo. Outside the military, nobody in the Netherlands is allowed to own or shoot an automatic weapon.
So what are the rules governing gun ownership in the Netherlands? Dutch gun laws are actually quite strict. Gun ownership is seen not as a right, but a privilege, with hunting and target shooting the only two legitimate reasons for owning a gun.
Self defence is not regarded as a valid argument for owning a gun, and only the police are allowed to carry a weapon. The main purpose of Dutch gun laws is to create a clear division between legal gun owners and people who use guns for criminal purposes. So far, the Dutch have been fairly successful in accomplishing this objective.
Aspiring sport shooters must join a gun club. Application for gun club membership involves a trial period, allowing the club to find out who they are dealing with, and a background check by the Justice ministry. A criminal record - particularly one involving violent incidents –would disqualify the applicant. Currently, there are about 42,000 gun owners registered with the Koninklijke Nederlandse Schutters Associatie (Royal Dutch Riflemen’s Association). All gun clubs are registered with the KNSA, which maintains close contact with the Justice ministry.
After one year of membership – during which period the new member can practice with guns owned by the club – members can apply for a gun permit and, if granted, purchase their first gun. After the second year of membership, gun owners can buy more guns, to a maximum of five. Guns and ammunition kept at home must be stored in separate strongboxes. The police regularly make house-calls to check whether the guns registered in a person’s name are actually in his possession and whether they are properly stored.
Members of shooting clubs are only allowed to own guns which are suitable for use in KNSA-approved shooting matches which, for instance, rules out short-barreled revolvers and all automatic weapons which are unsuited to competitive shooting. Also, gun owners can only legally transport their guns and/or ammunition either from their home to their gun club, to a licensed gunsmith, to the police station (for inspection) or to a shooting match they hold an invitation to. All of the above via the shortest possible route.
As gun ownership is regarded as a privilege, almost any violation of the gun laws will automatically lead to the shooter’s gun permit being revoked. Involvement in a violent incident, or even driving a car under the influence of alcohol, will also result in the permit being revoked.
Another category of gun ownership involves guns used for hunting. There are about 28,000 hunters in the Netherlands, who must take an extensive and quite expensive one-year training course to obtain their hunter’s diploma before they can apply for a hunting licence. This will only be granted if they can prove they actually have access to hunting grounds, which in the densely-populated Netherlands can prove quite difficult to find. Hunters are allowed to take their rifles out into the fields, but the rules regarding safe storage apply to all legal gun owners, and must regularly practice their shooting skills at a rifle range to avoid unnecessary suffering of their prey.
Of course, just like its neighbours, the Netherlands has a serious problem with illegal weapons, most of which are owned and used by criminals. Many of these illegal arms are alarm guns illegally converted to firearms. Reliable information on the number of illegal firearms in the Netherlands is – for obvious reasons – difficult to come by, but recent research suggests that each year thousands of illegal weapons are smuggled into the Netherlands.