Illicit firearms trafficking

EMPACT Priority

Illicit firearms trafficking is one of the nine EMPACT priorities, Europol’s priority crime areas, under the 2013-2017 EU Policy Cycle.

Recent terrorist attacks in Europe have spurred initiatives to crack down on the illegal trade in firearms, a relatively small market under the control of organised criminal groups.

Organised criminal groups often rely on the availability of weapons to carry out their activities. However, the market for firearms in the EU remains modest in size. Trafficking occurs on a small scale, and the weapons trafficked are intended for either personal use or to meet specific orders.

Weapons trafficking is almost exclusively a supplementary rather than a primary source of income for the small number of organised criminal groups involved. Most groups enter the weapons-trafficking business through other criminal activity, which may offer contacts, knowledge of existing routes and infrastructure related to the smuggling of weapons.

The weapons and organised criminal groups involved in weapons trafficking primarily originate from the Western Balkans (the weapons will typically have been held illegally after recent conflicts in the area) and the former Soviet Union. Outlaw motorcycle gangs are also involved in the trafficking of weapons, and have opened chapters in the Western Balkans. Organised criminal groups use existing criminal routes to traffic weapons.

The main sources of illegal weapons are:

  • the reactivation of neutralised weapons;
  • burglaries and thefts;
  • the embezzlement of legal arms;
  • the selling of legal arms on the illegal market;
  • the reactivation of decommissioned army or police firearms;
  • the conversion of gas pistols.

The relatively high risks associated with weapons trafficking act as a disincentive for organised criminal groups. However, where demand exists, criminals will exploit vulnerabilities in legitimate supply chains to obtain weapons and ammunition.

A 2016 investigation by Italian law enforcement, in cooperation with Europol, underlined the latter’s importance as an intelligence provider and its capabilities in detecting connections between seemingly unconnected cases in France, Italy, Malta and Slovakia, with possible links to Egyptian migrant smuggling gangs.

Increasing cooperation

As noted above, illicit firearms trafficking is one of the nine EMPACT priorities, Europol’s priority crime areas, under the 2013–2017 EU Policy Cycle.

In 2014, Europol estimated that there are almost half a million lost or stolen firearms in the EU. In the same year, the agency opened a new operational Focal Point to support Member States in their fight against the trafficking of illicit firearms.

In the aftermath of the December 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, EU interior and justice ministers adopted the Paris Declaration, in which they committed to improving intelligence-sharing with a view to reducing in turn the supply of illegal firearms throughout Europe. Ministers invited the European Commission to propose ways to combat the illicit trafficking of firearms and, together with Europol, to enhance operational cooperation and the exchange of information.

Established in 2016, Europol’s European Counter-Terrorism Centre supports Member States in information-sharing and operational cooperation with regard to monitoring traffic in illegal firearms in the context of anti-terrorism.

In addition, Europol’s European Migrant Smuggling Centre is seeking to identify and analyse links between the facilitation of irregular migration and other crime areas, including firearms trafficking.