Italy Has a Gun Culture but No Mass Shootings—Here’s Why
Italians own an estimated 8.6 million guns, but we've never had a single school shooting. Not one.
I was born and raised in the United States, then moved to Italy in 2009, when I was in my early 40s. In the 12 years since, there have been 246 mass shootings in the U.S. (as of March 26, 2021 and defining a mass shooting as an event where four or more people, not including the shooter, were shot and killed). A total of 1,401 people lost their lives, and close to 1,000 people were shot and wounded. In Italy, during that same 12-year period, there was one attempted mass shooting—a racially motivated drive-by incident that targeted a group of six African immigrants in 2018. It was terrible for sure, but fortunately, there were no fatalities.
That’s not to say that Italy doesn’t have a gun culture; it does. Because so much of the country remains rural, it’s a nation of avid hunters. While exact numbers are hard to come by, in 2017 there were an estimated 8.6 million guns in Italy or 14.4 guns for every 100 people per the Small Arms Survey. (In contrast, there are an estimated 120.5 guns for every 100 people in the US.) While an increasing number of guns in Italy are owned for self-defense—government data shows that permits for these types of guns increased by 50 percent from 2014 to 2019—many are used for hunting or shooting sports. We see the same movies and TV programs from the U.S. that show murders and gun violence as a routine part of life, and little kids play with toy guns, just like they do in the States. Yet we don’t have mass shootings, and we’ve never had a school shooting—ever.
A look at Italy’s gun laws goes a long way toward explaining why the country has been able to avoid the mass shooting tragedies that afflict the U.S.
Who can own a gun in Italy?
Anyone over 18 can own a gun in Italy, as long as they meet certain criteria. They have to apply for a firearms license, take a firearms safety course at a gun range, and have no criminal record. Their physician has to sign a certificate affirming that the potential gun owner does not suffer from drug addiction or mental health issues. These rules also apply if you inherit or are otherwise gifted a gun.
After that, new gun owners must register the firearm with their local police station within 72 hours of taking possession of it. If gun owners sell or give a gun to someone else, they too have to notify local authorities within 72 hours of the gun leaving their hands. To carry the gun outside your home you need either a hunting license or a sporting license (to take the gun to a shooting range), and you can have the gun in your vehicle or on your person only when you are engaged in or en route to or from one of those activities.
Concealed carry permits exist in Italy but are very difficult to obtain. You have to prove that your line of work puts you at enough risk that you need to carry a concealed weapon for your own safety. And this license has to be renewed every year.
Compare that to the United States, where specific gun laws vary by state; in Texas, one of the states with less stringent restrictions, there’s no state registry of guns, meaning you don’t need to register your gun if you inherit it; there’s no background check required with private sales; and gun owners do not need a license to carry a rifle openly.
Who is restricted from gun ownership in Italy?
While persons 18 and up who are not convicted criminals can apply for a gun purchase permit and usually obtain one, any red flags in their behavior could result in their firearms being seized by local authorities. For example, I know of two separate incidents where individuals in my town verbally or physically threatened others. When the carabinieri (local police) were alerted to these threats, they contacted the individuals and ordered them to come to the police station and turn over their weapons. (The police knew which weapons they owned because they were registered.) In both cases, the individuals peacefully surrendered their guns rather than risk arrest. At least a year passed before they were able to reclaim their weapons, and they did so only after they received a doctor’s certificate attesting to their mental stability.
What types of guns are legal in Italy?
The following “common” firearms are legal and closely regulated in Italy:
- handguns (including semi-automatic)
- sports shooting guns, such as skeet shotguns
- hunting rifles and shotguns (including semi-automatic)
- antique or historical firearms and single-shot muzzle-loader replicas
- low-muzzle energy airguns
In a large number of the U.S.’s mass shootings, the perpetrator used an AR-15 or similar semi-automatic rifle. Nine states and the District of Columbia have bans or restrictions on assault-style weapons; they are legal in the remaining 41 states. Assault weapons are not legal in Italy, nor are any fully automatic rifles or handguns. Noise suppressors, or silencers, are also illegal, along with any kind of military or police-grade weapons.
No right to bear arms
The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the right to bear arms, is a well-established point of debate when it comes to introducing new gun laws in the U.S. Here in Italy, no such law or amendment exists and never has, though the Republic of Italy’s constitution only dates back to 1948. That’s one of the reasons why gun laws that might seem restrictive to U.S. gun advocates are taken in much more in stride here.
A social safety net
After 12 years of living in Italy, I can definitely say that the country has its flaws. But one thing Italy has going for it is a fairly broad and dense social safety net, which takes care of its most vulnerable citizens. We have a national healthcare system that, while imperfect, ensures that people receive medical attention, including for mental health disorders and needed medications—largely free of charge. (Critics of universal healthcare will argue that we pay higher taxes, and we do. But we don’t pay for private health insurance, and no one sacrifices treatment, loses their home, or goes bankrupt because they can’t pay their medical bills.)
Studies have established a link between social welfare programs and reductions in violence, perhaps because when people’s most basic needs of shelter, healthcare, and sustenance are met, they are less prone to violence. In Italy, the national healthcare system—combined with rigid protocols for gun ownership—make it less likely that violent or mentally disturbed people will fall through the cracks or get their hands on guns.
Italy is not without violence
It would be inaccurate to paint a picture of Italy as free of violence. Home invasions, auto theft, and other robberies all happen here, as do rape and murder, though at rates far lower than in the U.S. Organized crime is alive and well here, and there are active black markets for firearms, weapons, drugs, and human trafficking. Post–World War II, multiple-victim massacres in Italy have been the work of terrorists or Mafia, and bombs, rather than guns, have most often been their weapon of choice. With some exceptions, targets were political or military, or were players in internecine Mafia wars. But on a day-to-day basis, Italians do not live in fear of gun violence. Every time we send our kids to school, to a sporting event, or to a shopping mall, we don’t worry that a shooter might strike.
Could it happen here? Anything is possible. But gun laws, a social welfare system, and a different national mentality with regard to gun ownership mean that for now, it’s a lot less likely.
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