Much Ado About Guns

The opening of a new sporting goods store on the Mariahilferstrasse reveals the cultural rift over firearms in Austria

A minor kerfuffle ensued last week when customers at a new sports store at Gerngross shopping plaza on the Mariahilferstrasse spotted firearms on display. With the opening of XXL Sports and Outdoor April 1, shoppers checking out the hunting gear discovered knives and air rifles hanging on the wall, not far from the usual fishing poles, pitons and canoe paddles, according to the daily Die Presse. There were also more powerful weapons, in a separate room through adjoining glass doors.  

A flurry of phone calls lit up the screens of district leaders Markus Reiter (Green, 1070) and Markus Rumelhart (SPÖ, 1060), as at Die Presse itself. Both men issued statements of concern, emphasizing the welfare of any children who might see the weapons. Some customers seemed to think that the gun sales were illegal (which they aren’t), a spokesman for the store told METROPOLE, or that XXL Sports sells guns for sport or self-defense (which it doesn’t). As a matter of principle, the store emphasized, it carries “only traditional hunting weapons and equipment.”

The to-do exposed a particularly Austrian cultural rift. While many agree with Reiter that guns have “no business being in a publicly-accessible family shopping center,” Austrians make – and buy – large numbers of guns.

This is especially true in the small firearms market, a category that includes pistols, revolvers and many shotguns and rifles. The most famous manufacturer is Glock, in Deutsch Wagram, that according to Forbes, controls nearly 65% of the handgun market in the United States making it the U.S.’s largest supplier.

Globally, Austria is also a leading small arms exporter – ranked sixth after the U.S., Brazil, Italy, Germany and South Korea, according to the 2015 Small Arms Survey –  supplying police and security forces around the world. This country also leads in other categories of weapons and military equipment, as reported in Addendum’s “Rüstung für die Welt: Wen Österreich beliefert” (“Arms for the world: Whom Austria delivers to”).

Gun ownership in Austria is also high, with civilians owning over 2.5 million firearms (registered and illicit), according to the Survey, and GunPolicy.org reports that in 2015 some 15% of Austrian households owned at least one firearm.

All this affects safety, at least somewhat.  With the uptick in ownership, rates of gun homicides and suicides have also risen, a pattern that generally fluctuates with economic outlook, according to a 2018 report in Der Standard.  However, Austria has far lower levels of gun violence than ownership rates would suggest: While ranking 14th in civilian gun ownership worldwide, it ranks 65th in gun homicides.

The question is, why? While the exact drivers of gun violence are not known, most credit Austria’s overall levels of peace, prosperity and security. Austria is ranked the third most peaceful country in the world after Iceland and New Zealand, according to the Global Peace Index, based on indicators such as the perception of criminality, levels of crime, murder rates, and number of police. Austrians may have lots of guns, but they don’t use them to commit crimes.

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Naomi Hunt
Naomi Hunt is a managing editor at Metropole, with roots in the U.S. and Malaysia that have long been buried under Austrian soil. She previously served as a program manager at the International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID) and was a Senior Press Freedom Adviser at the International Press Institute (IPI).

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