Turkey's deadly love affair with unlicensed guns

“Alistair would have turned 17 in January. He would be coming into adulthood; he would have been ready to leave high school. But he was denied of his life choices just because a man was carrying a gun,” said David Grimason, whose two-year-old son was shot dead in Turkey in 2003.

Alistair was sleeping peacefully in his stroller in a cafe in Foça, on the Aegean near the western city of Izmir.

“There was an argument at another table, and some guy started to fire randomly,” said  Grimason. At the time, Alistair was in Turkey with his Turkish mother, Özlem, visiting his grandparents while David was back in their home in Scotland. “We were just getting used to being parents,” he said.

Between January and September 2017, more than 1,500 people were killed by gun violence in Turkey according to The Hope Foundation, Turkey’s leading anti-gun organisation. It estimates there are around 25 million weapons in Turkey and that at least 85 percent of them are unlicensed. What is it even more worrying, The Hope Foundation said, is that there has been an increase of more than 3 percent in the use of firearms compared to 2016.

The data is gathered from the screening of local and national newspapers, but the methodology is contested by the authorities. The Interior Ministry also acknowledged that more than 87 percent of seized firearms were unlicensed.

“I didn’t know the scope of the situation back then. It’s something you don’t think about when you come from the UK, where gun crimes don’t happen often, and the gun ownership rate is low,” Grimason said.

After Alistair was killed, he and his then-wife, Özlem, did some research and realised that something needed to change. Grimason became an arms control advocate.  “Maybe all started out of anger,” he repeated several times during our conversation. “Maybe campaigning was something to focus on during our grief. I just hope it changed something,” he said. “I’m certain it did.”

The family started a petition for stricter gun laws in 2003. “Back then it wasn’t as easy as today, you couldn’t do it online, so we were just collecting signatures in a piece of paper to pass them on to the parliament,” he said. During the process, they realised that almost everybody had been affected, directly or indirectly, by gun violence in Turkey. “Everybody seemed to have a story,” he recalled.

“I remember a story that happened around Alistair’s death. A primary school teacher was waiting to check his lottery ticket, and the shopkeeper took long because he was busy with someone else. The teacher shot him just because he didn’t want to wait. That story got in my head not only because he was carrying a gun, but because that man was teaching children,” Grimason said.

He witnessed a similar situation at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Grimason was there with the BBC when two shop owners were arguing over whose turn it was to use the bathroom. “Someone was killed. An argument over a toilet … and somebody dies,” he said, shaking his head with disbelief.

Another case highlighted by the local media last month involved a 17-year-old girl who was killed by a stalker in Istanbul, with a rifle bought online. Around 60 percent of the femicide cases in Turkey involve a firearm.

Online gun selling is an open secret in Turkey, despite some regulation changes made recently. Gun sellers consulted during the writing of this story said it was no longer possible to buy guns online, with sellers fined 500 Turkish lira (less than $130) for each weapon sold.

But why is the number of guns increasing every year in Turkey?

Some say it is cultural; others argue there are security reasons. The Ankara-based Rights for Individual Armament and Defence group (BSSAH) believes that it is “the Turkish people’s natural right to be armed”, Refik Işık, a representative from the organisation, said that being armed is part of Turkish culture. “We established our country by force of arms. We liberated our lands with guns. We are ready to protect our loved ones, our country, our land, and our freedom because we are armed,” he said.

The group defends a reduction in the cost of gun ownership and an easier licensing procedure, which some parliamentary groups believe is already too permissive. Asked about gun violence statistics, Işık said: “Ninety percent of gun-related crimes in Turkey involve illegal guns … When you say ‘gun violence in Turkey', you should say ‘illegal gun violence,' because law-abiding citizens and their licensed guns are not part of violence,” he said.

“For me, guns don’t mean protection. For me, guns are chaos and death. The more guns there are, the more deaths will be,” said Grimason. “I think it is important to change the cultural belief that it is ‘manly’ to carry a weapon.”

The Hope Foundation believes that informing and raising awareness about the situation is key to shaping public opinion.

“We need to try to educate … Education is always the answer,” said Grimason. “But stricter laws are also needed.”

Last month, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) proposed the amendment of Law 2521 for unlicensed gun producers and dealers to be fined between 20,000 and 200,000 lira (around $5,000 -$50,000), after a study commissioned by the party showed that in the last 10 years 15,625 people were killed by guns in Turkey, and nearly 68,000 were wounded.

Although little progress has been made in this area, the government agrees that more restrictions are needed.

After the death of a 17-year-old student killed with a rifle bought online, Belma Satır, the head of the Committee on Petitions in the Turkish Parliament, and a member of the ruling party, told state-run Anadolu Agency that the current fine of 500 lira ($130) was not enough. She thinks sanctions should include prison or criminal charges.

The Hope Foundation agrees. “We want people to have difficulties in accessing guns so that the violence can be reduced. Legal arrangements are necessary,” it said.

Alistair’s case was widely covered by the media, both in Turkey and in Britain. “We decided to keep the case in the media for highlighting the issue. It was hard, very hard. But we knew that the media attention was important.” It still is.

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