As confidence in law enforcement diminishes, concerns about personal weapons are increasing

“When I started believing polarisation in this country would lead to civil war, I decided to buy a gun,” a Turkish business owner said.

“There are a lot of people in this country who are stockpiling weapons. If one side has all the weapons, you should too. You have to be able to protect yourself in any situation,” a banker said.

Then there is a top-level government official who said: “I don’t want to be a gun owner, but people are arming themselves.”

The view they all share is that they no longer feel safe in Turkey.

The banker said he bought a gun because he could hear shooting every night around his house and found shell casings in his garden. He did not want to find himself unarmed when so many people have guns.

The government official said: “If nobody had guns, then no one would want to own a gun, but unfortunately, people don’t value human life.”

In 2017, during the state of emergency following the 2016 failed coup, the government issued a decree that gave legal immunity to civilians who take action against terrorism or attempts to overthrow the government.

The business owner said this decree felt like a threat because it opened the way for pro-government militia to take to the streets without fear of reprisal. When he read the decree, he thought the ruling party was making preparations to allow vigilante groups to murder dissidents with impunity. Although he has no interest in guns and does not even like them, he bought one a couple of months after the decree.

“I think a good-sized portion of society doesn’t feel safe. The number of people applying for emigration visas after the coup attempt shows this. Most people I know believe that a personal weapon is necessary now. They just want to protect themselves and their families.”

There is currently an initiative to protect people’s right own personal weapons. Refik Işık, the founder of the movement, said they want all civilians to be able to defend themselves and their loved ones. He believes personal weapons are also an integral part of protecting the nation.

“Of course we would never hope for this, but if there’s ever a war, citizens who know how to use guns can protect the country. Because guns need to be licensed, it’s almost impossible to use them to commit crimes - someone with a registered gun isn’t going to go and break the law with it. Most gun crimes are committed with unlicensed weapons,” Işık said.

It is relatively easy to get a gun license in Turkey. The only requirements are Turkish citizenship, a health report, six photos, and a document showing no taxes are owed. Gun sales in Turkey are monitored by the Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation, which also manufactures weapons for the Turkish military. It does not disclose gun sales figures.

As for blank-firing guns and hunting rifles, one place to buy these legally is in Istanbul’s Eminönü district. Şükrü Güçlü, a salesman at one of these shops, described his customers as being mostly over 30, from every type of profession. They are mentally fit because they need a health report to buy a rifle. Some want guns for hunting, while others want them for security. He also said shooting is becoming popular pastime with people going to shooting ranges or outside town to blow off steam.

“Some people have tried to buy guns from the Internet,” he said. “But if that’s what they’re trying to do, then there’s something wrong with them.” He said it was easy to buy guns from the Internet, but thinks it should be more difficult. “The government has been working on this for a year or two, and they’ve done a lot to prevent it. People come to the shop saying, ‘we can’t get a gun from the Internet, can we get one here?’, but of course we don’t sell to them if they don’t have the necessary papers.”

The Umut Foundation is an organisation that has been fighting against personal gun ownership for years. Ayhan Akcan, a psychiatrist who sits on its board of directors, does not have any statistics about personal gun ownership. He recalled the police saying in 2017 that there was no increase in people owning weapons, but part of his job with the foundation is to comb through newspapers looking for stories on gun violence.

“We publish a violence map. We go through 2,500 cases each year, and we’ve found around 1,700 murders that were committed with guns. When we compared 2016, 2017, and 2018, we found that there has been a 3 to 5 percent increase each year. Guns are now used in approximately 60 to 70 percent of crimes, so from that, we can understand there are more people with guns. It’s possible they’re illegal guns, but we have no record of that.”

Akcan believes it is a matter of safety. “People are overwhelmed,” he said. “There are serious economic problems, and people get guns to feel safe, to protect themselves and their property. Except this is totally impractical. Guns don’t protect people. If you have a gun, you’re basically inviting violence. Your risk of killing someone or getting killed is five to six times higher. This is what the science tells us.”

Akcan thinks it is much too easy to get a gun license, and believes training and government supervision should be required.  

“Everything is changing so quickly in our country. There’s violence, terrorism, and some very serious social issues, so unfortunately, people feel less safe. We need to pressure police and soldiers to protect us. Everyone arming themselves is not the answer. You can’t operate on the logic of fear, or else anarchy and chaos will be the result.”