Frontex Focus: Firearms smuggling

Weapons trafficking is a global threat that impacts society in multiple ways. It is a major security concerns and is thus central to law enforcement efforts and activities.

Firearms fuel armed conflicts and terrorism. The most common form of gun trafficking involves small arms and light weapons, but the trade varies significantly from region to region due to the various firearms legislation in different countries.

Illegal firearms enable other forms of crime by means of coercion and intimidation. Recent terrorist attacks in the EU, as well as accompanying seizures of firearms during various cross-border and inland operations, demonstrate the multidimensional and multi-criminal nature of this phenomenon.

In Europe, the predominant type of firearms smuggling is the so-called ‘ant trade’ (cross-border smuggling of relatively small numbers of firearms and ammunition mostly using passenger cars), carried out by both organised crime groups and individuals, and often originating from post-conflict countries. Other trends have been increasingly observed in recent years, including the smuggling of easy-to-convert blank firing weapons or the online purchase of gun parts and components, delivered by postal services.

In 2020, firearms smuggling was, like other fields of cross-border crime, affected by limited cross-border flows and changes in the intensity of checks. Most detections took place on entry, at land borders, in cars or hidden in travellers’ luggage. The majority of ammunition and weapons seizures hence were not related to large-scale trafficking.

With the limitation of non-essential movements and stricter controls, such incidents declined in 2020 – a side effect of the pandemic. Besides firearms and ammunition, seizures of cold arms, prohibited pepper sprays, electric shockers and other weapons were also frequently reported.

While significant amounts of firearms are usually trafficked by sea, only minor detections were reported in 2020. Moreover, seizures on international flights were limited, since the risk of detection of such weapons at airports is higher due to the use of metal detectors, x-rays and explosives trace-detection (for both passengers and their luggage).

The land borders with the Western Balkans, Ukraine, Moldova and Turkey remained the border sections most at risk from firearms smuggling. While increased seizures by national authorities in neighbouring post-crisis areas might indicate that the EU’s external borders are facing a greater threat, the same volume of smuggling could not be confirmed through detections at these borders.

The situation on the EU’s external borders is in line with the general global development. Several trends identified globally will pose challenges for border authorities. For example, the smuggling of firearms broken down into components is much harder to detect, and such smuggled special components and accessories can significantly alter the lethality and use of a firearm.

Smuggled components can also complete a set of 3D-printed parts. Shipping by fast parcels further adds to the problem. The WCO report for 2019 highlights that 82% of all detections made by customs officers were based on risk profiling, while routine controls accounted for around 15%, but generally led to larger volumes of seizures. Such conclusions once again underline the significance of cooperation with all EU and international partners, as well as with border guard and customs authorities, bridge existing information and intelligence gaps, and ensure an appropriate, com-prehensive and tailored response to transportation at the borders through detailed checks of travellers based on profiling.

Role of Frontex

To effectively fight against criminal networks, law enforcement officers need to constantly improve their skills and stay up-to-date with the latest information on the ways the criminals operate.

Frontex decided to help national border guard and customs authorities to fight arms-related crime and created the Handbook on Firearms for Border Guards and Customs Officers in cooperation with the border guard and customs community, as well as EU and international partners.

The handbook provides the latest information on firearms trafficking, tactics and equipment to be used during border checks. The initiative was supported and guided by the European Commission, Member States and a number of EU and international organisations. The handbook was developed under the umbrella of the European Multidisciplinary Platform against Criminal Threats (EMPACT).

More information on the handbook is available here. Source: Frontex Annual Risk Analysis for 2021