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Czech Republic: Draft Law on Putting Rights of Gun Owners in Constitution

(Sept. 5, 2017) On June 28, 2017, the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Czech Parliament, passed a draft amendment to the Constitution that would place the right to own guns in the Constitution.  (Jacob Bojesson, Czech Republic Plans to Combat Terrorism by Arming Its Citizens, DAILY CALLER (June 29, 2017).)  According to the draft, “[t]his constitutional bill is in reaction to the recent increase of security threats, especially the danger of violent acts such as isolated terrorist  attacks … active attackers or other violent hybrid threats.”  (Id.)

According to the Czech Senate chairman Milan Stech, the Senate will not discuss the draft law before the October parliamentary elections.  (Zbranovou ustavni novelu asi Senat do snemovnich voleb neprojedna [The Constitutional Amendment on Firearms Will Not Be Discussed by the Senate by the Parliamentary Elections], CESKE NOVINY (Aug. 23, 2017).)

Background

The Czech Constitution currently states, “[s]tate bodies, bodies of self-governing territorial units, and natural and legal persons are obliged to participate in safeguarding the Czech Republic’s security.  The extent of this obligation, as well as further details, shall be provided for by statute.”  (Czech Republic’s Constitution of 1993 with Amendments Through 2013, Appendix B: Constitutional Act of 22 April 1998 No. 110/1998 Sb., on the Security of the Czech Republic, art. 3(2), CONSTITUTE PROJECT; Eugene Volokh, Czech Parliament’s Lower House Passes Right of Citizens to Keep and Bear Arms ‘to Participate in the Security of the Czech Republic,’ WASHINGTON POST (June 29, 2017).)  The proposed revision would add the new provision:

(3) Citizens of the Czech Republic have the right to acquire, hold, and carry weapons and ammunition for the fulfillment of the tasks mentioned in paragraph 2. This right may be restricted by law, and other conditions for its exercise may be laid down by law if necessary for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others, of public order and security, of life and health, or for the prevention of crime.  (Volokh, supra; Snemovni tisk 1021/0, cast c. 1/4, Novela ustav. z. o bezpecnosti Ceske republiky [House Print 1021/0, Part No. 1/4, Amendment on the Security of the Czech Republic], Chamber of Deputies Parliament of the Czech Republic website (click on Cely snemovni tisk to view pdf document).)

The draft legislation was supported by 139 of the 200 members of the House of Representatives and must be endorsed by the Senate before Czech President Milos Zeman can sign it into law.  (Bojesson, supra; Robert Muller, Czech Lower House Backs Putting Gun Rights in Constitution, REUTERS (June 28, 2017).)  The President, who had previously supported more gun restrictions in the country, is said to have “had a change of heart” following the series of terror attacks throughout Europe.  (Id.)  According to the Constitution, “[t]he concurrence of three-fifths of all Deputies and three-fifths of all Senators present is required for the adoption of [a] constitutional act … .  (Czech Republic’s Constitution of 1993 with Amendments Through 2013, art. 39(4).)

In the Czech Republic, which reportedly has about 800,000 legally held weapons in a population of over ten million, citizens are permitted to own guns, including semi-automatics, “if they have no criminal record, are deemed a ‘reliable character,’ are in good health and have passed theoretical and practical firearms tests.”  (Matthew Day, Czech Republic Fights EU over Plans to Tighten Gun Ownership Laws, TELEGRAPH (Aug. 10, 2017); Act on Firearms and Ammunition, as Amended, No. 119/2002 (as last amended by Act No. 167/2012 Coll.), Ministry of the Interior website (click on pdf and doc links below “Act on Firearms (in force from 1st July 2014)”.)

The EU Directive on Firearms

In December 2016, European Union parliamentary and Council negotiators reached provisional agreement on amending the Firearms Directive; on March 14, 2017, the EU parliament endorsed the proposed changes to tighten gun laws in response to a growing terrorist threat.  (Press Release, Parliament Approves Revised EU Gun Law to Close Security Loopholes (Mar. 14, 2017), European Parliament website; Bojesson, supra; Directive (EU) 2017/853 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 May 2017 Amending Council Directive 91/477/EEC on Control of the Acquisition and Possession of Weapons, 2017 O.J. (L137) 22, EUR-LEX.)

With a view to making it harder for terrorists to gain access to weapons, the amended Directive imposes tighter controls on blank-firing (“acoustic”) firearms and inadequately deactivated weapons, like those used in the 2015 Charlie Hebdo Paris terror attacks, by strengthening marking rules and requiring that deactivated guns be declared to national authorities; it also obliges EU Member States to have an appropriate monitoring system in place for the issuance or renewal of licenses and exchange of information.  (Parliament Approves Revised EU Gun Law to Close Security Loopholes, supra.)  In addition, the Directive tightens restrictions on ownership of semi-automatic weapons.  (Id.; Day, supra.)

Czech Republic and the EU Directive

The Czech Republic opposed the changes and took action by putting forward the constitutional bill.  In addition, on August 4, 2017, the country filed a lawsuit against the EU in the European Court of Justice in regard to the tightening of controls over gun ownership.  (Day, supra.)  Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec declared in a statement, “[s]uch a massive punishment of decent arms holders is unacceptable, because banning legally-held weapons has no connection with the fight against terrorism.”  He further termed the action “a nonsensical decision once again undermining people’s trust in the EU” and added that “implementing the directive could also have a negative impact on the internal security of the Czech Republic, because a large number of weapons could move to the black market.”  (Id.)  The government further claims that “many of the directive’s provisions are vague and unclear.”  (Id.; see also Czech Lower House Approves Gun Rights Constitutional Amendment, NRA-ILA (June 30, 2017).)

Reactions

The fate of the amendment is uncertain in the Senate, with some of the senators demanding its rejection; Stech said that the Senate is divided roughly in two among those in favor of and those opposed to the revision.  (Zbranovou ustavni novelu asi Senat do snemovnich voleb neprojedna, supra.)  He further commented that the Senate Constitutional and Legal Committee and the Defense and Security Committee had postponed consideration of the amendment and that its approval should also be preceded by a public hearing.  (Id.)

Critics of the amendment argue that any changes adopted will “never take effect” because EU directives overrule the proposed legislative amendment.  (Bojesson, supra.)  “Putting it in the constitution is therefore nonsense,” Member of Parliament Jan Farsky reportedly told Hospodarske Noviny (a Czech economic newspaper).  (Id.)