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Medvedev orders curb on 'rubber bullet' guns

President moves to control the sale of supposedly non-lethal firearms as Russians arm themselves for their own protection.

MOSCOW // It was a fender-bender that might have ended with nothing more than a few angry words, or perhaps fisticuffs and a few bruises. Then the gun appeared.  A snowplough had rammed the Nissan Mistral that Police Lt Anatoly Maurin was driving in southern Moscow in December. During the ensuing argument, Lt Maurin pulled out a pistol and fired a shot at the leg of the snowplough driver, Vladimir Demidov, investigators say.

The pistol Lt Maurin used is a ubiquitous self-defence weapon in Russia: a gas gun that fires rubber bullets and is meant to stun attackers, not kill them. The bullet, however, struck an artery in the driver's leg. Lt Maurin drove off, and Mr Demidov bled to death at the scene, according to investigators. The tragedy has cast the spotlight once again on police abuses in Russia. But it was also just one of many violent incidents in recent months involving rubber pellet guns that have Russia's top officials calling for efforts to stem the proliferation of these supposedly non-lethal weapons.

Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, has ordered his interior minister to hammer out tougher restrictions for the sale and registration of rubber bullet guns, saying they are being trafficked "without any sort of control". "A person's passport information is jotted down, and what happens with this pistol after that - where it's used and with what consequences - no one knows," Mr Medvedev said. Increasing numbers of Russians are purchasing gas and rubber pellet guns, officials and gun enthusiasts say. Many gun-rights activists here say the police force is so corrupt and indifferent that citizens must have options to provide for their own safety.

There are about 1.5 million rubber bullet guns registered to 1.3m owners in Russia, Vladimir Vedenov, the head of the interior ministry department responsible for licensing weapons, told a news conference last week.  About 21,000 rubber bullet guns were legally purchased in Moscow last year alone, up from an average of between 15,000 and 18,000 in previous years, according to Moscow police. Of the 547,000 legal guns registered in Moscow, half are rubber bullet guns, police say.

Mr Vedenov said last Wednesday that the interior ministry would ask Russian lawmakers to draft a bill establishing stricter rules for purchasing and registering rubber bullet guns, to make them no different than regular firearms from a legal perspective. Critics of the initiative say the proposed legislation would be largely superfluous, as background checks and medical and psychological evaluations are already required to purchase hunting rifles and rubber pellet guns alike.

And these prerequisites are easy to skirt, said Alex, 28, a Moscow gun owner who spoke on condition that only his first name be used. Money is the only requirement. Alex said he purchased the required paperwork from a company operating in the heart of Moscow before buying a popular rubber bullet gun known as a "Makarych" two years ago. After paying the fee, he was given the once-over by several doctors and sent on his way with the approved background check and medical examinations. 

"The only one who even pretended to examine me was the psychiatrist," Alex said. "None of the other ones even looked at me." Any measures aimed at tighter regulations for gun owners will merely result in more bureaucracy and a higher price for the necessary paperwork, Alex said. "Everything is negotiable," he said. Regulating rubber bullet guns is necessary, but the key is to avoid extremes, said Sergei Zainullin, the deputy head of the All-Russian Society of Civilian Gun Owners, a non-governmental advocacy group.

"They shouldn't be completely unregulated," Mr Zainullin said. "You can't just scrap licensing altogether. But there shouldn't be increased administrative barriers either." Mr Vedenov also proposed making a course in handling firearms a requirement for buying a gun, a measure Mr Zainullin said he would support. "People need to learn how to shoot accurately and better understand how to defend themselves in certain situations," Mr Zainullin said. "Otherwise the guns can be a danger to the citizens themselves."

Lt Maurin, meanwhile, has been arrested and charged with aggravated deadly assault in the death of Mr Demidov, the snowplough driver. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison. He told the Moscow City Court last month that he was not guilty of the charge, that the evidence against him is "incomplete" and events of that night had been "described falsely" by investigators, the state-run RIA-Novosti news agency reported.

His lawyer told the news agency that Lt Maurin committed the crime by accident. "My client regrets that he accidentally shot and killed a person." cschreck@thenational.ae