June 23, 2023
Like in most Countries outside of the United States, Italian citizens do not enjoy a constitutional right to keep and bear arms; if anything, it has been affirmed multiple times by court rulings that the system must be intended as one where licenses represent an exception to an otherwise general prohibition. The post-war 1946 Italian republican constitution goes as far to mention, on Article 17, that Italian citizens have a right to gather “peacefully and without arms.”
By the canons of western Europe, however, it’s relatively easy to fall within that specific “exception.” The historical stratification of Italian gun laws by no means is simplified by the intervention of the firearms directives from the European Economic Community which make sure that the legislative framework, when it comes to firearms, remains to this day self-contradictory in many parts, pretty straightforward in some, and excessively and unnecessarily convoluted in others. In this article, we shall try to highlight to unravel this sublime, orderly mess for the reader, who should however keep in mind that some facets of such a complex and stratified regulatory system will unavoidably be overlooked. Similarly, regulations concerning knives and non-lethal self-defense instruments (eg. pepper spray et al.), as well as the regulation of items that look like firearms (such as airsoft replicas) will not be the subject of this article.
From National Unity to the 1970s: Gradual Restrictions
Before the Country was unified under the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, the pre-existing states in the territory already had a well solidified body of legislation that severely restricted the ownership and — chiefly — the carry of firearms and other weapons by the common populace. As one would expect, those laws were mainly aimed at preventing insurrections and maintaining the nobility and their power system safe from the “unruly” lower classes, but otherwise the ownership of firearms such as long guns was widely spread and there was no system in place for licensing or registration for those who could actually afford a firearm, in a largely poor country like Italy, that is.
This was the year when the first Italian penal code was written, ahead of official national unity — the purchase and ownership of firearms remained largely unrestricted, but a license from the “Prefetto” (Prefect: the local representative of the central Government in each Province, whose office is a direct emanation of the “Ministero dell’Interno,” the Italian Ministry of Home Affairs) would be required for the carry of so-called “insidious weapons” in public. The only restrictions concerning private ownership, back in the day, would refer to the so-called “accouterments of the troop,” meaning that average civilians could not own the same type of firearms used by the military, among other things (including uniforms and the like).
Things changed, and deeply so, in 1926, and then again in 1931, and 1933, first with the approval then with the subsequent extension and amendment of the so-called TULPS (“Testo Unico delle Leggi di Pubblica Sicurezza” or Unified Public Safety Laws Texts in English), written when the Prime Minister of Italy was a certain guy named Benito Mussolini. You know you’re in trouble when gun laws are passed under a fascist regime, and indeed the TULPS introduced numerous restrictions, including the fact that now gun shop owners had to identify anyone who bought firearms or ammunition through their national identity card, and the buyers had subsequently to register their owned guns with law enforcement.
The TULPS also introduced numerous restrictions to the activities of gun makers, basically subjecting their daily operations to a whole slew of governmental authorizations; provided a list of reasons by which an individual could not be granted a firearms-related license or had an existing license revoked; and gave the Prefects absolute discretionary authority in granting concealed carry licenses. Something they still have to this date. TULPS also allowed the Prefects to declare any firearm a “weapon of war,” something that would make them banned nationwide. A pretty famous case is that of the .380 caliber Beretta 34, adopted by the Italian Armed Forces and Police, and sold in a few hundreds of samples to citizens in northern Italy before the Prefect of Brescia intervened to declare it a “weapon of war,” forcing Beretta to manufacture the Model 35, the exact same pistol, but chambered in .32 ACP for commercial sales.
What the TULPS obtained — aside from barring civilians from accessing basically anything that was in use by the military and law enforcement, not limited to machine-guns, but also bolt-action rifles and mere pistols — was to provide the fascist regime with the tool required to disarm those individuals, and portions of the population at large, that weren’t considered faithful enough to the dictatorship. It didn’t, however, manage to reach its goal in such a total and pervasive way as the Reichswaffengesets did in Nazi Germany. Firearms, particularly hunting shotguns and small defensive pistols, remained extremely popular among the civilian population. Before the economic boom of the 1960s, Italy was largely so poor as a country that hunting was legitimately a source of integration for the daily protein intake of many. While amended multiple times as the years went by, chiefly to eliminate the most overtly fascistic provisions, the TULPS was never repealed as a whole, and as of today it still represents the shaky grounds on which the gun laws of Italy are largely founded.
Even under the fascist regime, and even with registration, no licensing was imposed for the purchase of most firearms; that didn’t come until November 22, 1956, when Law Decree n.1274 imposed that all firearm sales be subject to previous authorization (“Nulla-Osta”) from the Questore (chief officer of the detachment of the Polizia di Stato, Italian National Police, for a given province). This was caused by an incident that happened in an elementary school in the town of Terrazzano, outside of Milan, in October 1956, when two brothers, well known for being mentally ill, took the schoolchildren and a teacher hostage and held them for ransom. It’s worth noting that the two hostage-takers were known to local law enforcement for their issues, and all they had was a handgun (a wartime relic), but that fact was lost to politicians due to the media attention that the case received. This occurred in a country which was starving for sensational stories after having been deprived of them by the fascist regime (during which the press and media at large were heavily censored to remove any news of criminal acts that could tarnish the image of “absolute peace and order” that the dictatorship painted of the Italian society as a whole).
In 1967, law n.895 would be passed to impose harsher punishment for those found in possession of “weapons of war,” but the true storm was behind the corner. From 1968, all the way to the mid-1980s, Europe was shaken by a long and bloody season of politically motivated terrorism, and Italy saw the worst of it, with a staggering 14,591 acts of politically motivated violence, 419 dead, and 1,181 wounded from 1969 to 1987.
Politics intervened the way they know best, the asinine way. Law no.110 was passed in 1975 by a staggering bipartisan majority to completely overhaul the legislative framework regulating firearm ownership in Italy. All firearms chambered in calibers such as .380 ACP, .45 ACP, and 9mm Luger would be banned as a “weapon of war,” limits to the number of firearms and quantity of ammunition a single individual could own would be imposed, existing licenses for the collection of “weapons of war” were declared void and said license was canceled outright, and a new commission, called the Commissione Consultiva Centrale per il Controllo delle Armi (Central Consultive Commission on Gun Control) would be established.
Such commission, whose members would be named by the Ministry of Home Affairs among representatives of the firearms industry, Ministry bureaucrats, and high-ranking members of the law enforcement and military, who outnumbered the gun industry representatives, would now be invested with the sole authority to oversee the Catalogo Nazionale delle Armi Comuni da Sparo (National Firearms Catalog) which essentially was a list of firearm models which, after thorough testing and proofing by the National Proofing House of Gardone Val Trompia, were authorized for civilian distribution and ownership in Italy.
Law n.110/1975 also had a quirk by which “firearms with remarkable offensive capabilities,” “firearms capable of chambering military ammunition” and firearms “with features similar to those of weapons of war” would be classifiable as forbidden. With no clear definition of law of what counted as “remarkable offensive capabilities” and what features would be “similar to those of weapons of war,” the full power of interpretation and application rested on the shoulders of the Commission.
Readers can easily imagine the outcome of such a political choice: for decades, not only features such as removable flash hiders, folding or telescoping stocks, bayonet lugs, detachable magazines holding over fifteen rounds (for handguns) or five rounds (for rifles) would be considered indicative of “remarkable offensive capabilities,” but basically anything close to a modern sporting rifle would be banned unless chambered in .22 Long Rifle, or rebarreled some odd centerfire caliber such as .222 Remington or .270 Winchester. All detachable magazines were considered “functional firearm components,” meaning they could be purchased only by licensed firearm owners, and their possession would need to be registered. Handguns in 9mm Luger or .45 ACP, including priceless World War heritage pieces, would need to be thoroughly raped through conversion to any sort of caliber, from 9mm Ultra to .30 Luger, from .45 to 9mm Steyr, up to 9×21 IMI from mid-1980s up to 2021. The banhammer would fall for years even on vintage Carcano bolt-action rifles, M1 Garand rifles, or M1 Carbines, which well into the 1980s were still in use as training or service rifles for the Italian military and law enforcement in certain aspects.
Even blank firing guns, flare guns, and airguns fell under the axe: all airguns and flare launchers were assimilated to firearms and subject to licensing and registration, and so were front-firing blank guns, while top-firing models would need to be manufactured under a strict set of rules to make them as difficult as possible to be converted to fire live ammunition and retain any semblance of safety. As the Commission applied its power in total discretion, often erratically when it came to stick to certain parameters (with many accusations of favoritism and cronyism towards certain makers or importers piling up as the years went by), the National Firearms Catalog quickly turned into a monstrous bureaucratic behemoth, with well over 25,000 entries.
1980s Onward: A Slow (and Partial) Return to Sanity
From the bottom of such a ruinous slippery slope, quite possibly the wettest dream for a modern-day gun grabber, one would be hard-pressed to fathom any sort of recovery as long as the system remained in place. And yet, a return to sanity arrived slowly as the years went by with the interpretation and application of law n.110/1975. Being largely left to the aforementioned Commission, internal struggles appeared between the most restrictive-minded members who wished to maintain certain types of firearms and features reserved to military and law enforcement, and those who realized that certain restrictions were now anachronistic in nature.
Gradually, during the 1980s and 1990s, firearms in calibers such as .380 ACP, .30-06 Springfield and .30 Carbine were no longer considered “weapons of war,” and accepted for civilian ownership, along with a whole slew of other bolt-action rifles, from old Carcanos to the venerable Lee-Enfield, that this or that branch of the Italian military or law enforcement community had kept in reserve for decades. .45 ACP would be removed from the list of “military calibers” in the year 2000, and the raise in popularity of practical shooting gave way to the arrival of a series of features such as flash hiders or adjustable buttstock previously considered “military” in nature. Modern sporting rifles chambered nominally in .223 Remington or .308 Winchester, even if perfectly capable to handle their NATO counterpart, given how CIP specifications often differ from SAAMI specs in terms of pressure levels and tolerance, would no longer be considered “weapons of war.” High-capacity magazines would start to circulate chiefly among IPSC shooters, albeit only semi-officially, and low-power airguns (not exceeding a muzzle energy threshold of 7.5 Joule) would become free to purchase and own without a license by anybody over the age of 18.
The Commission would be disbanded, and the National Firearms Catalog abolished in 2011 when Italy implemented the second European firearms directive (2008/51/CE). The system had long been seen by other European countries as an obstacle to free market in that, quite simply, the often selective (to the limits of corruption, and often beyond them) interpretation and application of the most unclear parts of the law often obstructed the importation into Italy of firearms manufactured in other EU-member States. The Catalog was replaced by a classification system, handled directly by the National Proofing House, which would still need to test and proof-mark any and all firearms manufactured or imported for civilian sales — a “potato-potatoe” situation under many points of view, but with the advantage of a more transparent and straightforward process, significantly less red tape and arbitrary application of the law. 2011 was also the year when the long-standing nominal ban on 9mm Luger for Italian civilians was severely undermined. Ever since 1975, it had been completely banned with the nominal exception of a small number of approved revolvers (not semi-automatic pistols) which would strictly have to use completely non-jacketed ammunition. In 2011, 9mm Luger was removed from the “military ammunition” list and authorized for civilian long guns.
Handguns in 9mm Luger would, however, still be considered “non-military firearms banned from commercial sales” in Italy as some groups within the Italian military and law enforcement commands were reluctant to give up their last monopoly. The ban on pistols in 9mm Luger was finally lifted one decade later with a law that was passed at the end of 2021 and came into effect in early 2022. With the 9×21 IMI having been developed specifically for the Italian civilian market in the 1980s and having proven itself as a fairly successful and worthy alternative, particularly if compared to what came before, it’s however likely that it will take some time before 9mm Luger completely supersedes the “Italian Nine.” The fact that firearms chambered in 9×21 IMI can be converted to 9mm Luger simply by swapping barrels, and that chamber dimensions of 9×21 IMI are such that all firearms chambered for that caliber will normally accept and fire 9mm Luger ammunition, with not as much as a hiccup (exception made, maybe, for some strain on the extractor in certain pistol designs), will probably play a significant part.
As of Today
Currently, as per law n.110/1975, firearms in Italy are classified in four major categories: Hunting Firearms category comprises those shotguns chambered in 12, 16, 20, 24, 28, 32, and .410 gauge, as well those rifles and carbines in 9mm or 8mm Flobert, or in any caliber that employs “a bullet no smaller than 5,6mm in caliber with a case of minimum 40mm in height, or smaller if the bullet is higher in caliber than 5,6mm.” This includes essentially all shotguns and most, if not all, rifles outside of .22 rimfire — which, as clarified by “Counter-Terrorism” Law n.43/2015, cannot be used for hunting (apparently because the center-left lawmaker of the time was afraid of suppressible .22s!). The same law banned modern sporting rifles from use in hunting.
Sporting Firearms category comprises those handguns and long guns for which, during classification, the National Proofing House received certification from a sport shooting federation stating that said type of firearm is usable by regulation in their ranges or competitions. As of today, this includes basically all modern sporting rifles and a vast majority of handguns, as well as all firearms conceived for specific shooting sports disciplines, and all airguns with a muzzle energy level exceeding 7.5 Joules.
Common Firearms category comprises those firearms, mostly handguns, which find no placing in the aforementioned classes.
Antique Firearms category comprises any firearm manufactured before the year 1890. It doesn’t include single-shot muzzle-loading replicas of modern manufacture, which are a category in and by itself and are free to purchase and own for anybody over the age of 18 without a license, just like low-power airguns.
A quick look at those categories will be enough for the reader to realize the archaic nature of the Italian classification system: what kind of firearm cannot be used for a specific sport shooting discipline these days? The classification system, established by law n.110/1975, is a heritage of a time where all there was in Italy in terms of sport shooting was clay, skeet, trap, and classic target shooting monopolized by the Tiro a Segno Nazionale (“National Target Shooting”) which is the network of indoor shooting ranges owned and operated by the Government through the national Olympic committee. Saying that the system would need an overhaul is an understatement, but that would be a complicated and risky task to undertake in a country like Italy, for reasons we’ll see later.
There are two main types of gun licenses that an individual may apply for in Italy. Without quoting their overly complicated Italian names, we’ll call them simply the “Hunter’s License” and the “Sport Shooter’s License.” Unlike similar licenses in place in other European Countries, the Italian licensing system can be described as a “one-size-fits-all” meaning that the holder is not restricted to certain types of firearms he or she can own with said license, and that no additional permit is required for the acquisition of each individual firearm (like, to say, in France).
All licenses in Italy allow the holder to purchase and own any and all types of firearms as long as they are legal to transport them (unloaded, separate from ammunition, and in a locked container) anywhere on the national territory at any given time with no territorial restrictions (a far cry from, to say, Canada, where RPAL [Restricted Possession and Acquisition License] holders can only transport their firearm to and from a shooting range they’re members of by the shortest available route), and to have them loaded on their person wherever sport shooting can be legally practiced, be it a shooting range (state or privately-owned, indoors or outdoors) or a privately-owned piece of land, if it has the features of a land where leisure shooting can be legally practiced.
The main difference between these two licenses is that hunter’s license holders, when in possession with a separate hunting permit released by their regional authorities, can hunt on both public and private land and have a hunting firearm loaded on their person at all times wherever hunting is legal and when hunting season is open. In Italy, possibly the only country in the world to allow this, hunters can enter privately-owned land to hunt and can’t be charged with trespassing, unless the owner of said land has posted visible “No hunting” signs on the perimeter.
A concealed carry license is also available, but while other types of licenses are regulated on a “Legitimate interest” basis, meaning the authorities can’t reject a license application unless the applicant is a prohibited person by law or is known to be a dangerous or unreliable subject, the canons for the release of the concealed carry license are still those put in place by the TULPS in 1933, which give the Prefect full discretion in granting or rejecting the application.
Generally speaking, CCL applicants in Italy must demonstrate a legitimate reason for personal protection, not unlike the restrictive “may issue” regimes in place in states like California, New York, or Maryland before the Bruen ruling. The Prefect has the power to reject the application even if a genuine need is demonstrated. On top of that, the concealed carry license must be renewed yearly while all other licenses have a five-year expiration date. It is also extremely expensive. Prefects country-wide have been in a rush for decades to make CCL disappear by denying first release and/or renewal applications in droves; rejections can be challenged in court, but while courts tend to favor the applicant when it comes to rejected renewals (because the authorities can seldom, if ever, demonstrate that the applicant has lost a “legitimate reason” to carry a firearm for personal protection), things aren’t so when it comes to rejected first applications, because the Prefects have full discretion in evaluating the individual’s stated needs for personal defense.
A special variant of the concealed carry license exists dedicated to private security personnel, which in Italy must buy their own pistols. Those licenses are basically always released upon request with the applicant only needing to be endorsed by a private security firm writing a letter to the authorities to certify the applicant’s status as an employee. This must be renewed every two years instead of yearly. This specific license allows open carry, which is otherwise forbidden even to CCL holders outside of shooting ranges, and authorizes the holder to carry a shotgun if so required by his or her duty. Private security personnel in Italy cannot carry rifled-bore long guns, but there’s a workaround to this and we’ll see that later.
It’s worth pointing out that even a “rank-and-file” law enforcement officer in Italy is likely to be met with a rejection when applying for a CCL, because the law (TULPS again) allows them to carry their service pistol anywhere on the national territory both on-duty and off-duty. Needless to say, in sunny southern Italy, and particularly during the hot season, carrying a full-size Beretta M92-FS pistol under your shirt isn’t going to be particularly comfortable or go unnoticed.
To underline the elitist and totalitarian nature of TULPS, that same law allows high-ranking government officials; Prefects, high-ranking officials of law enforcement and military, judges and prosecutors, high-ranking members of the correctional administration, among others, to privately purchase firearms for personal protection with nothing else but their service ID, a small red-colored badge. Those privileged few don’t even need to register the firearms they buy with that ID, and can carry them everywhere, including in places where even CCL holders would be barred from entering, such as courthouses, public office buildings, stadiums, public gatherings, and more. It’s easy for a government official to pontificate on the everyday citizen’s need for personal protection when he (or she) has in turn the privilege to purchase and carry a firearm for self-defense by virtue of nothing more than an official badge.
Limits on Guns and the Collector’s License
Another anachronistic limitation still in place since the times of the Law n.110/1975 is the limit to the number of firearms an individual can own at any given time. At the time of this writing, the limit is set at three “Common” firearms, eight “Antique” firearms and twelve “Sporting” firearms; there is no limit to the number of hunting firearms, low-power airguns, and modern replicas of single-shot muzzle-loaders designed before 1890s that a citizen can own.
Once again, this archaic limitation tries to cut clean limits between defensive, sporting, and hunting firearms at a time when such limit isn’t clear anymore. This is yet another of the grievances that would need to be addressed; a collector’s license exists that allows the holder to own an unlimited number of firearms, but it comes with certain limitations, such as a limited set of times during the year in which a firearm held under a collector’s license can be brought to the range for shooting. This is an improvement, adopted in 2018, over the previous system, under which a collector’s license holder was totally prohibited from shooting the guns owned under said license and even from owning ammunition for said firearms unless he/she also held another type of gun license.
Did Someone Say Machinegun Ownership in Italy?
It should be pointed out that, until 1975, a collector’s license for “weapons of war” existed. It allowed the holder to own any firearm that was considered, back at the time, a “weapon of war,” including
machine-guns. In practice, however, the individuals who owned machine-guns under said license were very few and far between, and they were subject to all sorts of restrictions, including a set of stringent rules for the safe storage of said firearms, the possibility to buy or trade them only through military channels, and the possibility of shooting them only at military shooting ranges.
The European Firearms Directive
Contrarily to the common perception, the European Firearms Directive, of which three versions exist so far and each amending the previous, is not exactly a “super-law” that all EU-member states must rigidly implement. It is more like a minimum framework meant, ostensibly like all European directives, to harmonize national laws in an attempt to facilitate the free circulation of people and commercial goods within the borders of the European Union.
Of course, the aim toward a strict EU-wide gun control (or at the very least to provide an excuse for those national governments who want to implement stricter gun control without taking direct political responsibility) is evident to whoever isn’t blind, and that’s particularly true in the latest version of the directive, 2017/853/EC, but Italy as a country, and Italian gun owners as a whole, managed to emerge relatively unscathed in all three occasions, if not with some slight improvements.
The first directive, 94/477/EEC, had the positive effect to instate the European firearms pass, a permit released by local authorities that each shooter can obtain when he/she needs to cross borders with another EU-member State with firearms for hunting or to take part to a shooting competition. The European Firearms Pass (also known as the “Green Card” due to its color) greatly simplified the transportation of firearms from a member state to another for reasons other than permanent import.
Directive 94/477/EEC also clarified, in its Annex I, that a handgun is any firearm that is shorter than 601 mm (23.66") overall and whose barrel is shorter than 301 mm (11.8"), with anything else above it being classified as a long gun. This is the canon that was adopted in Italy to distinguish handguns from long guns, with an additional rule stating that, should a firearm come with a folding or collapsible buttstock, the overall length that must be taken into account is that of the firearm with the stock fully folded or collapsed. The focus on concealability instead of intended shooting position (unlike in the US, where every firearm “originally conceived to be fired from the shoulder” is a long gun), allows Italian shooters to access semi-automatic versions of sub-machineguns and other large-size pistols with folding or collapsible stocks as handguns instead of short barrel rifles.
The second European Firearms Directive, 2008/51/EC, was adopted into Italian law by law n.204/2011; it was the law that abolished the aforementioned Commission and National Firearms Catalog to begin with. Said amendment to the directive removed detachable magazines from the list of functional firearm components (which require a license to purchase and whose ownership is subject to registration), and as such the sale of detachable magazines enjoyed a brief moment of total freedom until two years later the “powers that be” decided that all magazines exceeding an overall capacity of fifteen rounds for handguns and five rounds for long guns would need to be registered.
The fact that those were not returned to the status of “functional firearm components,” and the lack of serial numbers on detachable magazines, however, meant that retailers and importers were not required to keep track of sales. As such, it was the buyer’s sole responsibility to register the magazines. As of today, the law remains largely disapplied, with a few relevant court rulings that dismissed the cases against licensed gun owners found in possession of unregistered magazines on the unprecedented (for Italy) grounds that “the law as written is impossible for the citizen to respect.”
As the years went by, numerous entities, from the National Proofing House to the Ministry of Home Affairs, tried to curtail the circulation of “high-capacity” magazines. With no law explicitly banning the commerce and ownership of detachable magazines above a certain capacity, however, they still remain available. Additionally, other interesting court rulings established that a detachable magazine can be considered a “component of a weapon of war” (and thus forbidden) not by its capacity, by its exclusive compatibility, meaning that a detachable magazine that’s compatible with both a machinegun and a semi-automatic rifle could never be considered a “component of a weapon of war.” By contrast, the drum magazine for, to say, a 20mm Oerlikon autocannon would fall in said category, as it isn’t compatible with any civilian-legal firearm.
Following the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan terror attacks of 2015 in Paris, the European Commission launched an “ambitious” (their words) proposal for a new firearms directive that would impose a blanket ban EU-wide on certain types of firearms, magazines, and a whole lot more. Behind the proposal were the governments of France, Belgium, the UK (back then still a member State), the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden, that wanted an excuse to enact severe restrictions on the gun rights of certain categories of citizens. The reader can easily understand which ones.
The first directive draft was met, for the first time in European history, by a fierce resistance by the
European firearms industry and gun owners alike. What was expected to be a smooth-sailing approval of almost total disarmament became an eighteen-months-long grueling battle at the European Parliament with the directive finally seeing the light in 2017 after extensive rewriting. Directive 2017/853/EC was only the second time in the history of the European Union that saw the European Commission not getting what it wanted. But nonetheless, the risks for gun owners in Europe, and thus Italy, remained.
Truth needs to be told, when the first draft of the Italian implementation law was published in late 2017, the Italian gun owners’ community was pleasurably surprised by the leniency and proposed “soft” implementation. After all, back in the day, the Italian government was supported by a leftist majority (thus not friendly towards gun owners) and headed by the man who is currently the European Commissioner for Economy, who would thus have all interests to please the European Commission. That draft, however, was not meant to come to be; the Spring 2018 elections saw a populist majority gain control of the Italian Parliament, and the new and improved implementation law was passed that Summer, vastly improving the already soft implementation in favor of gun owners.
To fix the mess caused by Law n.43/2015, which had banned the use of MSRs for hunting and thus removed them from the unlimited number of “hunting firearms” that a licensed citizen can own, the maximum number of “sporting firearms” was raised from six to twelve. Law n.42/2015 had been passed at a time when the first draft of the new European Firearms Directive had not yet been submitted but was of course circulating behind the closed doors of power, thus, no doubt in an attempt to anticipate and please the almighty European Commission.
The implementation law also raised the capacity limits of detachable magazines that can be owned without registration from fifteen to twenty rounds for handguns, and from five to ten rounds for long guns. Directive 2017/853/EC established that magazines beyond said capacity could be owned only by “certified sport shooters;” the Italian implementation law states that all gun owners who are members of a shooting range (any range), or a sport shooting federation, fall within that category, regardless of whether they engage in competitions. Additionally, those who owned said magazines before that law was passed were exempt from said provision.
This was done because the Italian Constitution protects acquired rights and stipulates that no piece of criminal legislation can be retroactive — no Italian citizen can be made a criminal overnight by a stroke of a pen for doing something that wasn’t a crime when he/she did it. Making licensed gun owners criminal for owning magazines that were purchased before the law was passed would thus be unconstitutional.
The Do’s and the Don’ts
The procedure to obtain a firearms license in Italy is actually quite simple if compared to other European Countries. Two different medical certificates — one released by one’s family physician, the other from the local health department (the earlier being necessary for the release of the latter) will vouch for the applicant’s lack of physical or psychiatric impairment. Afterwards, the applicant will need to book a session at the closest Tiro a Segno Nazionale range for a theoretical and practical lesson after which he, or she, will be released a certificate of proficiency in firearms handling.
There is a specific waiver for this proficiency certificate for the applicants who are currently serving in the Italian military or law enforcement, as well as for former service members, as long as they weren’t discharged on health or misconduct reasons and as long as they weren’t discharged more than ten years before applying for a license (interestingly, the proficiency certificate obtained through the Tiro a Segno Nazionale doesn’t have an expiry date, but the proficiency that one is implied to have acquired by serving in the military or law enforcement does!). Those who request a hunter’s license will also need to undergo an exam concerning local hunting regulations with their regional authorities, while those who seek a concealed carry license will have to submit a whole slew of documents proving their stated need to carry a firearm for personal protection.
Afterwards, all it takes is a couple of passport photos, two tax stamps, and a separate payment receipt whose amount depends on the type of license to be asked. All of this, along with a properly filled form, is to be submitted to one’s local police station. By law, processing of a license application can request no more than ninety days, although that waiting time can be extended up to six months in “special circumstances.” Realistically, waiting times will vary from as little as three weeks (as per the author’s personal experience as an inhabitant of a rural town in Sardinia) to four months or more in the larger cities where administrative Police offices are busier, but generally speaking the rejection of license applications are rare outside of CCLs.
Canons by which a firearm license application will be approved or rejected aren’t publicly stated by the Authorities, but are known to include the criminal, mental health and personal reliability (“good behavior”) history of the applicant, his or her immediate family, and his or her known circle of friends and others who live under the same roof as the applicant’s. It is well known that license applicants in Italy are thoroughly scrutinized, and as much as Italian anti-gun advocates would beg to differ, they have been proven to be the most trustworthy social category in the country — as proven by the research paper titled Sicurezza e Legalità — le Armi Nelle Case Degli Italiani (Public Safety and Legality – Privately-Held Firearms in Italy) published by the authoritative La Sapienza University of Rome in 2018. The paper clearly states that the number of crimes committed yearly by gun owners in Italy with their legally held firearms is lower than the number of criminal acts committed by members of law enforcement with their service weapons.
While Italy has several regulations in place that would fall under the category of “red flag laws,” their application isn’t as common as one may think, nor is confiscation. The expiry of a firearm license doesn’t mean, like in other European countries such as France, that the holder will lose property rights on his or her firearms, but simply that he or she won’t be able to buy new guns or ammunition, or move what he/she already has from home until license is renewed.
Similarly, while the authorities may indeed “come for your guns” in Italy, it would require you to be involved in some serious trouble, and the authorities will need to be ready to justify their action in court. Any removal of firearms from a license holder’s property will need to be properly motivated on grounded and justified public safety reasons on a case-by-case scenario. While a licensed individual may incur in a “precautionary” seizure of firearms if involved in a criminal investigation, the quickest way to lose one’s license, and guns, is to become a prohibited person, which means being convicted of a crime, being found to be mentally ill, or addicted to a controlled substance, or to lose one’s “trustworthiness” via particularly severe erratic behavior, such as episodes of domestic violence or violent behavior. A person may be subject to such a measure if any member of his or her immediate family, or otherwise living under the same roof (and thus with potential access to guns), incurs in the aforementioned hurdles.
That is, more or less, why Italians aren’t extremely afraid of massive gun confiscation coming any time soon. While the Parliament may legally decide to pass such a law, all-out confiscation would need to jump through all sorts of constitutional hurdles. The Italian Constitution does provide for government expropriation of private property, but only on motivated public use grounds, and with “appropriate compensation” which, according to numerous Constitutional Court rulings, must be market value.
This means that unless the Constitution is changed not only would the government need to expropriate every single firearm in civilian hands on a case-by-case scenario proving that the State has a use for it, but also that each expropriated firearm would need to be paid as new, and this assuming that no owner would challenge the expropriation in court. It’s worth noting that not even those who held machine-guns under the appropriate collector’s licenses before 1975 ever had their guns confiscated or subjected to a “mandatory buyback” when said license was voided. As of today, those few individuals still own them, can pass them off as heirloom, or sell them to the very few holders of specific business licenses (museums, R&D establishments, etc.) that allow the ownership of reference collections of “weapons of war” in Italy.
As stated above, most modern firearms, including modern centerfire semi-automatic sporting rifles, handguns, and short-barrel rifles, are legal for licensed civilians to own in Italy and the limits on what can and can’t be owned is pretty clean cut: machine-guns, firearms chambered in .50-BMG and up, grenade and rocket dischargers, and as of today, silencers. It is also illegal to own any firearm with serial numbers ground off or any firearm that has been modified to make it “easier to conceal or more powerful” — think converted to full-automatic fire or sawed off, although in this last case, it is today assumed that a firearm may legally have its barrel sawed off as long as it remains within the barrel length confines of its category: Handguns: less than 601mm (23.7") overall length, less than 301mm (11.9") barrel length, Long Guns: greater than 601mm (23.7") overall length and greater than 301mm (11.9") barrel length for long guns). With no clean-cut legislation stating it, however, it’s highly recommended not to.
Former Machine Guns to Semi-Auto Only Conversions
Demilitarized firearms do exist on the Italian civilian market: with no “Once a machinegun, always a machinegun” norm in effect, authorized businesses can purchase full-automatic firearms and convert them into semi-automatic only for commercial sales. There are strictly regulated procedures to follow to make sure that a demilitarized firearm cannot be reverted to its original select-fire mode of operation, and the National Proofing House will inspect every single firearm to make sure it happens. Additionally, demilitarized firearms in Italy are subject to old, quirky regulations dating back to 1975, such as the fact that any folding or collapsible buttstock must be blocked or welded in the fully open position. Odd to see that a former machine-gun cannot have a folding or collapsible stock, but its native semi-automatic counterparts aren’t subject to such restriction.
While directive 2017/853/EC tried to ban short-barreled rifles by creating a new category of prohibited firearms (A8, including “any long gun that can be reduced to an overall length of less than 60cm via a folding, collapsing, or easily removable buttstock”), that didn’t change or amend the overall and barrel length limits for handguns and long guns as per Annex I of directive 91/477/EEC. As of today, in most European countries, the prohibition of short barrel rifles remains neglected, and by the European Commission’s own words, dating back to 2019, almost inapplicable (a firearm would need to be shorter than 60cm (23.6") overall with its stock folded, collapsed, or “easily” removed, but still have a barrel longer than 30cm (11.8") to fall under said category). It is clear that Category A8 was introduced to give those countries; France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, specifically what they wanted to ban or restrict SBRs an excuse to do so, or at least try. With most SBRs being classified as handguns, in Italy, they’re legal for open carry by licensed private security personnel — much to the chagrin of some.
The real sour note in today’s Italian gun laws is essentially the absolute lack of workarounds to the complete ban on carrying firearms for protection for those who are not part of the very few (less than 20,000 nationwide) licensed to carry a concealed weapon. A citizen can, however, always be armed in his or her house and its “pertinences” (think backyard, although showing up on your backyard with a rifle or a holstered pistol in sight may be frowned upon as bad neighborhood).
Firearms can, additionally, be registered outside of one’s home, allowing people like shop owners the possibility to keep a gun in their workplace for protection against robberies. Reform of self-defense laws in 2011 and 2019 have further broadened the boundaries within which a citizen may use deadly force in protection of his or her own home, as much as could possibly be allowed within the confines of the Italian Constitution, which enshrines the value of human life as “absolute” and protects it as such.
While previously self-defense was constrained by a canon of “proportion” in the use of force, such proportion is always assumed when it comes to home protection, enacting the closest best thing to a true Castle Doctrine. One must however remember that the Italian Constitution itself also states that police and magistrate have the duty, and not just the “authority,” to investigate and prosecute crimes upon notice. Unlike District Attorneys in the US, who have the possibility to dismiss a case at will, an Italian prosecutor will investigate thoroughly every self-defense case, although truth must be told, prosecution of homeowners following home invasions have sharply dropped ever since the law was changed.
The legal possibility to use firearms for home protection is the reason why Italy doesn’t have clear-cut safe storage laws either; law no.110/1975 does say that licensed gun owners shall “adopt any precaution to make sure that unauthorized subjects may not easily access firearms,” and there are legal consequences for “unsafe storage” of firearms, however there is no clear provision for the security measures that need to be adopted. It may be as simple as a locked drawer, or as complicated as a fully armored room with an alarm system: and while authorities do have the power to show up at a licensed gun owner’s house and inspect the guns and their storage, said power is exercised sparingly (for issues connected to manpower and costs, chiefly) and secure storage conditions are evaluated on a case-by-case scenario. In practical terms, one would be hard-pressed to find a gun owner’s house in Italy without a good rifle cabinet. Guns, however, do not need to be always locked up and separated from ammunition, like in Canada or the UK, and owners can keep guns unlocked and at hand when they’re at home and have direct control on them.
A Yarn to Untangle
Here, we tried to give you a quick insight on Italian gun laws as much as humanly possible in a single article. The American reader will no doubt find them convoluted, contradictory in certain aspects, and overall, much more restrictive than those most US citizens — who enjoy a constitutional Right to Keep and Bear Arms — are used to. And yet, the reader will no doubt recognize that Italian gun laws have actually improved over the years, under basically all aspects except when it comes to concealed carry. The convolution of the Italian system is due to the stratification of norms, common in civil law countries, but is still way more balanced than in other western European countries.
Spain, France, Germany, and Sweden by Comparison
Just for the sake of comparison, in Spain, all “military calibers” (5.56×45mm NATO and 7.62×51mm NATO, and their counterparts .223 Remington and .308 Winchester; 7.62×39mm; and 5.45×39mm) are banned from private ownership and the local gendarmerie (Guardia Civil, in charge of the administrative management of civilian gun ownership in the Country) has been constantly trying for years to expand that list to include calibers such as .30-06 Springfield.
In France, it’s “relatively” easy to own Category C hunting firearms (shotguns holding no more than 3 rounds and manually-operated rifles owning no more than 5 shots), but anything else is subject to Prefectural authorization and separate vetting for every single additional firearm one wishes to buy; the Prefect can deny the right to purchase on crazy grounds such as “the applicant already has too many firearms,” sport shooters are recognized as such only if members of a shooting range managed by the FFTir (state-owned and state-operated), and a licensed gun owner who
allows his or her firearm license to expire will automatically lose property rights and will have to turn in his or her firearms to the state. As a result, France has less than 150,000 sport shooter licenses out of 67 million citizens, while Italy, with its 59 million citizens, has millions of licensed gun owners who can own basically any firearm as long as it’s legal in the country.
Germany is even more stringent, with only approximately 3,000 concealed carry licenses nationwide (all in the hands of bodyguards employed by powerful figures in economy or politics) and increasing hurdles to jump through in order to obtain a license to own anything except the most basic hunting firearm such as minimum mandatory attendance sessions to a shooting range. When European Firearms Directive 2017/853/EC was passed, Germany and France both seized the occasion to implement it in a most restrictive way, forcing their citizens to turn in any magazine exceeding 10 rounds in capacity for long guns and 20 rounds for handguns, and in the case of France, a whole slew of “demilitarized” firearms.
Things are even worse in Sweden. Activist fringes within the police will not issue licenses for modern sporting rifles even to those shooters who demonstrate to be members of a shooting club where said firearms are used. In the past years, cases have been recorded when Swedish police went as far as pressuring gun clubs to change their regulations so that said guns wouldn’t be usable on their premises anymore and thus their members would no longer be entitled to own them.
Crime Which Involves Guns in Italy
Crimes with guns in Italy is largely fueled by a vast black market of illegally imported firearms, including machine-guns, but this appears to be lost by a small but very vocal group of gun control advocates who enjoy the support of a vast political and social front that goes from the political left to the Catholic Church. The Italian public opinion is largely neutral on the matter. The Italian gun controllers will use point to the “American system” where “children can buy machineguns at any supermarket,” while at the same time, there are those supporting one’s right to defend his or her life, home and property with firearms.
Political positions concerning firearms in Italy are split more or less along party lines, and those are more or less the same seen in US politics. The debate about gun control has never been central in Italian politics, but has recently risen to more prominence, for no reason other than the needs of political forces to distinguish themselves from their adversaries: one side must be against because the other side is for. But explaining how we got to this would require an in-depth excursus about the evolution (or, more appropriately, involution) of Italian politics, that’s far beyond the scope of this article.
The Future and Pro-Gun Activists
This said, Italian gun laws have a lot of room for improvement, but that would require the undertaking of a lot of very cautious work to avoid any attempts from being hijacked against gun rights. Why? For the same reason why it took so long for 9mm Luger pistols to be legalized; for the same reason why there is still a limit to the quantity of ammunition or the quantity of reloading propellants one can own at any given time without a separate license (a matter which would require a separate article to discuss in full), and for the same reason why the laws about detachable magazine capacity have changed so often in the past decade. And that reason lays within the halls of the Italian Ministry of Home Affairs, which has been pursuing for the past fifty years (at the very least) its own political line in terms of privately-owned firearms, completely detached from that of the political class and regardless of who’s in charge at the moment.
The Italian Ministry of Home Affairs is rife with public servants (one may say, bureaucrats) who witnessed the social and political turmoil of the 1970s and are afraid of firearms being used not as much as tools for acts of terrorism or mass shootings — but in mass insurrections. No serious mass shooting ever happened in Italy despite MSRs and high-capacity magazines being legally available. The fact that one of the mantras of Italian gun control advocates is that “the risk with the current lax laws is that armed groups may supply themselves on the legal market” doesn’t really help. Italian bureaucracy is also marked by a deeply statist mindset. Back in the 1970s, at the height of political terrorism, it was much easier for an Italian citizen to be granted a license to carry a concealed firearm, because of the high threat level. In hindsight, this may have cemented in the minds of some public servants the idea that a high number of CCLs is a reflex of a “failure of the state” in granting adequate levels of public safety, hence their negative attitude towards concealed carry.
Better gun rights advocacy could help and has helped in the past few years. Unfortunately, the gun owners’ community in Italy has been historically divided: hunters, competition shooters, collectors, Olympic target shooters, practical shooting enthusiasts, etc., all considering themselves different from others, and generally wary of associations and organizations, seen as inefficient and “only looking after our yearly membership payments.”
The bad reputation of pro-gun groups in Italy has its, albeit small, part truth to it, but mistrust has undermined numerous attempts at change, along with sometimes overt sabotage by the aforementioned Ministry. The case of the organization known as “NRA Italia,” established in 1990s, is dreadfully well remembered by Italian gun rights advocates: pursuing an aggressive line against the abuses of the authorities and their restrictive tendencies, NRA Italia saw its offices raided by police for “supporting and abetting illegal ownership of weapons of war” with no other grounds than a picture of a (civilian-legal) AR-15 on their website, in the early days of the internet. It was a politically motivated move, and that was clear to mostly anybody, including the judges, but by the time the case was dismissed, legal fees and political persecution had managed to kill the organization.
Italy nowadays has two major gun rights advocacy groups. The oldest being AUDA, the youngest being UNARMI, itself a national federated organization to the Firearms United Network, established in 2015 to contrast the European Firearms Directive. While the earlier is active chiefly at a regional level in northern Italy and has been successful on an administrative side, the latter has found itself more at ease with the establishment of political connections at a national level.
Both still lack the true massive support that gun rights advocacy groups in the US are known for, but progress has been made, particularly from 2017 onwards. And yet, unless Italian shooters, who sometimes overtly dream of “the American NRA coming to save us,” finally really realize that they need to take their destiny in their own hands, every victory will always bring the bitter aftertaste of being provisional, temporary, just a breath of fresh air while we wait for the next assault on our rights.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.