It started as a typical road rage incident.
On New Year’s Eve 2016, People’s Front lawmaker Serhiy Pashinsky was driving home with his wife, when they nearly collided with a car parked in the middle of a road outside Kyiv. Pashinsky got out of his vehicle and confronted the people near the other car.
Nobody involved agrees on what happened next.
Pashinsky claims that they didn’t take kindly to his criticism and that a drunken man attacked him with a bottle. That man claims Pashinsky attacked him. What’s clear is that, after being hit in the head with the bottle, Pashinsky pulled out his pistol — a 9-mm Glock 19 — and shot the man in the leg.
That confrontation would be unremarkable were it not for the story of how Pashinsky received the pistol: as an official gift from Interior Minister Arsen Avakov — part of a tradition in which the minister and president award firearms to politicians, military officers, and even influential business people.
Georgy Uchaikin bristles at the mere existence of this practice. As director of the Ukrainian Association of Gun Owners or UAGO, he advocates for Ukrainians’ legal right to bear arms. To him, “awarded guns” demonstrate the discriminatory nature of his country’s gun policies.
By law, these awards are intended only for military men and women. But interpretation is loose. As a result, Uchaikin estimates Ukrainian authorities have handed out 50,000 weapons to members of the elite since independence in 1991 in a state that is otherwise hostile to gun ownership.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry didn’t respond to the Kyiv Post’s request about the number of the guns awarded, but Avakov said earlier the ministry gave out 2,230 guns between 2004 and 2016.
“What’s the difference how the bribe looks, whether it’s dollars or a pistol?” Uchaikin says. “It’s a frightening scheme.”
What’s more, Ukraine has no single law regulating firearms, spawning a level of legal nihilism in enforcement. That’s one of the reasons why Uchaikin’s organization is fighting for something they believe can level the playing field: a clear law governing gun rights.
Throughout much of the 20th century, gun ownership in Ukraine was strictly limited by the Soviet authorities. In comparison, today Ukrainians who want a gun can obtain one on the black market, but legal ownership remains a challenge.
In many other countries, that “challenge” would be strict regulations or a complicated battery of background checks and firearm safety trainings.
In Ukraine, Europe’s only nation without a primary law regulating the sale and possession of firearms, the key issue is judicial.
Gun ownership is largely governed under a 1998 instruction issued by the Interior Ministry. The process of registering a gun is complicated, and there is no unified licensing system or record of civilian firearms.
This makes it “difficult even to differentiate between legal and illegal firearms in the country — and, by extension, to monitor illegal flows,” according to a 2017 Small Arms Survey study.
Illegal flows have become an enormous problem, with as many as 5 million illegal guns in circulation since Russia invaded in 2014. Grenades — an explicitly military- grade weapon — have also spread around the country.
In a November 2017 interview, National Police Chief Serhiy Knyazev said that grenades had been used as a murder weapon in 39 cases that year.
“We opened the weapons arsenal, and our enemies did the same,” Knyazev said, explaining the problem’s origins.
According to former prosecutor general and current parliamentary candidate Vitaly Yarema, “many people who came back from the front in the early stages of the war brought their weapons back with them.”
But the challenge is also cultural, according to lawyer Vitaliy Kolomiets, an UAGO member. With law enforcement weak and corruption widespread, many feel that only they can defend themselves, their families, and their property.
“Teaching Ukrainians to trust law enforcement may take a full generation,” Kolomiets says. “After the Holodomor” — the 1930s man-made famine — “and the USSR, many people depend only on themselves.”
Kolomiets believes that very few Ukrainians — including those who purchase their firearms in legal gun stores — are going through the required procedures. Even those who do are unlikely to have enough training in firearms safety, he says.
The UAGO’s solution is enacting a new gun law. Uchaikin and another member of the UAGO participated in writing such a law, which was filed in December 2014 by a group of 34 lawmakers. But it has not yet been passed.
The bill has some grassroots support. An August 2015 petition calling on the government to “confirm the right of citizens of Ukraine to self-defense” received over 36,000 signatures, making it the first petition to achieve the 25,000 signatures needed for an official presidential response.
And although the UAGO has found some influential allies — including Anton Gerashchenko, a lawmaker with the 81-member People’s Front faction and an Avakov advisor — the Interior Ministry and other major political forces appear wary of loosening the restrictions on guns.
“They don’t care, so they push people back onto the black market,” Uchaikin says.
Avakov differs, defending “awarded weapons” in a December column in online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda, and advocating that pistols be allowed for limited groups, including those who have served in the military or security forces.
“I wish for every person to only read about weapons or see them in films. Take care of yourselves!” Avakov concluded his column.
Change to come
But even Avakov admitted that the current gun regulations aren’t functioning properly, writing in his column that the regulations “must be clearly spelled out in the relevant law, which should be passed by parliament.”
Currently, the Interior Ministry organizes voluntary firearms handins, which allow citizens who possess illegal weapons to turn them over to the police and avoid criminal charges. But Uchaikin believes that this approach will fail because it does not remove the demand for guns.
He proposes a different model.
First, the parliament would pass a law increasing legal access to firearms. That law would stipulate which weapons can be owned and which are explicitly banned, as well as satisfy public demand for armed self-defense.
Then, the government could introduce a year-long amnesty allowing people who possess unregistered or illegal weapons to hand them in or undergo training to receive a gun license.
Uchaikin believes the government must buy back illegal weapons — including military-grade ones —circulating in Ukrainian society.
“Otherwise people won’t give them back. They will hang onto them for a ‘black day,’” he says. “If we leave this issue unresolved, one incident with a grenade launcher will a cost a lot more” than buying back the weapon.
But Avakov’s Ministry has other ideas. Ministry spokesperson Artem Shevchenko said he believes that open hand-ins are enough, calling a buyback plan “absolutely stupid and not justified.”
As an association, the UAGO has taken inspiration from a much more powerful — and notorious — gun organization: the United States’ National Rifle Association (NRA). But the connection ends there. Uchaikin admits that, for at least a century, the UAGO will never have the NRA’s level of influence.
Like their U.S. counterparts, Ukrainian gun rights activists largely brush off the potential consequences of gun ownership — from an increased number of suicides to U.S.- style school shootings.
But there are Ukrainians concerned about legal guns. Yarema, the former prosecutor general who also used to work as the head of the country’s top anti-organized crime division, says Ukraine need not look far to find the risks in expanding gun rights.
“We see in the U.S. today what free ownership of weapons leads to,” he said. “It’s not a real means of self-defense. A killer will always find a way.”
Alyona Sharaeva, a psychologist who manages a Kyiv suicide hotline, suspects that increased access to firearms will lead to more shootings.
“The constantly growing level of tension will find relief through aggression and violence,” she says.
But gun advocates believe they are attempting to protect themselves from already-existing social and foreign aggression — and reign in the forces that facilitate it.
Kolomiets, the attorney, stresses that Ukrainians need a right to armed self-defense because of the weakness of law enforcement and the regulatory chaos surrounding guns. He jokes that, whereas the NRA fights against restrictions on gun ownership, its Ukrainian counterpart today more resembles U.S. gun control advocates. “They want limits on the Second Amendment, and we are also for a gun law,” Kolomiets says.
Until all Ukrainians have the right to bear arms, he believes the country will be fundamentally unequal — a “caste-based society” where the powerful enjoy more rights than ordinary citizens.
“There is a caste of people above the law in Ukraine,” he says.