Nothing enhances your appreciation for firearms like needing one to defend your family and yourself. That’s certainly the experience of Ukrainians, say researchers. Many residents of the war-torn country—men in particular, who traditionally carry the burden of fighting and military service—recently told interviewers that they either own firearms or want to acquire them.

Ukraine Needs Guns

“Crazy thought, but those 20 million AR-15s now in this country could sure arm a lot of Ukrainians,” actor and gun-control advocate George Takei snarked a few months after Russian forces crossed the border into Ukraine. It wasn’t his intention, but a lot of Ukrainians have come to agree with him.

“Between 43 and 46 per cent of men in every age group indicated that they either already own a firearm (7 per cent overall) or would like to own one,” Gergely Hideg wrote last month for the Geneva, Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey. “Only 11 per cent of women expressed the desire to own a firearm.”

That disparity in opinion would seem to indicate a clash between the sexes until you remember that, while the demands of resisting Russia’s invasion have thrust women into new roles, Ukraine is a traditional society with corresponding expectations about gender. That relatively few women want to own guns doesn’t mean they lack appreciation for their defensive power.

“Despite women not wanting a firearm for themselves and many thinking that it is not necessary to have one, firearm proficiency appears to be regarded as an expected skill for a husband,” Hideg adds. “Nearly six in ten women interviewed believed that ‘some’ (38 per cent) or ‘most’ (19 per cent) wives in their area expect their husbands to be familiar with firearms and know how to use them.”

Why would that be? Because for two years, Ukrainians have been fighting for their independence against Russian invaders, and you don’t do that with harsh words. In their defense, Ukrainian officials lobbied allies for heavy equipment and handed small arms to their own people.

“Gun shops have sold out of some weapons, such as AR-10 and AR-15 assault rifles,” The Guardian reported the day before war began.

“We will give weapons to anyone who wants to defend the country,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced on February 24, 2022.

An Armed Society Is a Society Accustomed To Being Armed

Inevitably, common possession and use of rifles and pistols moved the needle on what Ukrainians expect. According to a 2022 poll, the share of the population supporting recognizing a right to civilian gun ownership increased from 23 percent the previous year to 58 percent. Also in that poll, 90 percent of respondents named “freedom” as a main value for their country.

“Firearm possession appears to be more normalized nowadays in Ukraine,” Hideg commented in the December 2023 Small Arms Survey report. Reasons cited for owning firearms include hunting (53 percent of respondents), defense against criminals (21 percent) and “protection against potential enemies” (14 percent). Potential enemies from a neighboring country? That’s a good guess.

The report’s author also observed that survey respondents did not all appear to be truthfully answering questions about firearms possession and that the rate of ownership was probably higher than formal responses suggest.

That certainly reflects the experience in the United States. Last summer, researchers with Rutgers University’s New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center concluded that many survey respondents claiming to not own firearms are lying and actually possess guns.

“It may be that a percentage of firearm owners are concerned that their information will be leaked and the government will take their firearms or that researchers who are from universities that are typically seen as liberal and anti-firearm access will paint firearm owners in a bad light,” the authors allowed.

Civilian Guns Are Here To Stay

Citizens of a country where civilian gun ownership has historically been less widespread than in the United States may also be concerned about attempts at disarmament. Weapons distributed by the government are, theoretically, supposed to be returned when hostilities end. Don’t count on it.

“Ukrainians are in no hurry to return their weapons,” notes Hideg. “A plurality of Ukrainians (39 per cent) concur that soldiers will keep (at least some of) their firearms instead of returning them to the military after the war ends.”

Of course, even assuming their records are in order, postwar officials will face challenges proving that weapons handed to civilians were not lost in combat. There’s also the matter of battlefield pickups. That’s in addition to the many firearms privately purchased before the war and likely to be supplemented afterwards by people increasingly comfortable with their possession.

Even if, contrary to their announced attention to ease gun laws, Ukrainian officials ultimately succumb to European pressure to tighten them, they’ll face the usual uphill battle against their own people. Ukrainians are unlikely to be more willing than anybody else to surrender what they possess, or to submit to laws they’ve concluded are bad ideas. There’s also the challenge posed by human innovation.

“Improvements in technology and information sharing have transformed PMFs [privately made firearms] from crude, impractical homemade devices of limited value to most criminals into highly functional weapons that are increasingly viewed as viable substitutes for factory-built firearms, including converted firearms, ghost guns, and 3D printed weapons,” finds another December 2023 Small Arms Survey report.

The European Union also reportedly has a thriving market for “illicit firearms ammunition and other explosive munitions,” according to a third publication.

So, Ukrainians who want to own firearms for a variety of reasons after the experience of the war with Russia are almost certain to have their desires satisfied. They’ll end up armed through legal markets, the leavings of combat, or the growing and increasingly sophisticated European black market.

Challenge Accepted

If it’s any consolation to opponents of private arms, Ukrainians have yet to catch up with Americans.

“More than half of American voters—52%—say they or someone in their household owns a gun,” NBC News reported in November 2022. “That’s the highest share of voters who say that they or someone in their household owns a gun in the history of the NBC News poll.”

Almost half of Ukrainian men want to assume the responsibilities of being armed? That’s a healthy start.

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