By Jan Lopatka and Gabriela Baczynska
VISNOVA, Czech Republic/LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - European Union governments should agree tighter gun control laws on Friday in the wake of Islamist shooting attacks in France and Belgium, despite opposition from some states which say they will hurt only law-abiding enthusiasts.
The Czech Republic is among the loudest critics of rules that EU officials expect to secure comfortable majority backing when the 28 interior ministers meet in Luxembourg on Friday. It argues the measures will not prevent criminals acquiring weapons but will penalize hunters and collectors.
Since the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015 by men armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles apparently bought in central Europe, France has pushed for a crackdown. It redoubled its efforts after the attacks in Paris on Nov. 13.
Prague was among states seeking to water down the original proposals to ensure hunters, sports shooters, collectors and museums can hold weapons, including semi-automatics capable of firing many rounds per minute. Switzerland, which is outside the EU but cooperates on such issues, along with Finland and others also sought exemptions for civilian national defense groups.
The Czech Republic has liberal gun regulation by European standards, with about 775,000 legal guns and rifles in the country of 10.6 million people. Despite the fact that the original proposal was diluted, gun owners in the Czech Republic are still angry with the looming changes.
"People who stage attacks do not use legally held weapons, they use black market ones, primarily from the Balkans," said Jan Vurbs, 30, firing his two rifles at a forest shooting range near Visnova, 50 km south of Prague.
"We have to meet a number of rules on storing weapons, safe boxes, every weapon is registered and police know exactly what we have at home," he said. "Bans for civilians and terrorist threats are two unconnected issues."
The proposal, which would then go to the European Parliament, would for the first time introduce EU-wide rules on deactivated firearms which France argues are often to easy to restore to lethal functioning order or other types of guns, such as signal and starter's pistols, that can be converted.
While the Brussels executive originally proposed a complete ban on civilian possession of semiautomatic firearms capable of firing high number of rounds, multiple exceptions have since been included to also cover museums and target shooters.
The Visnova range outside of Prague allows people to fire legally held rifles such as those that Vurbs owns: a sporting version of a Czech military assault rifle, and one used by the British army in the 1960s and 1970s.
See pictures at a shooting range at Visnova, Czech Republic: http://reut.rs/1YckpQL
The rifles are semiautomatic, meaning they fire a single bullet per pull of the trigger and not a burst of bullets, but at least one of them would be banned under the new rules.
Czech Interior Minister Josef Chovanec said on Thursday the changes could affect 40,000 firearms in the Czech Republic.
"We do not have a problem with the directive as a whole, but we will want to rework it so it does not amount to disarming Czech citizens," Chovanec said.
TOO STRICT OR IRRELEVANT?
Prague is expected to vote against the new rules on Friday after protests from other countries already won reprieve for Finnish volunteer militias on the Russian frontier, boar and elk hunters and the Swiss army's pensioner reserve.
David Karasek of Czech gun owners' lobby group Lex said the proposals would lead to a rise in illegal gun ownership.
"Sales of weapons that may be banned are not falling but growing," he said. "Those people are certainly not buying them in order to hand them over after the ban."
The plan aims to harmonize marking and registration rules for guns across the 28-nation bloc and lower the risk of semiautomatic or deactivated arms being turned into lethal weapons.
But wording on restricting online sales is vague and in Brussels some diplomats said the proposal was so heavily watered down as to become almost irrelevant.
Others said adopting new rules would send an important signal since the Charlie Hebdo attackers are believed to have bought decommissioned rifles legally in Slovakia and then had them retooled to fire live rounds.
(Additional reporting by Jason Hovet; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Richard Balmforth)