Firearm Debate Divides a Transforming Poland

SZCZECIN, Poland -- The shooting gallery behind the main train station here has security doors thick enough to withstand a bomb attack. There are no signs directing customers, and admittance is by appointment only.

Inside, proprietor Jacek Trojanowski, dressed in a black turtleneck and double-breasted sport coat, sips tea. The dim, windowless concrete bunker -- erected by the Nazis nearly 60 years ago as an air-raid shelter -- renders his skin translucent.

"I have been here four years, and this year I have plans to renovate it and make it into a nice place with the kind of customer service you would expect,'' he said. "There is a natural desire among people to own weapons; it's just that the political and social situation in Poland hasn't allowed it.''

Trojanowski's ensconced firing range is a novelty in Poland, one of just a few private shooting galleries in a country where the right to bear arms is strictly limited by communist-era regulations.

But Trojanowski and gun enthusiasts across Poland are emerging from their tenebrous hideaways, spurred by growing fear of crime and a nascent self-defense movement.

For the first time since World War II, Poles are demanding access to firearms for personal security, setting off an emotional U.S. Second Amendment-style debate over the competing demands of public order and personal freedom.

"Most of the people who come here want to learn how to shoot just like in the Westerns,'' said Trojanowski, who opens his gallery to several hundred gun owners every year. "They know the criminal world today is organized, desperate -- and armed.''

The popular call to arms already resonates in the halls of parliament, where packing a pistol is so routine that placards remind lawmakers to leave their weapons at the door. Last month, Internal Affairs Minister Leszek Miller, the country's top law enforcement official, disclosed on national television that he owned a pistol for two years before even applying for the required permit.

Miller need look no further than the corridors of his own ministry to find opponents of this Hatfields vs. McCoys construction of democracy. Fearing a surge in criminal shootouts and firearm fights, police officials across Poland are speaking out against looser gun controls, even if it means a showdown with their powerful boss in Warsaw.

Police estimate that hundreds of thousands of illegal weapons are already circulating in the country, most bought from Russian soldiers who unloaded arsenals when retreating from their Warsaw Pact outposts in the early 1990s. In the latest sensational discovery, authorities in the southern city of Czestochowa last month uncovered an illegal cache of Soviet-made rifles, handguns, land mines and an armor-piercing rocket launcher.

Violent crime, moreover, continues its astronomical climb, even though the overall rate dropped in 1996 for the first time since the fall of communism.

"Police all over the world are against greater numbers of weapons,'' said Andrzej Przemyski of the National Police. "The more legal weapons there are, the more illegal weapons as well. And it is the criminals who will always have the advantage.''

So far the ruling coalition has dismissed police objections as overly cautious and undemocratic and is moving forward with controversial plans to overhaul gun control regulations.