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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Packing a Piece in Wild, Wild East

Valery Alexsayev looked his customer straight in the eye. "You have to decide what you want the gun for," he said. "If it's for self-defense, this Saiga is the piece. The clear choice."

Alexander Surikov, a stocky, square-jawed man in a hip-length leather jacket, nodded gravely on the other side of the counter. "And if you want to ride with your friends outside once in a while and shoot a duck, you can use this Saiga too," Alexsayev added. He cradled the rifle in his arms, and ran his fingers down the barrel.

It was just what Surikov was looking for.

Few freedoms in the new Russia have been celebrated quite so enthusiastically as the right to bear arms. Gun sales, legal and illegal, have soared in the past few years -- so much so that the Interior Ministry calls the domestic arms market "the most destabilizing factor" facing Russian crime-fighters.

Scarcely a day passes without a report of a gangland hit. Some Moscow restaurants require patrons to check their guns at the door. And so far, there hasn't been a peep of protest from Russia's gun-control movement, and with good reason: Remarkably, given the scale of gun-related crime, no such movement exists.

"No," said retired Colonel Viktor Kirilyuk, director of the Central Sports Shooting Club of the Russian Defense Society. The very notion of a gun-control movement seemed to puzzle him. In Russia, he finally said, there is "no such problem."

Actually, Russia's gun laws are far more restrictive than those of the United States. Handguns are illegal, as are automatic weapons. And just as there is no mass movement to further control guns, there is no mass movement -- no National Rifle Association -- pressing to liberalize Russia's gun laws.

Though firearms are Kirilyuk's passion -- his office is festooned with brightly colored pennants from sports shooting clubs and tournaments around the world -- he nonetheless recoils at the thought of legalizing automatic weapons.

"You know," he said, "we don't have so many animals that we should be shooting them with automatic weapons."

But animals -- and, more to the point, people -- are being shot with automatic weapons, not to mention handguns. Russian newspapers are filled with stories about the black market in illegal weapons, many of them stolen from the army and from arms factories.

In its crime report, the Interior Ministry said it had identified 27 organized crime gangs that specialize in illegal arms sales. It said 9,500 crimes were committed with guns in 1996.

During the Soviet era, all adults theoretically had the right to own one gun. In practice, not that many did, although most learned how to handle guns in school, and competitive shooting sports were popular. Under a 1994 law, Russians now have the right to own up to five guns, including gas-powered pistols, which use gas cartridges instead of gunpowder. The Interior Ministry, which licenses gun owners, refused to say how many guns are owned legally in Russia.

At the Central Sports Shooting Club, home of one of Moscow's largest indoor shooting ranges, interest in sports shooting has actually declined, following a decline in state-sponsored shooting clubs. But whole families still come to squeeze off a few rounds for target practice every afternoon and weekend.

What has grown is the business at the club's adjoining gun shop. On a weekday afternoon, customers streamed into the shop to admire its selection of U.S., European and Russian weapons at prices ranging from less than $90 for a Russian-made, gas-powered pistol to $2,300 for an Italian deer rifle. The most popular gun in the shop is the Saiga 20 -- a Russian-built, .20-caliber, smooth-bore carbine with a detachable butt. At about $500, this is the gun that attracted the attention of Alexander Surikov. "I'll feel more comfortable in our difficult, turbulent time," said the 32-year-old security guard at Russia's Central Bank.