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Russia: Gun Rights Advocates Rally Around Tula Hero

Categories: Eastern & Central Europe, Russia, Citizen Media, Digital Activism, Human Rights, Law, Politics, Protest, RuNet Echo

Russian gun ownership laws are long and restrictive [1] [ru]. Currently, civilians cannot carry guns for self-defense, and most are ineligible to purchase rifles. No one can own guns shorter than 80 centimeters (effectively outlawing handguns).

This is why a small-scale farmer in Tula turned to a kitchen knife [2] [ru] to kill three out of four armed robbers that threatened him and his family on April 7. This, at least, is the narrative that some Russian gun rights advocates have pursued in the aftermath.

On the day of the incident, 52-year-old Gegam Sarkisian [3] [ru] was watching television with his wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren, when four men armed with an (illegal) handgun, as well as knives and a baseball bat, entered their house. The robbers, not satisfied with the small amount of money Sarkisian had readily available, began to beat him and the women.

Miraculously, Sarksian was able to successfully defend himself with a knife. Only one robber escaped, alive but wounded, as a result. Sarkisian himself walked away with just a brief hospital stay.

The story went viral, and Sarkisian’s instantaneous hero status helped him avoid criminal charges — a very real danger in Russia, even in clear-cut cases of self-defense. The popular sentiment was expressed by Vladimir Soloviev, a journalist and television personality, who tweeted [4] [ru], “Gegam Sarkisian […] is a real hero. He should be lauded, not tried.”

The governor of Tula Oblast responded [5] [ru] on Twitter with his reassurance: “[Gegam] is a true MAN, and we will not let him come to harm.” Indeed, no murder charges were ever filed against Sarkisian.

For most the story was just that — a rare happy ending in the rather bleak world of crime reporting. Not so for Russia’s nascent gun rights activists, who view the entire situation as avoidable, if only handgun possession were legalized in Russia. One might question the sense of making a man who killed his assailants with a knife a cause célèbre for gun ownership.

Activist Maria Butina does not [6] [ru]:

Однако кажется очевидным, что далеко не каждый сможет зарезать нападающих ножом, возможность защищаться более совершенным техническим инструментарием позволила бы такие случаи успешной самозащиты воспроизводить в куда большем масштабе […].

It seems obvious that not everyone can kill his assailants with a knife, [but] the ability to defend oneself with a more ideal technical instrument would help reproduce successful cases of self-defense on a more massive scale.

Butina is the coordinator of the “Right to Arms” movement. The movement’s stated goal is to legalize handgun ownership, and to coordinate the necessary lobbying activities to this end. She runs the group’s vk.com page [7] [ru], a pro gun website [8] [ru], and her own blog [9] [ru], where she writes almost exclusively about gun politics.

Linking handgun ownership to self-defense is a common theme for proponents of gun rights. On April 9, Butina created a petition [10] [ru] titled “Self-defense Is An Act of Bravery, Not A Crime!” on www.OnlinePetition.ru [11], a Russian website similar in concept to Change.org [12] [en]. The petition, which now has nearly 1,500 signatures, links Sarkisian to Alexander Tarasov, a 70-year-old retiree who killed a burglar with a knife on April 7, 2011 – exactly one year before Sarkisian's break-in.

Tarasov, however, was found guilty of premeditated murder, and the petition calls for a review of his case and the decriminalization of self-defense. The header [13] of the petition (shown below) depicts a young woman aiming a handgun, her face determined. The approach to self-defense seems clear enough.


Maria Butina's online petition, "Two Kinds of Defense Against Violence." Screenshot, 20 April 2012.

Konstantin Krylov, a well-known nationalist ideologist and blogger who believes [14] [ru] that gun ownership is one of the basic human needs, also capitalized on Sarkisian's story to promote the right to self-defense. Before it was clear that Sarkisian would not be charged, Krylov wrote [15] [ru]:

Что характерно, наказываются именно те люди, которые во всём остальном мире были бы признаны национальными героями.

Characteristically, those are punished [in Russia] who would be considered national heroes in the rest of the world.

On April 15, Krylov was among a group of speakers at a Moscow rally [16] [ru] organized by “Right to Arms.” Nationalist politician Vladimir Tor and opposition activist-blogger Vladislav Naganov [17] also showed up to promote self-defense and handgun legalization to a crowd of approximately two hundred people. Although Sarkisian was originally on the agenda [18] [ru], Tula authorities’ decision not to prosecute made him a less interesting case by the time of the rally.

In hindsight, it seems that gun rights activists were quick to jump on Sarkisian’s case because of its confluence with Tarasov’s and because the April 15 rally was planned before [19] [ru] the April 7, 2012, incident. Butina herself wrote [20] [ru] that “the circumstances allowed [the rally] to enter the flow of events with Tarasov and Sarkisian,” potentially increasing the coverage it would have otherwise received.

One weapons blogger [21], tl2002, has called the move exploitative in a post [22] titled “Handgun Advocates Try to Hitch A Piggyback Ride”:

Непонятно каким боком расследование убийства налетчиков связано с легализацией пистолетов […]. Как говорится было бы желание, а повод найдется.

I don’t understand how the investigation into the murders can be tied to legalizing handguns […]. As they say, where there's a will, there's a way.

Others have pushed back against the arguments [23] [ru] that “if the entrepreneur had a handgun, the bandits would not even try to enter,” or “if they had, the self-defense hero would probably not need to be hospitalized.”

One commenter on Butina’s blog cited his own military experience to argue [24] [ru] that a handgun would not have helped Sarkisian, writing, “The assailants would not likely miss a gun safe […]. Here the knife was much more appropriate.”

Furthermore, a handgun, even if it was easily accessible, might not have been helpful in Sarkisian’s situation because of the danger of friendly fire, writes [25] [ru] blogger don_djovanni.

Meanwhile, Tula Governor Vladimir Gruzdev is also hitching a ride on the issue. A local news agency is running an online poll [26] [ru], asking whether people support Gruzdev's initiative [27] [ru] for freer gun sales. So far, 65% of respondents say “Yes” or “Yes, but with limitations.” In any case, a dialogue has been opened.