I am overwhelmed by the sight of the small monument shaped like a gravestone—inscribed Obetem Komunismu (“Sacrificed to Communism”)—surrounded by flowers and pictures of martyrs from the 1948-1989 period in Czechoslovakia’s history. Looking up, one sees the statue of St. Wenceslas and the Czech National Museum at the end of the wide boulevard forever seared into the world’s consciousness by the Prague Spring of 1968. One senses the ghosts of the Soviet tanks and hears the faint echo of the machine-gun fire that killed the brave—and unarmed— freedom fighters.

It is now 1994, the fifth year since liberation swept Eastern Europe. Czechoslovakia is now divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. From the gravestone I look left, and there it is— a colorful sign of a semiautomatic pistol advertising Kozap-Praha, one of the Czech Republic’s many new firearms stores. I came upon this gun shop within two minutes of walking out of the train station, having just arrived from Nuremberg, Germany. You can select from a nice array of CZ, Beretta, Colt, and Smith and Wesson pistols and revolvers, as well as .22 rifles, center fire hunting rifles, and shotguns.

How symbolic—the new Czech right to keep and bear arms is just as much a herald of the death of tyranny as is the granite obituary to the dead. At the very time the United States Congress was voting to ban any firearm magazine holding over 10 cartridges, citizens of the postcommunist bloc were purchasing pistols with magazines holding as many as 17 cartridges. It seems as if freedom is breaking out all over the world . . . except in America.

The gun shop clerk (who knew about as much English as I knew Czech) explained the one legal requirement for purchasing a pistol—he muttered something about “police” and made a stamping motion with his hand. Get your paperwork stamped, a routine formality for any law-abiding person, pay Czech crowns (Visa and Master Card are also accepted), and the pistol is yours. Not perfect freedom, but few people complain, for it was not long ago that all firearms were banned for everyone save a few Communist Party hacks.

The bookstore just across from my pension displays R.L. Wilson’s Colt: An American Legend (not in English, of course) and gun magazines and books in Czech. (Few Czechs I encountered spoke any English, which is just now being widely taught. Some, particularly older people, speak a little German, which made life easy for me: my closest companion was a Czech-German phrase book. The second language is a result of the occupation: Russian.)

I am on a train ride to Brno. Rushing by is a hunting stand with roof and walls—European comfort. The man across from me speaks only Czech. As we pass through forested hills, I draw a stag and point out the window, inquiring with my expression, how is the hunting here? He shakes his head “yes” and makes like firing a rifle. He enthusiastically sketches a wild boar, rabbit, and goat, rapidly explaining in a language I do not understand, but I get the impression that the country is crawling with game.

My new friend draws a map of the Czech republic showing the best hunting areas. I show him a business card of the CZ firearms factory I am planning to visit. He draws a picture of a rifle cartridge on the map to show where an ammunition factory is located. I then take out the gun magazine I bought in Prague, and my friend instantly recognizes IPSC action pistol matches and other shooting sports now openly pursued in the Czech Republic. I surmise that my random encounter with this shooting enthusiast could be duplicated anywhere in the country.

The train arrives at Brno, and it is time for the longest taxi ride of my life—100 kilometers (60 miles) through the Czech countryside, passing horse-drawn carts, stout peasant women in traditional clothing, and hillsides of grapevines for making good Czech wine (priced at 50 Czech crowns, or about $1.50 a bottle). The taxi driver speaks no English but plays “Drivin”‘ by Richie Havens and other American disco tunes throughout our ride. Rock and roll is played all over the republic.

At last I arrive in Uhersky Brod, home of Ceská Zbrojovka, manufacturer of the “CZ” line of rifles, pistols, and shotguns, hi addition to making the classic European hunting bolt rifles and double shotguns, this firm produces about 50,000 CZ75 semiautomatic pistols per year. One of the nicest 9mm pistols ever designed, the CZ75 was available to American consumers in the mid-1980’s until the United States State Department somehow decided that discouraging the Eastern European arms industry would weaken Soviet domination over those countries. (I even tried to persuade the BATE to reissue the import permits; the BATE claimed that the State Department would not consent.) The dissolution of the Soviet Union has again made these superior firearms available to Americans. The firm does beautiful engravings on special orders.

Milton Kubele and Ing. Antonin Vaclavik explain that the Czech firm began in 1936 but was moved during communist rule in the 1960’s to the center of the country to be further away from Germany, which precipitated World War II by invading Czechoslovakia in 1938. The factory at Brno had made guns in World War I and still manufactures long guns. Confusion about the two factories persists because both engrave their firearms as being made in Brno.

My hosts explain that the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989 heralded the right of law-abiding people to buy guns. An ordinary citizen can own a CZ75 and partake in pistol matches. There were many hunters before the revolution, though nonparty members found it very difficult to get permission to own firearms.

There were only one or two gun stores in Czechoslovakia during the communist regime. Today, there are 27 gun shops in Prague alone, and about 120 across the country. There are also many gun clubs and shooting ranges, and citizens may use both private and military ranges.

The CZ factory makes several variations of 9mm pistols, including the 75, the improved 85, and the 75 Cadet (a .22 with the same frame size as the 75). One hundred thousand pistols are made each year. The Skorpion submachine gun is made for “special” purposes, and a look-alike semiautomatic is also produced. Fully automatic, it fires at a rate of 850 rounds per minute. It is held sideways because of unacceptable muzzle climb in the upright position.

Communism did not bring gun control to Czechoslovakia—it only continued Nazi atrocities. Milan Kubele, a postwar baby like myself, related what his father told him and what is generally remembered today: the first day the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, they put up posters in every town ordering the inhabitants to surrender all firearms, including hunting guns. The penalty for disobedience was death. Lists of potential dissidents and other suspects were already prepared, and those persons disappeared immediately. Gun owners were actually easy pickings for the Nazis, because registration of firearms with the government had been required by the First Republic, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hunters were registered with the local police at Prague.

Firearms prohibition was an essential aspect of the repressive Nazi and Communist regimes from the Nazi occupation in 1939 through the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Two world wars left firearms all over Europe. Do Czechs obey all the laws, or have unregistered guns been secreted under the Nazis, Communists, and even today’s Republic? As victims of Russian and German aggression, the Czechs have become crafty people. One Czech told me with a coy look that he did not know of anyone who would violate a gun regulation. Right.

Driving me back to Brno, my hosts talked of the problems of the Czech Republic but expressed optimism for its future: the lost economic security of the old socialist regime did not equal the true economic development ushered in by the advent of the free market. My own observations give a bird’s-eye view of the Czech people in transition: creaky elevators in old buildings, people hard at work repairing the old and building the new, good red wine that costs $1.60 a bottle, vegetables and puppets for sale in the market, beautiful historic castles and great buildings that were never bombed in World War II, landscape scarred by irresponsible socialist industrial policies, beautiful forested areas peppered with quaint villages, old dilapidated train cars with no working toilets, and modern train cars with all the conveniences. Here is the transition from communism to free enterprise by a people who never believed in the former.

A taxi driver in Prague told me in German as I got out on the main boulevard to beware of robbers. I responded that we have plenty of them in America, too. Private crime has replaced government crime; that’s progress, because individuals are never as capable as tyrannies of killing large numbers of innocents. If some Czechs are buying pistols for protection against thugs, they will still have them if (or is it when?) the Russian thugs eventually come back. Pistols will not stop tanks, but offer one more means of resistance.

As my Ceská Air flight climbed over Prague, I wondered how long this small country’s newfound freedoms would last. The historic aggressors have been Russian and German expansionists. The best guarantee of freedom against the dangers they pose was and still is the right to keep and bear arms.