German Media Roundup: Removing weapons from the home

Following another shooting rampage with a legally owned sporting weapon that left four dead in the southern German city of Lörrach Sunday, newspapers in The Local’s Media Roundup questioned whether protecting the rights ofgun owners outweighs the risks.

German Media Roundup: Removing weapons from the home
A gun show customer checks out the goods. Photo: DPA

On Sunday, 41-year-old lawyer Sabine R. killed her ex-partner and five-year-old son, then headed to a nearby hospital where she murdered an orderly and injured a police officer before being shot dead by another officer.

The incident came only days after a court in the nearby state capital Stuttgart began proceedings against the father of Tim Kretschmer, the Winnenden teen who shot dead 15 people before killing himself in March 2009. The businessman faces charges of weapons law violations for not keeping his weapon properly secured.

German newspapers on Tuesday tried to glean insights from another senseless tragedy.

The Badische Zeitung, based in Freiburg some 80-kilometres from Lörrach, expressed the region’s sense of shock and helplessness in the face of such incidents.

“Along with the speculation that comes after the fact there’s another question which we can’t spare the countless weapons lovers living in peace,” the paper said. “When there is a firearm at hand, is there not a threat that difficult psychological conflicts will escalate faster than without them? To this day the weapons lobby still hasn’t been able to convince us that the two have nothing to do with the other.”

Baden-Württemburg’s capital daily, the Stuttgarter Zeitung, warned against knee-jerk weapons law reforms, but said Sunday’s shocking events renewed questions about whether current regulations are adequate.

“Once again a weapon that should have been used for recreational sport shooting was used to kill, and this time the perpetrator was a markswoman herself,” the paper said. “She would not have been able to commit the crime if she had faced tighter weapon regulations.”

While stronger laws for such weapons may not prevent every crime, they would hinder at least a few, the paper said.

“After the most recent crimes we must be allowed to weigh the freedom of sports shooters against other people’s right to life. In this society people’s freedom is encroached for petty reasons. Is it really unreasonable then if marksmen only have a right to reach for their weapons when they are practising the sport? Stricter weapons law won’t make disturbed people better. But in individual cases it could soften the consequences of their behaviour.”

Hannover daily the Neue Presse agreed with this view, lamenting: “Why on earth do sport shooters bring their weapons and pistols into their homes at all? There is no plausible reason.”

These guns are meant only for use within sporting clubs, where they should be stored with the appropriate security precautions, the paper said.

“Clearly if the woman intended to kill the man and child she would have done it despite a strict weapons law. States of madness cannot be totally avoided, but sometimes they can be made easier for someone.”

The centre-left Süddeutsche Zeitung complained that insidious pressure from the gun lobby had politicians running scared. Trade-offs in favour of public safety needed to be made, the paper urged, even if that inconveniences law-abiding gun owners.

“The abuse of legal guns has claimed more lives than the terrorism of the Red Army Faction,” the paper said. “Yet instead of changing weapons laws, politicians freeze – out of fear of the shooting associations and the gun lobby.”

Very few people who legally own guns really need them, as opposed to hunters, forest rangers, and people who need a weapon for self-defence, the paper said. The majority of the 10 million legal guns in the country belong to sports shooters such as Sabine R.

But the fact that most of them were perfectly respectable people was scant comfort for grieving relatives of shooting victims, the paper said. At the very least, there should be a ban on keeping lethal sports weapons at home. Instead, these could be stored with the police, in a secure place with assigned supervisors.

“For it is the quick access to a pistol that allows murders like those in Lörrach,” the paper concluded.

But regional daily Leipziger Volkszeitung pointed out that the features of the crime were so inconsistent with the normal criminal patterns that the murders simply could not be used to justify further regulation.

“How can a community protect itself against mass murderers? Know-it-alls offer well-meant advice. People should keep an eye on young, male loners. Internet threats should be taken seriously. The state, it is often heard, must control how sports shooters secure their weapons, so that they do not mistakenly fall into the hands of their children,” the paper said.

“But since the bloody crime of Lörrach, it is clear that mass-murderers do not stick to regulations. Not only can they be over 40, they can even be women and have a job as a lawyer. She did not announce her murder. People … die even from a completely unmenacing, small-calibre sports pistol. Serious explosions can be brought about with petrol or spirits. The message from Lörrach is simple: there is no safe protection against maniacal murderers.”

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Demand for alarm gun licenses climbs in Germany

Germany has some of the strictest gun laws in Europe, but certain aspects of gun ownership are growing in popularity.

Demand for alarm gun licenses climbs in Germany
A small gun license lies between a “Walther P22” alarm pistol, a magazine and ammunition. Photo: DPA

Licenses to carry “small arms,” or weapons that only fire irritant gas or blank cartridges, are increasing, even if overall weapons demand is slowly levelling off.

To carry these weapons in public, Germans are required to hold a small arms license, or Kleinen Waffenschein. The number of these licenses rose again in 2019, more than doubling within the last five years. 

These weapons, however, can't cause any injuries unless fired from close range. Cologne police union chairman has previously said the increase is due to “a rising feeling of insecurity”, but the guns are also used for different purposes, such as setting off fireworks. 

READ ALSO: 'Feeling of insecurity': Alarm gun ownership on the rise in Germany

At the end 2019, a total of 664,706 certificates were registered in the National Arms Register. This is according to data the Federal Ministry of the Interior released to DPA on request.

The trend shows a clear upward trajectory. At the end of 2015, around 286,000 small arms licenses were listed in the National Arms Register. In 2016, there were 470,000; In 2017, 558,000; And, at the end of 2018, 611,000.

When are small weapons used?

Germans over 18 are eligible to apply for a small weapons license, which include non-lethal weapons that create warning signals or release irritant chemicals.

The licenses are issued by police or other local authorities. Before applicants are approved, personal background checks are conducted, looking for things like past criminal behaviour. 

Even the discharge of the weapons is only approved at shooting ranges, or within narrowly-defined justifiable situations, such as necessary self-defense – which can then be subject to court review in cases of doubt.

And weapons are prohibited at public gatherings like festivals, protests or movie premiers, regardless of a valid license.

But even with these regulations, police agencies warn the carrying of non-lethal weapons may cause danger for the gun owners as well as the general public, mainly because the weapons can look deceptively real.

A police officer aims a pistol, a “Walther P99,” in Duisberg. Photo: DPA

Not just for self-protection

Police unions view the newest developments with mixed feelings. The federal chairman of the German Police Union, Heiko Teggatz, however, is not alarmed.

Since background checks occur before licenses can be issued, “it can be assumed that the weapon owner is not necessarily amongst a group that is of police interest,” he explained. “In this respect, I don't find the rise of small gun licenses unsettling from a police point of view.”

Katja Triebel, owner of a Berlin arms shop, agrees. The non-lethal weapons can also be used with different ammunition, including fireworks, she said to explain the increasing demand she sees right before New Year's Eve. 

“The sales are about New Year's Eve fireworks, not self-protection,” she said. Firing pyro ammunition is prohibited in public spaces, but is allowed in enclosed areas such as shooting ranges for those carrying small weapon licenses. 

READ ALSO: Why many German cities become a fireworks hell on NYE

Jörg Radek, the deputy federal president of the Police Union, on the other hand, is skeptical, saying he “doubts whether self-armament is the right way to improve security.”

He believes this is because small weapons users risk escalating dangerous situations.

“Whoever enters an armed conflict increases the risk to himself,” he explained. Additionally, he pointed out Germany's upcoming police shortage, which could result in less officers able to deal with arising crime.

He warned that by 2025, retirement would create 55,000 vacancies in the federal and state police agencies. 

Tense gun debate

Recent shootings have left Germany on edge concerning all forms of gun regulation.

Incidents include an attack in February where a shooter with anti-immigrant motives shot victims outside two Shisha bars in the city of Hanau. The man reportedly held valid licenses on all of his firearms.

And in October 2019, an attacker attempted to force his way into a Synagogue in the city of Halle. After failing to infiltrate the Yom Kippur festivities, he killed two passers-by before fleeing the scene. He utilized homemade firearms and explosives in his attack.

READ ALSO: What is Germany doing to combat the far-right after Hanau attacks?

The assassination of pro-migrant politician Walter Lübcke earlier in 2019 year has also played a role in raising concerns about guns in the hands of extremists. 

Germany's comprehensive and extensive regulation has been undermined in part because official agencies fail to keep track of their own stock, according to Welt am Sonntag.

In February 2020, the German newspaper reported that over 100 weapons have disappeared from various security agencies in Germany over the past decade.

One of the weapons, a submachine gun, was discovered in the home of police officer who was also involved in a far-right chat group.