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String of knife attacks further fuels debate over refugees and violence

A spate of bloody knife attacks in recent weeks has led to concerns about a rise in knife crime. The fact that teenage refugees have often been the culprits has also fired up right-wing critics of the government.

String of knife attacks further fuels debate over refugees and violence
Photo: DPA

On Tuesday morning a 24-year-old woman’s life still hung in the balance after she was stabbed on Saturday in the town of Burgwedel in Lower Saxony. After undergoing an emergency operation she was placed in an artificial coma.

The woman and her boyfriend had reportedly become involved in an argument with a group of three teenagers from Syria. When the situation turned aggressive, the woman attempted to intervene, but one of the teenagers pulled out a knife and stabbed her.

On the same day in Bochum a 15-year-old schoolboy was stabbed during a fight involving around 20 teenagers. A 16-year-old from Syria was arrested over the attack. The victim was treated in hospital but his situation is not life threatening.

A day earlier, at Wiesbaden central station an argument escalated between two groups of men. One of them pulled a knife and left three others injured. The suspected culprit is from Afghanistan.

The series of bloody incidents over the weekend come in the wake of two murderous stabbings by refugees in recent months, at least one of which appears to have been motivated by jealousy.

In Flensburg an Afghan teenager was arrested early this month on suspicion of stabbing a girl a year his junior to death. The teenager was said to have often visited his victim before the murder. That crime followed another brutal murder in December in the town of Kandel in Rhineland Palatinate where a 15-year-old girl was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, also an asylum seeker from Afghanistan.

Not all the suspects in the recent spate of stabbings have been refugees. In Hanover over the weekend a group of three masked individuals attacked a 17-year-old, stabbing him in the leg after he had refused to hand over his mobile telephone. The trio reportedly spoke accentless German. In Berlin over the weekend at a nightclub, an Iraqi man was furthermore stabbed by a German following an argument.

At least seven knife attacks were recorded last weekend alone. 

And in Berlin early this month a teenage German boy was arrested on suspicion of murdering a 14-year-old girl. She was found dead in her apartment with several stab wounds.

Nonetheless, the prevalence of asylum seekers as suspects in these crimes has given voice to those who say that the government's liberal refugee policies have made the country less safe.

“The knives are growing longer, the attackers are ever younger. The number of knife attacks by asylum seekers grows constantly,” Alice Weidel, co-parliamentary leader of the Alternative for Germany, wrote on Facebook on Monday.

“I call on Interior minister Horst Seehofer to immediately take the suspects into detention pending deportation and then to eject them from the country,” she said. “It needs to be clear that the state is using all its power to protect its citizens.”

The German government in September 2015 opened its borders to refugees from Syria, leading to mass arrivals of asylum seekers over several months. Between 2015 and the middle of 2017, over 1.3 million asylum seekers arrived in the country.

With police statistics showing that refugees and asylum seekers are significantly over-represented in violent crime statistics, the political mood has been raw for some time.

In 2016, irregular migrants (a category including refugees, asylum seekers and people awaiting deportation) were suspects in some 12 percent of homicide cases, despite making up less than two percent of the population.

But there are currently no comprehensive statistics on knife crime, making it difficult to make accurate statements about the severity of the increase in stabbings. Police unions are now calling for knife crime to be published in nationwide statistics.

Dietmar Schilff, a spokesman for the German Police Union, told DPA on Tuesday that more and more teenagers were carrying knives around with them.

“We are witnessing a dangerous trend – within a split second a life-threatening situation can develop,” he said.

“We need to know where such attacks are happening most regularly and who is carrying them out, so that we can react better,” he added.

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EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Germany is known for having some of the world’s strictest gun laws, but shooting incidents continue to cause concern.

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Is it difficult to get a gun in Germany?

To get a gun in Germany you firstly have to obtain a firearms ownership license (Waffenbesitzkarte) – and you may need a different one for each weapon you buy – or a license to carry (Waffenschein).

Applicants for a license must be at least 18-years-old and undergo what’s called a reliability check. This includes checking for criminal records, whether the person is an alcohol or drug addict, whether they have a mental illness or any other attributes that might make them owning a gun a potential concern for authorities.

They also have to pass a “specialised knowledge test” on guns and people younger than 25 applying for their first license must go through a psychiatric evaluation.

Crucially, applicants must also prove a specific and approved “need“ for the weapon, which is mainly limited to use by hunters, competitive marksmen, collectors and security workers – not for self-defence.

Once you have a license, you’re also limited in the number of and kinds of guns you may own, depending on what kind of license you have: Fully automatic weapons are banned for everyone, while semiautomatic firearms are banned for anything other than hunting or competitive shooting.

A revolver lies on an application for the issuance of a firearms license. Photo: picture alliance / Carsten Rehder/dpa | Carsten Rehder

How many legal guns are there in Germany? 

According to the latest figures from the Federal Ministry of the Interior, as of May 31st, 2022, there were 5.018,963 registered guns in Germany, and 946,546 gun owners entered in the National Weapons Register (NWR).

Where are the most guns in Germany?

Most legal guns are found in rural areas and are used in hunting or shooting sports. Guns are also more widespread in the western States than in the states that make up the former East Germany, where private gun ownership was extremely limited. 

READ ALSO: German prosecutors say poaching led to double police murder

What about undocumented guns in Germany?

One problem in Germany is so-called ‘old’ weapons. It’s impossible to estimate how many weapons from the two world wars are still in circulation and such antiques have appeared in a number of high-profile incidents in the last few years.

The pistol hidden in a Vienna airport by Bundeswehr officer Franco A was a Unique pistol from 1917 and the 2007 murder of a police officer in Heilbronn involved a Wehrmacht pistol. 

In 2009, around 200,000 weapons were returned in a gun amnesty, but it is still unclear how many illegal weapons are still out there.

Does Germany have a gun violence problem?

Gun crime is relatively rare in Germany, which has some of the strictest gun laws in Europe and, according to the latest figures from the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), gun-related crimes in Germany are decreasing.

In 2021, there were 9.8 percent fewer crimes committed with a firearm than the previous year, while the number of cases recorded by the police in which a firearm was used to threaten fell by 11.2 percent. Shots were fired in 4,074 of the total number of recorded cases, down 8.5 percent from 2021.

An armored weapons cabinet filled with long guns. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Friso Gentsch

Despite this, there have been several mass shootings within the past two decades, which have had a big impact on public consciousness and on gun control policy. 

Between 2002 and 2009 there were three major incidents of young men carrying out shootings at their former high schools and, in 2020, a racially motivated gunman shot and killed 11 people and injured numerous others in an attack on two shisha bars in Hanau. The perpetrator was allowed to legally possess firearms, although he had previously sent letters with right-wing extremist content to authorities.

Recently there were also shootings at Heidelberg University in southwestern Germany and at a supermarket in Schwalmstadt in Hesse.

Are German gun laws about to change?

The German parliament reacted to the mass shooting incidents in the early 2000s by tightening the gun laws, and, in the wake of the Hanau attack, a new amendment is in the works, which aims to shift focus towards monitoring gun owners with extremist, right-wing views.

READ ALSO: Germany marks a year since deadly racist shooting in Hanau

In December 2021, Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) announced her intention to further tighten gun laws, as part of a plan to tackle right-wing extremism.

The authorities in charge of the protection of the constitution have been warning for some time that neo-Nazis are deliberately joining shooting clubs to obtain guns and the Federal Ministry of the Interior reports that 1.500 suspected right-wing extremists among legal gun owners.

Campaigners say more needs to be done to stop gun crime. 

Dagmar Ellerbrock, a historian and expert on weapons history at the Technical University of Dresden said: “It is high time that we try to at least make it more difficult for these political groups to find their way through the shooting associations.”

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