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.
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.
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.
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.