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German Gun Law Primer

by Robert Lyman

April 27, 2002 -- The recent school shooting in Germany has undoubtedly left that country shocked and numb; certainly I am saddened by the tragic deaths of 14 teachers, 2 students, and a police officer at the hands of a lunatic.

This is, however, a good moment to discuss the gun laws in Germany and the role they may have played in this tragedy.

My wife and I lived in Germany for a year as students. We were members of a gun club there (We have the cards to prove it) and we even bought two rifles and brought them home with us. I am a minor expert on German gun laws, as I was very interested in comparing them and their effectiveness to American laws. Here I summarize the law as it was from 1999-2000 and insert my personal experience and the things I was told by German gun dealers and citizens.

To own a gun in Germany, one must posses a license issued by the police. Target shooters must be members of a legitimate club, must attend a 3-day safety class, and must pass a written and practical exam. Strict limits are placed on the number and types of guns one may own: "Assault weapons" (defined as guns having the "outer form" of a full-auto gun, regardless of actual functionality) are illegal, and the law limits target shooters to a maximum of 8 single-shot .22s. Perhaps surprisingly, a very wide range of guns are in fact legal, including almost any handgun available in the U.S., to people who hold the appropriate license. A dealer informed me that a particular H&K rifle was legal with a grey plastic stock, but would be considered an "assault weapon" if the stock were black. Hunting rifles and shotguns exactly like those in the US are available for sale, but the Germans seem to prefer double and triple-barreled guns (say, one 12ga. barrel, one .270, and one .44 mag, on the same break-action stock) to the more familiar bolt and pump repeaters.

A hunting gun requires a hunting license, which is issued only after a 1-year class (2-3 times a week) and an exhaustive test. Applicants get only one chance to pass this test. I personally knew one woman who planned on getting hunting license primarily because she would enjoy learning woodcraft and tracking, and secondarily so that she could keep an heirloom shotgun in the family after her grandfather died (if no one in the family had had a hunting license, the gun would have gone to the local police).

Concealed carry is legal for those with permits. Permits are issued on a "may-issue" basis to those who can prove a "need." In reality, this means that NO ONE gets permits except professional bodyguards. Self-defense generally is stigmatized. One woman who was a martial artist informed me that martial arts training was a liability legally; if she injured a rapist, she could expect to be charged with assault and have her karate knowledge used as evidence against her. It is technically illegal to keep a loaded weapon at home--guns and ammo have to be stored "securely," a term which is undefined in the law. A recent change in the law will require that they also be stored separately. Shooting a home invader before he shoots at you is likely to be regarded as murder. Since there are no juries in Germany, you'd better hope you get a sympathetic judge.

Buying a gun, gun parts, or ammunition, even .22, is legally impossible without a license unless your gun will be immediately exported. Ironically, mail-order guns are common--just send in a notarized copy of your license, and they send the gun to your door. In what is perhaps the oddest result of tight gun laws, Germans can choose from a plethora of realistic-looking "Scare-guns," which are almost indistinguishable from the real thing, but which fire only blanks, or in some cases, pepper spray and CS tear gas. Where American gun shops proudly display racks of pistols, German shops have similar racks of fake pistols available for immediate, no-license purchase. Until recently carrying a fake gun for "self-defense" was generally legal; a new law will require a "fake gun CCW" permit.

On the black market side, an illegal full-auto AK is easy to come by because of the collapse of East Germany. Glock handguns sell for $200 on the street (I rely on my conversations with gun dealers for this information, as I made no attempt to illegally acquire any weapons). Corrupt sale of gun licenses to criminals by police officials does occur, but I cannot say if this problem is widespread. Certainly I saw stories about it in my year over there.

Target shooting thrives in Germany, as it has for some 500 years. Self-defense is dead. Hunting remains, as it ever was, an aristocratic amusement.

On the day before this most recent massacre, a new law was passed from the lower house of the German parliament which would make the following changes in German weapons regulations:

--"Little CCW" license now required for carry of fake "scare-guns." A practical test will be administered in their safe use.

--"Violence-prone extremists" forbidden to posses weapons.

--Various types of knives forbidden.

--Throwing stars forbidden (I'm sorry, but I have to comment: how dumb is this? Has ANYONE been killed with throwing stars in Germany this year?)

--Guns and ammo must be stored separately.

The massacre at the high school has prompted the German police union to call for additional laws:

--Strengthening of penalties for illegal concealed carry of weapons, including knives.

--Creation of a national gun database (Current registries are local.)

The police union claims there is a "huge black market" in illegal weapons in Germany. How their proposals would reduce this problem is unclear.

Indeed, it is unclear what if any effect all of Germany's strict laws might have had on such a disgusting but well-planned crime as this.

In summary, Germany's gun laws closely resemble those of Massachusetts, but are perhaps a tiny bit more irrational. They do not appear to deter school shootings, several of which have taken place in the past year.

I do not expect Germany to enact truly rational reforms anytime soon, and the lack of a strong pro-rights lobby will likely spell disaster for the shooting community if these sorts of school shootings continue.

Related Reading

Germany's "Gun Safety" Laws

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Reporters today are far removed from America's founding values and are alarmed and contemptuous of gun owners as dangerous lower classes. HENRY ALLEN, WASHINGTON POST

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