In Germany, Owning A Gun Is A Privilege

Oct 9, 2013

Germany has some of the strictest gun control laws in the world. For the next two weeks, NPR Berlin will be featuring a special series about guns in Germany.

Hardy Schober stops by the cemetery near his home in Winnenenden almost every day to visit the grave of his 15-year-old daughter. Jana was killed by a classmate four years ago in one of the most tragic school shootings in Germany’s history.

“We don't live very far from the cemetery, and I stop there and talk with her,” says Schober.

He visits Jana’s grave to tell her about his day, or about what’s going on with the rest of their family. When he talks about her, his eyes well with tears. He calls her a “sun child,” a lively, happy young woman.

Jana was one of 17 victims who died in the 2009 massacre at the high school in Winnenden. The gunman was a 17-year-old former student of the school who took a gun from his father’s bedroom. Jana was shot in the head with a nine millimeter semi-automatic pistol and died within hours.  

“What's so hard for me to come to terms with is that I was always there to protect her when she was learning how to ride a bicycle. It's so hard for me that the one time I passed that responsibility on to the school, and that's where she died,” says Schober.

After Jana’s death, Schoeber formed an organization to advocate for stricter gun laws called Aktionsbündnis Amoklauf Winnenden, or Winnenenden Action Group. The massacre in Winnenden was the third school shooting within eight years, which makes Germany stand out in Europe. The tragedies set off a debate about gun regulation in Germany that continues today.

But conversations about gun control in Germany are very different from those in the U.S. In Germany, the discussion is not about if guns should be regulated. It’s about how guns should be regulated.

Mandated Safe Storage

Gunther Eggersdorf goes hunting nearly every day outside his village in Bavaria. He walks down to the basement room where he keeps his guns.

“Here are the weapons,” says Eggersdorf. “Must be in the dresser. I have only the key. So I can only open this.” He unlocks a tall, black safe that’s as tall as him and shows his eight firearms.

Like all gun owners in Germany, he’s required to store his weapons in a locked safe.

If gun owners don’t have firearms stowed away, the consequences are serious. Law enforcers go door to door and randomly check on gun owners. If officials find that a gun owner doesn’t have their weapons in a safe, they could lose their guns, be fined, or go to jail. The father of the 17-year-old gunman in Winnenden was tried and sentenced for leaving his pistol in his bedroom, where his son could access it.

Still, there are more than 5.4 million legal firearms in Germany, or about 30 guns for every 100 people. That’s the fourth highest per capita rate in the world, behind the U.S., Switzerland, and Finland.

At this neighborhood shooting range in Berlin, three men take turns firing at cardboard cutouts of wild boars and red foxes. Getting together at the range is not only about target practice, but also about community. Sport shooting is one of just a few limited paths to gun ownership here.

Guns must be justified as "necessary"

In Germany, you have to have a good reason for owning a gun, like if you’re a sport shooter, hunter, or in rare cases, a gun collector. You can’t buy a firearm simply for personal protection; self-defense doesn’t count as a necessity. The yearlong licensing process involves written tests and shooting practice, and costs several thousand euros. Every applicant is background checked. And starting this year, every gun owner is tracked on a national register.

Friedrich Gepperth is a sport shooter and gun lobbyist. He doesn’t want any additional gun control in Germany.

“We recognize the situation with our society. Guns are not very popular with the people.”

But even he says that, on some level, regulation is expected in Germany.

“On the one hand, we think ,'Oh, it's very restrictive, and we don't like that,'” says Gepperth. On the other hand, each case of misuse by a legal gun owner is very bad for us, so we are not going against the restrictions very much.”

According to a 2009 poll by German public television, most Germans support strict gun regulation. But even with the policies currently in place, gun deaths and gun crimes still happen. Each year, about 200 people are killed by guns.  

That’s very low compared to the rate of gun homicides in the U.S. But gun control advocates like Hardy Schober say that many deaths could be prevented. His organization wants a ban on big bore weapons, like the kind the Winnenden gunman used to kill his daughter. They also want a law requiring sport shooters to store guns at the firing range, instead of at home. Most of Germany’s gun deaths happen domestically, with legal firearms.

“Since the beginning of 2009, over 50 people have died in similar shooting incidents,” says Schober. “If our demands would have been met, then 50 people would still be alive.”

Eventually, Schober’s group would like digital safeguards to be required on every weapon in Germany. That might involve using a thumbprint scan to unlock the trigger, or including GPS targeted permissions on guns so they only work inside the confines of shooting ranges.

It’s hard to imagine discussions of this level in the United States, where the gun control debate focuses on universal background checks or bans on gun ownership for the mentally ill.

The key difference? In the U.S., guns are a constitutional right. In Germany, they’re a privilege.

Coming up in the series, we'll look at the culture of sport shooting and hunting on All Things Considered.