The anti-government Reichsbürger movement is growing in Germany. After the fatal shooting of a police officer in October, the justice minister is calling for stricter laws to stop extremists from acquiring weapons.
Speaking on ARD's Sunday night broadcast "Bericht aus Berlin," German Justice Minister Heiko Maas called for tighter weapons laws to prevent guns from falling in to the wrong hands.
As opposed to the current checks carried out by police and Germany's arms associations, the Social Democrat proposed that findings from the country's domestic intelligence agency regarding applicants from the "extremist area" should be reviewed before licenses are granted.
In the interview, the minister made specific reference to the anti-government Reichsbürger movement. About 100 of its members reportedly possess gun permits.
For years, the debate on tightening weapons laws has been repeatedly discussed, particularly after the spate of terrorist attacks across Europe. The topic has gained momentum in recent months, however, following the emergence of the increasingly active Reichsbürger movement.
The group does not recognize the Federal Republic of Germany, denies the legitimacy of the authorities and courts, and asserts that the German Reich continues to this day.
In October, one member near Nuremberg wounded three police officers and killed another in a shootout. A week later, police discovered a weapons stockpile believed to belong to the same extremist group. The movement has since been put under surveillance by German intelligence agencies.
In general, observations should be reserved, Maas said. "There are many groups, also right-wing groups, which consider it to be almost a success when they're observed by intelligence agencies."
"It has become clear among Reichsbürger that it's also about the practice of violence - that's to say criminal activities - and it's therefore logical to decide now that the intelligence agency will survey them from observing this," Maas said.
Rainer Wendt, the head of Germany's police union, supported the call for tighter laws.
"Inquiring with intelligence agencies whether information is available about these people must be obligatory," Wendt said.
Ralf Jäger, the interior minister of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), is also keen to push for an early review by Germany's intelligence services at the upcoming interior ministers conference in Saarbrücken.
"Everything must be done to ensure that extremists cannot possess weapons," Jäger told the daily "Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung."
"It makes little sense to first grant legal permission to own a weapon, only to then discover information from intelligence services about the applicant, and then withdraw a granted license," Jäger said.
Concerns for sport
Despite the growing presence of extremist groups, Stephan Mayer, the Christian Social Union's domestic policy spokesman, rejected the proposal. The conservative politician warned against tightening weapons laws at the expense of shooting sports.
"Of course we want to ensure that weapons do not fall into the wrong hands," Mayer said. "But we cannot put hundreds of thousands of shooters and hunters under general suspicion."
The 'Reichsbürger' movement rejects the authority of the government, with some even holding their own homemade passport
Germany's VDB arms dealers' association also rejected what it described as an "ideological control before the granting of civil rights."
"As a representation of the arms dealers and gunsmiths, we are convinced that the current legal situation and the regulatory authorities are expedient and viable in controlling the access to and the possession of legal weapons," VDB chief executive Ingo Meinhard told DW.
"We see a habitual inquiry into sports guards and hunters by intelligence services, as an administratively legitimate general suspicion against respectable citizens," Meinhard said.
Hindsight too late?
Frank Göpper, a lawyer and the director of Forum Waffenrecht, a German weapon laws association, told DW that he is in favor of tighter laws targeting extremists.
The measures, however, should not affect Germany's estimated 1 million sports shooters and hunters, Göpper said.
"Members of the Reichsbürger are a heterogeneous group of people, of whom around 100 are thought to own a weapon," Göpper added.
"Anyone who is not 'reliable' isn't granted a gun," he said. "This includes anyone who acts against the German constitution."
In his interview on Sunday, however, the justice minister insisted that carrying out checks with intelligence services in hindsight are of little use.
"If the [extremists] have weapons, it's already practically too late," Maas said. "We have to take measures so that such people on the extremist side of our society cannot possess weapons at all."