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Neo-Nazis keep gun licenses

Ben KnightMarch 8, 2016

A new documentary has found that some 400 German neo-Nazis are still allowed to own guns, although gun laws allow authorities to withdraw licenses from any active supporters of far-right extremism. Ben Knight reports.

Durchsuchungen in Sachsen, Wohnungen von vier mutmaßlichen Unterstützern der Zwickauer Neonazi-Terrorgruppe
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Germany's regional intelligence agencies the Verfassungsschutz have admitted that some 400 neo-Nazis had legal access to firearms in 2014, even though gun laws state that anyone who has actively supported far-right extremism in the past five years should have their licenses withdrawn.

As part of a documentary entitled "Terror from the right - the new threat," state broadcaster SWR focused on the story of Thomas B, a neo-Nazi arrested by police in 2009 who was found to be in possession of a handgun, an assault rifle, and 22 kilos of chemicals that could have been used to build a bomb.

It emerged that the then 22-year-old, a member of a local National Democratic Party youth organization, had been talking to friends about potential targets in the city of Freiburg. His trial, which ended in 2012, also uncovered that he had a gun license, and that he was a member of a local hunting club that entitled him to it.

NSU Prozess Tatwaffe Ceska 83 Archivbild
The Ceska gun used by the NSUImage: picture-alliance/dpa

'A little careless'

As part of the report, SWR asked the regional Verfassungsschutz agencies for information on the number of far-right extremists who have gun licenses. In Saxony, which has become notorious for a string of far-right crimes, and where the police were recently openly accused of having sympathy with the scene, 25 people had their right to a license re-assessed in 2015, and only three licenses were withdrawn.

The German government played down the new figures. Emily Haber, state secretary at the Interior Ministry, insisted that Germany has "one of the strictest weapons laws in the world." "If the intelligence agencies become aware of a recognized far-right extremist, who is applying for gun ownership, then that will be immediately reported," she told SWR. Despite the documentary's findings, she insisted that in such cases officials would either deny or withdraw the license.

Hans Vorländer, political scientist at the University of Dresden and expert on right-wing extremism in Germany, said he was fairly shocked by the report. "It seems you have to conclude that [the authorities] have been a little careless," he told DW.

Germany's gun law allows authorities to withdraw a gun license if the owner has been classified as "unreliable," a category that includes active support of the far-right in the past five years. Since the surveillance of the far-right scene is normally the remit of the local Verfassungsschutz, police would rely on intelligence reports for such information.

"Of course if someone really wants a weapon, they'll always get one," Vorländer added. "But on the other hand since there is a strict process for the issue of a weapons license and if there are points that make clear that an individual is known in National Socialist circles, then you should expect the authorities not to hand out the license. So yes, I would say this is a failure."

Extremist threat

The timing of the SWR documentary is particularly sensitive in Germany because of the ongoing trial in Munich of Beate Zschäpe, a member of the terrorist cell National Socialist Underground (NSU). One of the group's murder weapons, a Ceska 7.65 mm handgun, is thought to have been supplied to the group by Ralf Wohlleben, a member of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD) and also a defendant in the trial.

Deutschland NSU Prozess Ralf Wohlleben Angeklagter
Ralf Wohlleben is thought to have supplied the NSU with their murder weaponImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Kneffel

Given this ongoing case - and the suspicion of complicity among some Verfassungsschutz informants in the NSU's crimes - Vorländer said the authorities ought to be "particularly cautious."

The far-right represents the biggest extremist threat in Germany. In its latest report - covering 2014 - the federal Verfassungsschutz said there were some 21,000 people "with right-wing extremist potential" in Germany, of whom 10,500 were "violence-orientated." By contrast, the intelligence agency put some 1,100 Islamist extremists in the same category, and about 7,600 left-wing extremists.

Meanwhile, Germany's gun laws has been in the news in recent weeks, after police in Cologne reported an increase in the number of applications for so-called "small weapons licenses" following the mass sexual assaults in that city on New Year's Eve. These licenses allow people to carry gas cartridge guns, flares and signal pistols outside their homes.