1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

German police call for knife-free zones in cities

Helen Whittle
April 11, 2023

Interior Minister Nancy Faeser and the federal police are calling for more weapon-free zones on trains and in inner city areas in a bid to tackle knife crime.

 A hand holding a butterfly knife
Knives are used in many cases of serious bodily assault in GermanyImage: imagrbroker/imago

Germany's federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), says she wants to take stronger action to combat knife crime.

"We should think about banning knives on public transport, on buses and trains," Faeser told the Funke Media Group. "After all, anyone traveling by plane is not allowed to take a knife with them." Apart from increasing security measures on public transport, Faeser said another solution could be weapon-free zones in certain urban areas.

The minister's initiative came a few days after the president of the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), Holger Münch, also called for weapon-free zones in and around train stations and in city centers.

Many cities are establishing no-weapons zones in critical areas where the police can carry out "active checks," the BKA president said. According to Münch, knives are used in 5.6% cases of assault and in 11% of robberies. He also said that he was open to tightening the law on weapons possession.The issue of knife crime came back into focus in Germany after two people were killed and seven wounded in a knife attack on a train traveling from Kiel to Hamburg in January. That came after an incident in December 2022, when one 14-year-old girl died and another was seriously injured after they were attacked by a man with a knife while walking to school in the village of Illerkirchberg in southern Germany. In response to a request by the Bild am Sonntag newspaper in January, the German police said it had registered 398,848 crimes on trains and at train stations in 2022 — a 12% rise on the previous year. Of those crimes, 14,155 involved bodily assault and 336 involved the use of a knife — more than double the year before. 

Nancy Faeser
Nancy Faeser said weapon-free zones could be effective in train stationsImage: picture alliance/dpa

Unreliable statistics

According to the latest police crime statistics, there were 8,160 knife attacks in 2022, a 15.4% increase on the previous year. But the BKA did not publish any statistics on knife crime until the period covering 2021, a year when COVID-19 restrictions were in force across the country.

The chairman of the police trade union GdP, Jochen Kopelke, said the figures were proof that knife crime is increasingly becoming a nationwide problem. "Our colleagues must be prepared to always and constantly be threatened or directly attacked with a knife," Kopelke told the RND newspaper network. He also called for the police presence to be visibly increased in public areas.

The BKA defines a knife attack as any act where a knife is used to either threaten or physically assault a person. However, some German states also count incidents where a perpetrator is found in possession of a knife, for example, concealed in a jacket pocket.

More reliable statistics have been published by the German Federal Police, which is responsible for security at train stations and airports. It reported that the number of assaults with a knife more than doubled from 46 to 98 between the second half of 2021 and the first half of 2022. But travel restrictions imposed due to COVID-19 could also account for this increase. 

A young girl was killed in a knife attack in Illerkirchberg, Baden-WürttembergImage: Bernd Weißbrod/dpa/picture alliance

No 'one-size-fits-all solution'

Marcel Emmerich, Green Party MP and chairman of the parliamentary interior policy committee, said that despite the public attention around the issue, the underlying data does not show that knife crime has actually increased.

"Against this backdrop, the weapon-free zones should not be introduced lightly, as they mean that anyone can be stopped and frisked without cause," Emmerich told DW. "This is an encroachment on fundamental rights, the proportionality of which seems highly questionable to me."

Elena Rausch, a criminologist at the Center for Criminology (KrimZ) in Wiesbaden who has conducted research on knife crime, says that there is no real evidence to show that weapon-free zones are the right solution. "The perpetrators of knife crime are not necessarily people who are able to make rational judgement calls," Rausch told DW, adding that weapon-free zones would only address a small proportion of knife crime.

According to Rausch, most knife violence occurs in homes, and alcohol, drugs and exceptional psychiatric conditions often play a role, whether in a domestic or public setting.

A number of German cities have already established weapon-free zones. In those in Cologne and Düsseldorf, North Rhine-Westphalia, anyone found carrying a stun gun, a knife with a with blade longer than 4 centimeters (1.5 inches), tear gas or pepper spray faces a fine of up to €10,000 ($10,882). 

Almost 350 weapons have been confiscated over the last 12 months, including butterfly knives, daggers, switchblades, telescopic batons, pepper spray and non-lethal pistols used to fire blanks or tear gas cartridges.

2 killed in knife attack on German train

In September last year, the state government in Baden-Württemberg announced that cities and municipalities would be able to establish weapon-free zones in crime "hotspots." The southwestern state had registered close to 1,500 knife crimes in 2021, with knife crime accounting for one-in-10 violent crimes, according to the state Interior Ministry.

The first weapon-free zone in the eastern state of Saxony was introduced in Leipzig in 2018 and is now due to be phased out. A study carried out by Leipzig University showed that while the weapon-free zone had little impact on overall crime, "serious conflicts" were largely eliminated. The majority of residents surveyed said what they wanted was measures to curb drug dealing, littering and traffic violations.

But weapon-free zones were also not found to have improved people's sense of safety, according to Rausch. In fact, it had the opposite effect and could increase the likelihood of knives being carried for self-defense purposes. She believes a framework that creates structural change, for example, treatment for substance abuse and other mental health issues, would be more effective at combatting knife crime. "Knife crime isn't a consistent phenomenon and so there's no one-size-fits-all solution," Rausch said.

A sign indicating a weapon-free zone in Eisenbahn Street in the city of Leipzig in 2018.
Leipzig introduced Saxony's first weapon-free zone in 2018Image: Sebastian Willnow/dpa/picture alliance

Complex legal framework

In Germany, the law covering the possession of knives differs depending on the type of knife. Unlike guns, no license is needed to carry or use knives classed as weapons. Objects (excluding firearms) that can be used to cause injury by muscular force in the form of blows, stabs, throws or thrusts are considered weapons. Though it is legal to possess most knives that come under this category, one cannot carry them in public.

Pocket or folding knives with blades over four centimeters long that can be opened with one hand must be transported in locked containers and must also be stored safely within the home. Other knives, such as kitchen, carpet and diving knives, fall under weapons law only if the blade is longer than 12 centimeters, meaning they cannot be carried in public. Switchblades, butterfly and drop point knives are generally prohibited unless they fulfill certain requirements regarding length and shape, and then only in limited circumstances.

Another issue raised by the introduction of weapon-free zones is that of the police stop-and-frisk powers. "There are often problems with the communication of the weapon-free zones, for example in terms of what the police are allowed to do, if they can stop and search without cause," Rausch said, adding that an increased police presence, depending on how it is managed, can damage community relations with local police.

Also, there is a distinction between weapon-free zones and police-designated "danger zones." The police are not able to carry out stop and frisks without cause in weapon-free zones. Though the laws on stop and frisk powers varies between states, in general frisking can be carried out only in "danger zones." But the police and security services are not obliged to reveal which areas are designated as danger zones.

Knife-free zones are not new. Carrying knives is banned in some US cities, such as Washington, DC, where it is illegal to carry a switchblade or knife with blade longer than 7.62 centimeters. In New York City, knives, dangerous instruments or other items intended for use as a weapon may not be carried anywhere on the NYC Transit System. In the UK, it is illegal to carry any knife or weapons anywhere in public without a 'good reason,' with the only exception being folding pocketknives with a cutting edge no longer than 7.62 centimeters that are not lock knives.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that around 15,000 knife crimes were registered in Baden-Württemberg in 2021. According to the Security Report issued by the Interior Ministry of Baden-Württemberg, there were 1,498 registered crimes involving knives in 2021. The text has been corrected accordingly.

Correction, July 10, 2023: The paragraph on German knife law has been corrected to specify that only folding knives with blades over four centimeters need to be carried in locked containers.

Edited by Ben Knight

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.