German weapons case pits man against gun clubs | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 08.02.2013
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German weapons case pits man against gun clubs

Does the "right to life" outweigh the right to shoot guns recreationally? Germany's constitutional court will soon decide. The case pits one man against Germany's gun clubs - and centuries of tradition.

Roman Grafe overlays a graphic onto a map of Germany, thereby demonstrating the magnitude of the gun problem. Every shooting since 1991 is labeled on the map with a cross. In total, more than 130 have died.

A young man wearing a scarf looks seriously at the camera (Photo: copyright Siedler-Verlag, rechtefrei für DW)

Roman Grafe sees the public at risk due to "recreational" arms

A cluster of crosses surround the German cities of Winnenden and Erfurt. In Erfurt, on April 26 2002, a 19-year-old shot twelve teachers, a secretary, two students and a police officer before taking his own life. The shooter was a member of a German "Schützenverein," literally, a shooting club. It was through his gun club that the 19-year-old was able to obtain a permit, allowing him to purchase guns and munition.

After the massacre, weapons laws were changed. Since then, members of German gun clubs are no longer able to purchase or own rifles or pistols at age 18. They must now wait until they turn 21. The same applies for hunting. Even owners of "starting pistols," used for track and field events, are now required to have a "small weapons permit." Anyone under the age of 25 wishing to shoot guns recreationally needs to have a "character check" performed by a registered civil authority, or present proof of a certified psychological evaluation.

Instruments of death

German gun clubs were also tied to another tragedy. The father of the 17-year-old who returned to his former school in the city of Winnenden in southern Germany in March 2009 belonged to one. The teenager shot nine students and three female teachers. As he fled, he killed three others before taking his own life. The 17-year-old carried out the shooting spree with a weapon he stole from his father.

Police stand behind a white-and-red barricade at the site of a recent shooting (Photo: Bernd Weißbrod/dpa)

The scene of the Winnenden shooting spree in 2009

It was after that incident that Roman Grafe founded an initiative called "Keine Mordwaffen als Sportwaffen," or "No deadly weapons as recreational arms." Two-and-a-half years ago his organization filed suit in the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany, criticizing German weapons laws and accusing them of encouraging shooting sprees. The legal possession of deadly weapons for the purpose of recreational shooting is an unacceptable risk to the public, the suit claims. Furthermore, the danger created by deadly recreational weapons is one that is ultimately uncontrollable, Roman Grafe argues.

Even the German national trainer of celebrated German biathlete Ricco Gross seems to agree. "What could you hunt down with a biathlon rifle?" he asked. "If you're close enough, everything."

Changing laws

Teilnehmer des traditionellen Schützenausmarsches des weltgrößten Schützenfestes in Hannover winken am Sonntag (02.07.2006) mit Blumensträußen. Rund 12.000 Teilnehmer, darunter Angehörige von Schützenvereinen, Folklore- und Karnevalsgruppen werden bei dem Marsch von 115 Musikkapellen aus dem In- und Ausland begleitet. Der rund zwölf Kilometer lange Zug führt durch die Innenstadt und endet auf dem Festplatz. Bei strahlendem Sonnenschein säumten Tausende von Schaulustigen die Straßen. Foto: Patrick Lux dpa/lni +++(c) dpa - Report+++

Medieval shootings clubs first formed to protect small towns

Quotes such as these and evidence from German shooting sprees are part of Roman Grafe's case for the tightening of weapons laws in Germany. In an interview with DW he points to countries such as Japan and Great Britain. In England and Wales, private ownership of revolvers and pistols has been illegal since 1998, when a man shot 16 children at an elementary school. In Japan, citizens are only given a weapons license for the purpose of hunting.

In Brazil, ever since a centralized weapons register came into effect, the number of deaths due to gun violence has dropped. In Germany, the five-and-a-half million weapons that are in legal, private possession have recently become part of a central register - another consequence of the 2009 shooting spree in the city of Winnenden. The register was not the result of legislation by German state or national politicians, but rather the EU in Brussels, which pushed hard for an EU directive.

Yet no one controls whether weapons and munitions are kept separate from one another in private homes, nor whether adults have taken enough precautionary measure in keeping the keys to weapon safes out of the reach of children and teens.

New laws, same shooting sprees

A gray-haired man wearing a gray business suit and eyeglasses looks slightly off-camera (Photo: private archive of Jürgen Kohlheim, 07.02.2013)

Jürgen Kohlheim sees no room for more restrictive legislation

That the judge at the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany will accede to requests for stricter gun laws is something that Jürgen Kolheim, vice president of the organization of German gun clubs, simply doesn't believe. "We supported the tightening of gun laws after Winnenden," he said. "At this point we don't see any turn of the screw that could meaningfully have an impact on weapons rights regulations in order to prevent such terrible events in the future." Shootings are an expression of a societal problem, Kohlheim told DW.

After the incident in Winnenden, leading candidates of all political colors were unified in their assessment that existing German gun laws were adequate. Amongst them was then-Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.

"I can't identify any changes in firearms laws that would have changed what happened," Schäuble said.

Right to life

To the man who filed the suit in court, however, such arguments don't hold water. Roman Grafe demands that the right to life which is enshrined in Article 2 of the constitution be given higher priority than the right to the free exercise of recreational shooting with deadly weapons. Such a ruling would be, for him, something of a bulls-eye.

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