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Gun control

April 27, 2012

Germany's parliament is establishing a weapons registry. The decision came on the tenth anniversary of a school massacre, but is part of an EU plan for Europe-wide gun registration.

Macro shot of silver bullet caught in flight #32428692 © Scanrail - Fotolia.com
Image: Fotolia/Scanrail

On the morning of April 26, 2002, a 19-year-old who had been expelled from Gutenberg High School in the eastern German city of Erfurt began a deadly rampage. Over the course of two hours, he systematically stalked his former school's corridors and classrooms. The perpetrator killed 12 teachers, one secretary, one police officer and two students before taking his own life. Germany's first school shooting put the country into a state of shock, and triggered an earnest debate on how to toughen gun laws.

Exactly ten years after the massacre, Germany's lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, decided to establish a central weapons registry. It will gather information from the 600 offices that issue weapons permits throughout Germany in one place.

The Erfurt massacre was not in fact the main impetus for the registry. Rather, the Bundestag is aiming to follow a European Union directive calling for every member country to set up a computerized, constantly updated weapons register by 2014.

Germany was also influenced by another massacre. In 2009, a 17-year-old student went on a rampage in Winnenden, killing 16 people.

Better risk analysis

The registry is intended to make it easier for German authorities to get an overview of the roughly 10 million firearms in the hands of private owners. According to the draft of the Bundestag legislation, "the national arms register catalogs weapons as well as weapons permits, exemptions, orders, indemnification and personal prohibitions pertaining to weapons."

Germany's Federal Administration Office is charged with maintaining the registry, which is designed to be quickly available to authorities. The goal is to make it easier to determine whether or not weapons are legally possessed, and to help officials with risk analysis when emergencies come up.

"This brings about a new dimension," said German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich. But he cautioned against expecting the registry to actually prevent another shooting rampage from taking place.

The validity of that warning is evident in the 2002 and 2009 incidents. The Erfurt killer was armed with a pump gun and a Glock 17, a high-caliber pistol favored by special commandos and often seen on television crime series. The perpetrator bought the weapons with fake papers. In the case of the Winnenden massacre, the shooter used a registered sporting weapon owned by his father.

Memorial to victims of the Erfurt high school massacre
Ten years ago in Erfurt: flowers piled up at the site of the shooting massacreImage: dapd

Tougher gun laws

Since those tragic incidents, Germany has changed its gun ownership laws several times. In 2002, the minimum age for owning a gun was raised from 18 to 21, while the minimum age for hunting went from 16 to 18.

Moreover, people under 25 who want to fire guns in Germany have to submit to a psychological evaluation. Rules for the safekeeping of weapons have also become stricter. Authorities are allowed to make unannounced visits to gun owners to check whether their rifles and pistols are stored correctly.

People in Germany are still permitted to use high-caliber weapons for sport and recreation. Bernhard Witthaut, the chair of Germany's police union, said he is content with the current gun laws. He described the regulations as complex, but sufficiently strict. Witthaut also said there are not enough police personnel to carry out announced weapons inspections.

Gisela Mayer, the chair of an alliance formed in the wake of the Winnenden shootings, called Thursday's legislation inadequate. She said the need to set up a national weapons registry was obvious.

Author: Heiner Kiesel/srs
Editor: Simon Bone

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