The German authorities are growing increasingly concerned about the country's right-wing extremists and their arsenals of legal and illegal weapons. But police are finding it an uphill battle to deal with the problem.
German police found some 1,000 weapons during raids this summer on the neo-Nazi scene in the country's most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). Aside from knifes and machetes, the police found an assortment of pistols and a rifle.
This was not the first time that German neo-Nazis were caught with weapons, Rainer Wendt, chairman of the German police union, told Deutsche Welle. "In the years 2009 and 2010 alone, more than 800 guns were found in the right-wing extremist scene:"
He is particularly concerned that in NRW, 99 neo-Nazis are legally in possession of firearms. In addition, there is the unknown number of illegal weapons. Why does the neo-Nazi scene need such an arsenal? And how can they be stripped of their weapons? These are the questions that the authorities are asking themselves across Germany.
Police and critics are the targets
The weapons found in the neo-Nazi scene have alarmed security authorities. Bavaria's State Interior Minister, Joachim Herrmann, told Deutsche Welle that he was concerned the guns might actually be used. "In light of the horrible incidents of the past we have to assume that those are not just gun lovers who enjoy collecting weapons, but that there is a significant risk these weapons could some day be used in acts of violence against other people," Herrmann said, refering to a string of killings by the right-wing NSU terror group.
Three neo-Nazis - Uwe Mundlos, Uwe Bönhardt and Beate Zschäpe - are accused of murdering ten people between 2000 and 2007, among them eight small business owners of Turkish origin. The terrorists were only caught in November 2011 when Bönhardt and Mundlos committed suicide while being chased by the police. Zschäpe is currently being held in investigative custody.
NRW Interior Minister Ralf Jäger believes the situation is still very serious – even if that one terror group got caught: "The neo-Nazis are collecting weapons to use them against their political opponents and the police." The growing number of weapons also increased the future danger of more terror attacks, he added.
How to disarm the neo-Nazis?
In order to deal with that growing threat, authorities are looking into how they can disarm the right-wing scene. In the case of illegal weapons, the challenge is to actually find out about the firearms. With legally owned guns it's a question of laws.
Wendt sees this as a judicial challenge: "We have to prove that a person is not fit – for whatever reason – to own a gun." German law already has a clause that could help there: Whoever wants to own a gun has to be considered reliable. That reliability is not given if a person, either individually or as a member of a group, has goals that are directed against the peaceful coexistence of the people.
Bavaria's Herrmann explains that the local authorities are monitoring this closely. "We have the general guideline to immediately check whoever is known as an extremist and to use all means possible to withdraw their permit to own a gun."
Unfortunately, local courts are not always fully cooperative, he notes. They review decisions by the authorities and can overrule them if they see legal problems. This is what Wendt refers to as the judicial challenge. "We have to be very precise on that matter and that's difficult," he says, "but we don't ever want to be accused of not having tried."