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A rare case of vigilante justice

Dagmar BreitenbachJune 11, 2015

An 18-year-old alleged burglar was shot dead by a German man on his property, in what the man says was self-defense. Unlike the US, such cases are extremely rare in Germany, which has strict gun control laws.

burglar in black with flashlight in the dark
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Gebert

A 40-year-old homeowner shot an alleged burglar - an 18-year-old who later died in hospital - in the German city of Hanover earlier this week.

He told officers he noticed three unknown people on his property in the early morning hours. Seeing that one of the men was armed, he returned to the house for his own gun and fired one shot.

The intruders fled in different directions as the homeowner called the police, who found the man that had been shot. There was still no trace of the other two men by Thursday.

A police spokesman said that the homeowner had a license for his weapon and that he is now under investigation for suspected manslaughter.

Extreme situation

Such cases of armed self-defense are extremely rare in Germany, says Thomas Bliesner, President of the Crime Research Institute Lower Saxony (KFN). "And they are not acceptable, it's the responsibility of the state to provide safety and order, and not for citizens to take up arms," he told DW.

But sometimes homeowners lose control, said Bliesner, a psychologist. "People feel highly threatened and alarmed if someone intrudes into their private home, onto their property."

In extensive interviews with victims of burglaries, the KFN found that people are shocked and stressed out by the breach of their privacy, and feel "massively threatened." Last year, the number of burglaries across Germany rose by 1.8 percent to more than 152,000 cases.

"And if strangers enter your territory uninvited, people can be extremely aggressive and prone to violence," Bliesner says.

There was a smattering of reaction on Twitter to the shooting. This woman is worried that there might be too many weapons floating around in private households in Germany. Another "owner" shooting an "alleged burglar" worries me, she writes. "How many damned weapons are there in the meantime?"

This user fears conditions like in the US: "Homeowner shoots burglar! Hannover is Germany's new America."

Germans were shocked at reports last year about a Montana homeowner who fatally shot an unarmed 17-year-old German exchange student entering his garage. Like many US states, Montana laws have a stand-your-ground clause that allows citizens to defend their home and property against a threat, real or perceived.

Germany has strict gun control laws: Gun owners are required to keep their weapons in locked safes and people need a good reason to own a firearm in the first place - protection and self-defense aren't good enough.

The incident this week in Hanover is by no means the beginning of a trend toward vigilante justice in Germany, Bliesner cautions. KFN surveys show that people "trust the police to do their job," he says. Victims of burglaries are generally satisfied with police investigations into burglaries, he added - "even if only about 15 percent of burglaries in Germany are solved."