Case study - Small arms and light weapons in Germany

Legislation on small arms control in Germany differentiates between military arms on the one hand and all other arms, such as arms for hunting and sport shooting on the other. Military arms are weapons that are designed and manufactured for use in military action, such as fully automatic assault rifles. They are subject to the Military Weapons Control Act (Kriegswaffenkontrollgesetz). The manufacture, the trade and the use of arms for hunting and sport shooting, however, are governed by gun and firing laws as well as additional regulations. As light weapons are solely destined for the military, they are irrelevant to civil life.

The number of legal firearms in private hands is estimated at six to ten million. Before 2009, there had been no central firearms register, which results in the fact that there is no more exact data available for that time. Licensing was the responsibility of the federal states. As a consequence of the shooting of Winnenden in 2009 however, the government decided to establish a federal register as of 2012. At 20 million, the estimated number of illegal firearms is very high.

In Germany, 158 people were killed by firearms in 2010, which corresponds to 0.2 persons per 100,000 inhabitants. With this, Germany is positioned at the lower spectrum compared to other countries worldwide. In Europe, figures vary from 0.0 (Malta and Iceland) to 1.8 for Albania, while in the United States, the figure is 3.0 per 100,000 inhabitants1. As a comparison: Most homicides in relation to the population are committed in Central America, with Honduras having the sad record of 68.4 people killed per 100,000 inhabitants.

In Germany, the use of firearms has decreased since 2003, with the exception of a small increase in 2009. According to police crime statistics, in 2010, 7,142 people were threatened with firearms and perpetrators actually pulled the trigger 5,553 times. Of this, there were 931 cases of grievous bodily harm and gross assault and 160 robberies.

On a global scale, German arms legislation is one of the strictest.

When a pupil killed five people with legal weapons from his father's gun cabinet in Bad Reichenhall in 1999, this sparked off a public debate on a tightening of the legal foundations. This debate in the end led to a new gun law that the German parliament passed on 26 April 2002—on the same day another pupil ran amok and killed 17 people in Erfurt with guns that he had legally acquired. This resulted in even more changes before the law entered into force in April 2003. Along with this reform of the arms legislation, went the separation of gun laws and firing laws. While gun laws simply deal with the handling of weapons, the firing laws have to be applied when guns, ammunition and fireworks are examined and authorized.

In principle, the private possession of firearms in Germany is forbidden. Those who still want to own a weapon and handle it, must apply for this and fulfil certain criteria. The central criterion for the handling of weapons in German arms legislation is the reliability of the applicant. Individuals who had committed crimes in the past are therefore not allowed to purchase and handle a weapon. In addition, the applicant has to prove his need for a weapon. Examples of this are primarily sport shooters who are members of a registered rifle club. Furthermore, the gun laws permit hunters and members of gun clubs to purchase and handle weapons. After the shooting in Erfurt, it was decided to raise the minimum age for the purchase of guns by sport shooters and hunters from 18 to 21 and to ask for a psychological expertise for those under 25.

After the shooting in Winnenden in 2009, yet another tightening of the gun law concerned the stipulations for the storage of arms. The age for handling 5.6mm calibre guns and above was raised from 14 to 18 years. Also, the authorities were permitted to carry out unannounced inspections even in the absence of any suspicion, with arms holders. Arms holders were highly dissatisfied with this innovation. Yet, inspections carried out since then have shown a variety of problems. In Baden-Württemberg, the inspectors have highlighted violations of laws with more than half of the 1,200 inspections they had carried out.

Experts, however, agree that a restrictive gun law alone cannot prevent violent acts, such as shootings. What is just as important is to counter illegal weapons possession and to teach children and young people to find non-violent ways of solving conflict.

Small arms and light weapons are not only used in Germany, they are also manufactured there. The most well-known manufacturer is Heckler & Koch in Oberndorf, which, amongst others also sells the assault rifle G36. The company made the news headlines in 2011 when G36-rifles turned up in areas of conflict in Mexico and the inner circle of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The German Rheinmetall Defence in Kassel also manufactures machine guns, anti-aircraft guns and various kinds of ammunition. The German company Fritz Werner is an important player in the field of ammunition manufacturing technology, providing machinery that covers every single step in the manufacturing process of ammunition. The company also owned an ammunition manufacturing factory.

The Carl Walther GmbH Sportwaffen makes both sports- and regular firearms. The Walter P99-pistol, for instance, is used by parts of the German police force. The company is part of the UMAREX group that also owns manufacturer of sporting arms UMAREX Sportwaffen GmbH & Co. KG. Another sporting arms manufacturer located in Germany is the Feinwerkbau Westinger & Altenburger GmbH that, just like Heckler & Koch, has its seat in the Swabian Oberndorf. There are two companies that make hunting rifles: One is the traditional Mauser company. In the past, it also manufactured military rifles but it sold this section to Rheinmetall Defence in 2004. Mauser hunting rifles, just like the second German manufacturer Sauer & Sohn und Blaser, are owned by the private businessmen Michael Lüke and Thomas Ortmeier.

1The data are taken from the last available year. Liechtenstein was not taken into consideration in Europe as its very small number of inhabitants causes major variations.

Sources and further information:

Ausgewählte Waffen- und Sportwaffenproduzenten

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