The German government is seeking to impose even stricter background checks on gun ownership in an attempt to prevent political extremists and the psychologically disturbed from buying guns.

The latest call for restrictions comes partly in response to the killings in Hanau in February 2020, when a racist attacker Tobias R.* murdered nine people of color before killing his mother and himself.

He was able to buy guns legally even though he had been diagnosed with paranoid delusions in 2002 when he told police he was being spied on and “psychologically raped” through the power outlets in his walls. Tobias R. legally owned three guns at the time of the killings, and was able to borrow another from a gun trader.

In a statement to DW, an Interior Ministry spokeswoman confirmed that a draft bill is currently being drawn up, whose intention is to expand the scope of the background checks authorities can and must make before granting or renewing a gun license.

Mental illness and gun ownership

Around one million people in Germany legally own a total of more than five million firearms. Most of them are sport shooters, hunters, or foresters. Though gun violence is relatively rare in Germany, an average of 155 people are killed by gunfire every year.

Marcel Emmerich, a member of parliament for the Green Party and domestic policy spokesman, is convinced that recent incidents show that Germany’s rules for gun ownership need to be restricted further. “Fewer weapons being privately owned means more public safety,” he said.

The government’s plans include requiring authorities that grant gun ownership licenses — often the relevant state police — to check with health authorities whether applicants have a record of mental illness.

Commemoration event outside the Gutenberg school in Erfurt

A 19-year old who legally owned a gun, shot 16 people at his school in Erfurt in 2002

But the issue of mental illness raises several problems, according to Dietmar Heubrock, professor of forensic psychology at Bremen University, and once an expert witness on gun control for the German parliament. Health authorities don’t necessarily have complete records on mental illness, he argues, and no database can cover the variety of psychological issues that could lead to violence. “Do we even have the right procedures to recognize the potential psychological dangers that might develop in later life?” he said.

“Let’s say I already own a gun and then hit a personal crisis — my livelihood gets taken away, and I start developing violent fantasies: I want to avenge myself on society, and I want to go out and kill everyone I see,” he tells DW. “No health authority would know about that.”

The solution, according to Heubrock, is developing new psychological tests that each applicant for a gun ownership card would have to pass. “The current tests are 20 years old, and any test, whether it’s an intelligence test or a personality test, has to be re-standardized after a time,” he explains.

Green Party MP Emmerich agrees, saying that the new law could, for instance, require all applicants to pass a psychological assessment test — not just those under the age of 25, as the law demands now.

But the German Shooting Sport and Archery Federation (DSB), which numbers some 1.3 million members, doubts whether gathering sensitive health data will be legally viable and whether anyone without medical expertise is qualified to interpret it properly.

“For example, an official in a regulatory authority can surely not judge whether an entry in a health file is even relevant to weapons law,” DSB spokesman Thilo von Hagen told DW in an email.

Walter Lübcke funeral

Politician Walter Lübcke was shot at short range and killed by a neo-Nazi who had been a member of a gun club

Several amendments to gun law

Germany has consistently tightened gun laws following mass shootings. Age limits for gun ownership were raised following a school shooting in Erfurt in 2002, and random spot checks on gun owners, to ensure they were storing guns according to regulations, were introduced following a mass shooting in the town of Winnenden in 2009.

Following terror attacks in Paris in 2015, the EU amended its firearms directive, which was incorporated into German law in 2020, the last amendment to date. Since then, the firearms authorities have been obliged to check with the domestic intelligence agency whether an applicant is known to them as an extremist.

Since 2020, authorities are also obliged to check every five years whether registered German gun owners have a legitimate “need” to own a gun: In practice, that often means police will check whether the gun owner is still a member of a shooting club or has a hunting license.

But there have been reports of neo-Nazis joining shooting clubs, and Germany has been shocked in recent years by stories of so-called Reichsbürger (conspiracy theorists who believe the Federal Republic of Germany is not a legitimate state) hoarding firearms. Two recent far-right perpetrators, the Hanau perpetrator Tobias R., and Stephan E., the neo-Nazi who murdered a local governor Walter Lübcke in 2019, both joined shooting clubs.

Gun owners in Germany see no need for more regulations. Torsten Reinwald, the spokesman for the German hunting Association (DJV), which represents some 250,000 registered German hunters, says the problem is the implementation of current laws, rather than the laws themselves.

“Hanau could have been prevented,” Reinwald tells DW. “The facts were on the table: It was known that this person was mentally ill, but no action was taken. If the authorities had been better connected, this person could’ve been pulled out of circulation. That’s the basic problem. To make new demands now — they’re just ‘placebos,’ nothing more.”

flowers and written message by a Winnenden memorial in the rain

In Winnenden in 2009 a 17-year-old stole his father’s gun and killed 15 people with it

Personal freedom, privacy, and privilege

Authorities already have relatively wide-ranging powers to check gun owners: If they have any suspicions about applicants, they can require an additional health certificate. Reinwald says police spot checks are already “a severe intrusion in personal freedom.”

Another concern is privacy. The neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) the government party most sensitive to personal freedom issues, has already flagged concerns over the Interior Ministry’s plans.

Green Party MP Emmerich acknowledges that medical data is “highly sensitive,” but added that this will be considered in any new law. “The challenge is handling data responsibly, but also ensuring that certain people don’t get their hands on weapons,” he said.

Historian Dagmar Ellerbrock from the Technical University of Dresden told Deutschlandfunk public radio that in her view the debate on restrictions was misleading: Owning a gun, she said, is not a basic right that is now being restricted by law. “It’s a privilege,” she said. “A privilege granted to certain people. And whoever wants to be granted this privilege has to qualify for it.”

*DW follows the German press code, which stresses the importance of protecting the privacy of suspected criminals or victims and urges us to refrain from revealing full names in such cases.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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