Two mass shootings on two continents demonstrate how much of an outlier the United States is when it comes to guns.
Listen To This Story
In Hamburg, Germany, a gunman fired 135 shots at a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses on March 9. He killed seven people including an unborn baby, whose mother survived. Eight people were injured. When police arrived at the scene, four minutes after the first emergency call, the perpetrator, Philipp F., ran up the stairs and shot himself.
Because of the rarity of mass shootings, Germany is still in shock six weeks after the incident. The media is still following the investigation, and lawmakers are contemplating whether this massacre could have been prevented and whether new laws might be needed.
Three weeks later, on March 27, six people, including three children, were killed at a school shooting in Nashville, TN. While many mass shootings in the US barely register, this one made the news for a few days. Democrats were outraged, and Republicans offered thoughts and prayers. But, as this was America’s 168th mass shooting of the year (defined as events in which at least four people are injured or killed) and others soon followed, people quickly, and predictably, moved on.
“It would probably not be fair to say Americans are used to these kinds of incidents,” said Thomas Greven, a specialist in US Politics at the University of Bonn. “But they’re certainly more used to them than German citizens.”
He added that the reaction to mass shootings is very different.
“In Germany, there is no established routine for this,” he said. “It’s a reaction of shock. And that, in my mind, raises the possibility of regulatory change.”
Sebastian Fiedler, a member of the German parliament and of Germany’s governing coalition, sees the US as a cautionary example regarding its lax gun laws and the link to gun deaths and mass shootings.
“Anyone who does not understand that many weapons equal many insecurities has really not understood the basics of criminology,” said Fiedler, who is a member of the Social Democratic Party and previously worked as a police detective for 28 years (for an in-depth interview with Fiedler and a fascinating look at how Germany and the US differ, check back tomorrow).
According to the Small Arms Survey, a total of 393,347,000 firearms are in civil possession in the US. That equals 120 firearms per 100 people. In Germany, the Small Arms Survey estimates 19 firearms per 100 people and a total of 15,822,000 privately owned guns. Five million of them are owned legally by roughly 1 million Germans.
When looking at the countries’ two very different approaches to gun legislation, it is easy to understand why these figures diverge so much. While American gun laws stem from a position of permission as codified in the Second Amendment, Germany starts its gun laws from a point of prohibition and makes the permission the exception.
Whoever wants to own a gun needs a special permit. Nearly 2 million Germans own such a gun license, a majority of them hunters or members of recreational shooting clubs, which are very popular in the country. To actually be allowed to carry a gun, a different permit is required. Only 18,000 people in Germany, mostly bodyguards or security guards who can justify their need, have qualified for such a license.
Personal protection, which is the main reason for gun ownership in the US, is not even considered a valid reason for receiving a gun license in Germany. For defense purposes, people can apply for another gun license that permits them to carry guns that shoot blanks.
“Germany is one of the countries that can serve as a real example for the argument that if you have fewer guns in society, you’re going to have less gun violence,” said Greven. “In a confrontation, if only one party has a gun, then, for example, a robbery ends up with people taking your stuff, but not your life.”
But a look at Germany would not bring America to changing its attitude towards guns, Greven believes, due to the individualistic nature of American politics.
Greven believes that the individualistic nature of Americans and their politics play a big role in the differences between the two countries — and the differences between the US and all of its peer nations.
It is something Republicans and the National Rifle Association (NRA), which are the main reason why gun rights keep expanding in the US instead of being curbed, use to further their goals.
“If people believe that guns are a part of the essence of ‘what makes me an American, and that government is trying to take this essence, this constitutional right, away from me’, then they will stand up against [restrictions on gun ownership],” he said, adding that this is what leads people to vote Republican and give money to the NRA.
And things are unlikely to change any time soon, especially now with a 6-3 conservative majority in the Supreme Court. “It’s an uphill battle to change anything in the US,” Greven said. That becomes even more clear if you compare the US to a parliamentary democracy like Germany.
“If you have the majority in the Bundestag, you pass a law and that’s that. In the United States, because of divided government and the filibuster in the US Senate, it’s very very difficult to get federal regulation passed,” he explained.
Bundestag member Fiedler adds, “Formally, we in the Bundestag are now waiting for the Federal Ministry of the Interior to bring a draft to the cabinet at some point, which then reaches the Bundestag. It is only at that point that we are in charge of making changes to such a draft bill.”
In the past, hindrances to realizing such a bill have come from the German gun lobby; it’s much less powerful than the NRA, but the groups share similar beliefs.
Oliver Huber, a member of the German Rifle Organization, believes that weapons in civilian possession make the world a safer place. Just like the rhetoric of the NRA, Huber says that “the problem with firearms is not that they are dangerous, but rather that the problem is a societal one.” He relies on self defense as a justification for gun ownership, just like a majority of American gun owners do.
Recent examples like an 84-year-old shooting a teenager who went to the wrong house to pick up his siblings show that this self-defense claim can lead to otherwise preventable violence.
As a member of the German gun lobby, Huber’s primary goal is to “demythologize the attitude towards weapons” in Germany that has been building for years. “We want people to deal with the issue of weapons in private hands outside of ideological structures,” he states.
Nevertheless, perspectives like Huber’s are not very common in Germany. As Fiedler described it, “In public places — and I say this with 28 years of police experience — I think it is common sense in Germany to feel quite good when as few people as possible carry guns with them.”
Referring to the German gun lobby, Fiedler said that they have very little influence politically. “There are miles between the German gun lobby and the NRA,” Fiedler elaborated. Furthermore, he does not really see a need for gun lobby organizations to work against policy changes. “I think it would also be in the interest of sport shooting clubs if mentally ill shooters get identified easier.”
While the NRA has recently weakened itself through financial scandals, Greven sees the reason for its continued massive influence on American politics in its successful mobilization strategies, framing the right to bear arms as an integral part of American identity. “They turn even the tiniest regulatory change into a principled matter about American identity, about individual freedom.”
Commenting on their refusal to limit the type of guns you can own, Greven asked: “What purpose does a military-style weapon serve in terms of your self-protection? What kind of scenario are you envisioning?”
While some states with new Democratic majorities have recently passed limited gun control measures — which may be ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court — other states loosen gun laws further. Republican-controlled Florida now allows carrying concealed weapons without a permit — a rule change that happened almost immediately after yet another mass shooting.
Greven was concerned by this news. “I’m a university teacher. When you go into a classroom and you have a confrontation with a student and the student may be armed… What do you do? It’s a tense situation. If alcohol is involved, it gets worse. You’re in a bar, you may get into a fight, or in a traffic confrontation, things may get out of hand, and suddenly someone draws a gun.”
He concluded, “Yes, the situation in the US is more dangerous than, let’s say, in Germany. Americans are correct to perceive it as more dangerous, but they’re making it more dangerous because of all the guns. And that’s the conundrum; that needs to change.”