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Even for most Americans, their country’s gun fetish is increasingly difficult to comprehend. For the rest of the world, it is completely unfathomable.
To get that international perspective, and to understand just how much of an outlier the US is, WhoWhatWhy interviewed Sebastian Fiedler, a member of the German parliament. Fiedler is a member of the Social Democratic Party, which is currently heading a coalition government. As a former police detective with 28 years of experience, he has a unique perspective on issues relating to guns and crime.
We spoke to him following a recent shooting in Hamburg that left seven people dead, including an unborn baby. It was Germany’s sixth mass shooting (defined as an incident in which four or more victims are injured or killed) since 2000. In the US, there have been six massacres meeting that definition since March 10.
Fiedler said the differences between the two countries begin with a fundamentally different approach to gun laws.
“You can put it like this — and this is probably a big difference to the United States — basically, everything is forbidden [in Germany], especially what is related to firearms,” he said. “It is forbidden to buy them, and even more so to carry them around. And because the law forbids it, you need a permit if you want to buy, own, or even carry around a gun.”
There are three types of permits. One allows gun ownership. To be granted the right to carry that gun, Germans have to prove their need, e.g., as a bodyguard. Eighteen thousand people currently hold this second type of permit. Finally, there is another type of permit that allows people to own guns that shoot blanks. This third type of permit is relatively easy to access and can also be granted simply for self-defense, a motivation that does not count as justification for holding other guns.
Anything else would be unacceptable for the German public.
“If a political party in Germany were to demand, ‘We should allow people to walk through the pedestrian zone in Hamburg and have a gun at their waistband,’ everyone would say you are crazy,” Fiedler said. “That is how far away from [the US] we are.”
Another major difference is that, when a mass shooting occurs, lawmakers are actually examining the existing laws and trying to figure out whether any loopholes were being exploited and whether changes are needed.
For example, after a 19-year-old school shooter killed 16 people in Erfurt in 2002, the legal age to acquire weapons was raised from 18 to 21.
But examining existing gun law does not only enter political discourse after mass shootings; these laws are regularly reviewed proactively. For example, the German parliament is now considering changing the rules for the third type of permit because it is relatively easy to turn a gun that shoots blanks into a dangerous weapon.
Another reform under consideration is to tighten the requirement for psychological background checks. As of now, these are only required for gun ownership applicants under 25 years of age. They have to submit, at their own expense, a certificate of mental health stability issued by an official, specialist doctor, or psychologist.
But that seems arbitrary, according to Fiedler.
“Whether someone wants a gun at 23 or at 28 or at 40, don’t you have to be sure in all cases that someone is not mentally ill?” he said.
However, the issue is not just the creation of new laws, Fiedler pointed out, but also the enforcement of those that are already on the books.
Due to staff shortages in the German states, audits are not conducted as frequently and as quickly as they should. Home visits, in which people with registered guns have to show how they store them, happen very rarely, Fiedler noted. In fact, it would take 360 years to audit every gun owner in Berlin.
The perpetrator of the mass shooting in Hamburg received such a visit a month before his crime. The officers noticed one loose bullet on top of his safe and gave him a verbal warning.
But what the officers didn’t do was execute a thorough background check. The shooter had a history of mental illness that was not disclosed to the officers. Furthermore, he wrote a book with the title The Truth about God, Jesus Christ, and Satan. Officers did find that title through a Google search, but didn’t see a need to buy it for €64 ($70) on Amazon because they were not required to by law.
A look inside would have revealed to them that the shooter called Adolf Hitler a “human executor of Jesus Christ” and the murder of Jews in World War II an “act of heaven.” If the content of the book had been known, it could have led to the withdrawal of his gun permit.
“People often ask, reasonably so, what laws should we enact,” Fiedler said. “But what is often forgotten is that sometimes it doesn’t help to make laws if no one is there to enforce them.”
While some media reports call the German gun law one of the strictest in the world, Fiedler does not believe that there is any metric that determines which country has the toughest laws.
Generally, he thinks that German gun laws are “respectively safe” while still allowing hunters to hunt and people to pursue their hobby of sport shooting.
Fiedler notes that the public perception of guns in Germany is different than in the US.
“I do think we have this common sense here that society is more peaceful and safe with fewer guns,” the German lawmaker said.
He added that, from Germany’s perspective the US is “the most prominent negative example” of what not to do.
One aspect of this is the power of the National Rifle Association, which plays a major role in blocking gun control measures that a majority of the population supports. There is no organization in Germany with an equivalent level of influence.
And it’s not just lax gun laws that are a problem but also how the media treats the perpetrators of mass shootings.
“When the media reports on a shooting, in the worst case even with the face and name of the perpetrator, or if they have written some kind of manifesto, it, unfortunately, might inspire other shooters,” he noted. “It creates a social contagion effect.” In Germany, this is sought to be prevented by blurring pictures of criminals and omitting their last names in media reports.
Drawing on his experience as a detective, Fiedler adds that if people who harbor similar thoughts or identify with the shooters have easy access to guns, then they are much more likely to commit similar crimes.
“If the gun laws make an incredible amount of weapons accessible everywhere, then, of course, they get used in every kind of conflict situation,” he explained. “Anyone who does not understand that many weapons equal many insecurities has really not understood the basics of criminology. It’s the same for guns and for knives. If you carry a knife or a shotgun with you, the risk of using them in conflicts rises exponentially.”
That is why Germany is now looking into creating “weapon-free zones,” for example train stations or other places where a lot of people get together.
Fiedler believes that the availability of guns also plays a role in America’s police brutality problem because it leads to insecurities among the US police. “This in turn leads to a different approach that the police must take,” he said. “And that leads to using guns in conflicts. And so on and so forth.”
In light of all of this, Fiedler is baffled that many Republican-led states continue to loosen gun laws instead of tightening them. He pointed to Florida as one example, where Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed legislation that allows Floridians to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
“At the moment, I would refrain from taking a vacation in Florida because of the new gun laws,” Fiedler said. “I would feel completely unsafe if all people walking around might carry a gun on their waistbands.”