By Claudia Bommer
The New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne and other cities and the subsequent news that Germans are arming themselves – most of them within the legal limits of German gun laws – raised a question among readers: What do German gun laws look like and how can guns be bought legally there? Since I’m a legal gun owner here in Germany owning several handguns and rifles (bolt-action as well as semi-automatic) here’s the truth about gun laws and ownership . . .
History of German Gun Laws
Even though carrying guns was sometimes restricted during German history, there was no law restricting gun ownership until 1922. The first gun laws were imposed during the Weimar Republic and the Nazis used these laws to ban people they considered enemies from owning guns. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, Germans were almost completely banned from owning guns until full sovereignty was regained in 1952 when the Reichswaffengesetz gained its validity back.
For the Federal Republic of Germany that meant guns had to be registered and you needed a license to carry (for which you needed a reason). Before the tightening of German gun laws in 1976 Germans could buy rifles through mail order catalogues without restrictions and every German federal state had its own gun laws (like the different US states, some were more restrictive, some were quite liberal).
In 1976, though, in the wake of Red Army Faction terrorism, German gun laws were federalized and more restrictions were put on German gun owners. Even though the guns of sports shooters and hunters had nothing to do with the RAF attacks (they used fully-automatic machine guns and other weapons of war that were off-limits to all Germans), the new gun laws required firearm registration, acquisition certificates, and quotas, limiting the number of certain guns.
In 2002, after the Erfurt school shooting, gun laws were tightened again.
How to Obtain Guns
Even after all the added regulation, individual gun ownership is still possible here in Germany…thought it isn’t easy. As a non-government civilian (and non-professional in gun-related jobs) you can
- Get a CCW (nowadays nearly impossible)
- A collectors card (not easy)
- Become a hunter (time and money intense)
- Become a sports shooter (the easiest way)
To become a hunter you need to get a hunting license that requires 120 hours of training and costs a few thousand dollars. It’s quite difficult to acquire a hunting license, that’s why it is called the “green college degree” in Germany.
Becoming a sports shooter is the easiest and cheapest path to gun ownership. No matter what you want to shoot – air rifle/pistol above 7.5 Joule, .22 calibre guns or guns with higher calibres – you need to join a gun club first. There they teach you gun safety and how to shoot. You also need to take a course called Waffensachkunde, where the future gun owner learns (again) about gun safety, gun laws, ownership permits, legal requirements for guns storage, technical aspects of guns and ammunition, different types of guns, and German self-defense laws. This course takes 16 hours and you have to pass three tests, written (90% score required to pass), oral and practical.
During your first year in a shooting club you need to go shooting 12 times on a regular base or 18 times, if you training is irregular.
If you pass your Waffensachkunde test, you have to shoot least 12-18 a year at your club. You’re then ready to apply for the Waffenbesitzkarte (gun ownership permit). That requires an application from the shooting association your club is attached to indicating that they approve your need of the certain guns you applied for.
You can’t apply for or buy more than two guns in six month (the 2/6 rule). This rule is valid for guns that need to be registered on the yellow gun ownership permit (sport shooter card) as well as on the green one (firearms owner card). The yellow permit allows the holder to more freely acquire guns like bolt-action rifles — no matter the calibre — and shotguns. The green permit is for handguns, semi-automatic rifles and pump guns.
For guns having to be registered on the yellow permit only the 2/6 rule applies. For guns having to be registered on green permit, the shooting association needs to state a “sporting purposes need” for the gun in addition to the 2/6 rule. But even with this “need” the available number of handguns, semi-automatic rifles and pump guns is limited. The “basic need” is two handguns and three semi-automatic rifles in total. For more, you need to prove to your shooting association that you take part in shooting competitions. If you participate in a lot of competitions you might get up to six or seven handguns.
One more requirement: if you are between 18 and 25 you need a mental exam to get a gun with a bigger calibre than .22 and a Führungszeugnis (clearance certificate).
So if you have jumped though all those hoops and taken all the correct paperwork to your local Waffenbehörde (German weapon offices) and paid the fees (about 100 €), in about 2-4 weeks you’ll find your Waffenbesitzkarten in your mail box. That’s when you can go to a gun shop to buy your guns or order them from a online shop.
Of course, now you’ll then need to go back to the Waffenbehörde (weapon office) again and pay to register your newly acquired gun(s). You might understand now why German gun owners can only chuckle about the hassle Emily Miller described in “Emily gets her gun”.
What kind of guns can Germans buy and what can they do with them?
Besides the fact that some guns are restricted in number, you can accumulate quite a collection over time if you use the 2/6 rule to full capacity, although most of your guns will be shotguns or bolt-action rifles. Even though some calibres aren’t permitted for sports shooters (5.7x28mm, 6.4x30mm for example) you can shoot all common calibres in Germany: .22 LR, .45 Auto, .44 Magnum, .223 Rem, .308 Win, .338 LM and even .50 BMG. Full-auto is prohibited in all cases.
You can shoot your guns only at an approved and licensed shooting range. What you can or cannot do there is restricted by law: no combat shooting for civilians, no firing during movement, no shooting from the hip. In Germany, civilians aren’t allowed to shoot at any target that resembles a human shape (geometrical shapes like CSAT targets are excluded). No zombie targets (2D and 3D) or comic figures. So for any kind of higher tactical training, teachers and participants go to Austria, Poland or the Czech Republic where they don’t have these strict regulations.
There is IPSC-shooting, although with some changes and omissions to suit German shooting regulations. Besides that, you can shoot in most of the same competitions you can shoot in the US.
If you want to keep your guns you need to stay in a gun club, because as soon as you leave, your “need” expires and you have to either sell them or turn them in.
I’ve been a runner for almost 20 years now and sometimes take part in cross-country or medium-distance runs, but I never felt the need to join a club in order to perform my sport. The same should be true for shooting. But club membership is one of many obstacles thrown up to keep Germans from possessing guns. And that’s the goal: to keep the number of gun owners as low as possible without downright prohibiting the possession of firearms.
Despite all those obstacles, there are an estimated two million sports shooters in Germany (not including all the collectors, hunters etc., many of whom belong to more than one group) and approximately six million legal guns.
There are some positive aspects of all of this. First, if you meet someone who is a legal gun owner in Germany you can be pretty sure he or she knows what they are doing. And that’s important when it comes to gun safety. Second, from what I’ve read about the US, female gun owners in Germany seem generally to be treated with more respect than women with guns in the America. We have to prove again and again that they are capable of handling a gun. We have to pass the same tests as men, so there is no justification to look down on us as inferior.
Self-defense with guns?
That’s a touchy subject. If you have to defend your life or yourself against harm, you are allowed to use any object. But the reality is if you shoot an intruder in your home, chances are high that you’ll end up in jail. But that’s a larger subject for another day.