Germans are taking up arms of angst. Demand for non-lethal weapons, including gas pistols, flare and stun guns, as well as pepper spray is on the rise.
In the US, every mass shooting is followed by yet another heated gun debate. While gun-related crime in Germany is comparatively rare, the issue of guns is increasingly in the forefront of political discussions.
Sales of freely available arms are booming. The number of applications for small arms permits has set new records. In 2017, 557,560 people obtained such a license. In January 2016, only 300,949 people had a permit. This means ownership soared by a staggering 85 percent in just under two years.
Following the Paris terror attacks in 2015 and the sexual assaults on women on New Year’s Eve in Cologne the following month, demand for deterrent devices has taken off. “After the attacks in Paris on the Bataclan music venue in November 2015, a wave of uncertainty spilled over to Germany,” said Ingo Meinhard, director of the German association of gunsmiths and gun dealers.
This can’t be sugar-coated. Thomas de Maizière, German interior minister
The fact that Germans are arming themselves might be rooted in a sense of deteriorating safety. There is a growing feeling that the state cannot sufficiently protect its citizens and therefore they must protect themselves. Recent cuts to the police force contributed to the problem.
Some see the influx of refugees and migrants to Germany since 2015 as a trigger to a worsening security situation. The number of crime suspects classed as immigrants - including asylum seekers, refugees and illegal immigrants - rose to 174,438 in 2016, an increase of 52.7 percent from the previous year. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said, “This can’t be sugar-coated.”
But some experts beg to differ. Although the increasing demand for small firearms proves that citizens feel unsafe, a lot of it comes down to distorted or exaggerated media reports and social media posts by populists, argued André Schulz, head of the Criminal Police Association. It’s not rationally justified and does not reflect the “objective risk situation,” he said.
While Germany has strict gun control laws, it’s arguably not that difficult to obtain a license for non-lethal weapons. The applicant has to be at least 18 years old, though convicted felons, alcohol or drug addicts and people with a record of mental illness are barred. “The authorities examine the applicants thoroughly,” said Mr. Meinhard. “No one should be afraid of these people.”
Holger Stahlknecht, state interior minister in Saxony-Anhalt, isn't convinced. He worries about the current trend and warns that arming oneself with small weapons can lead to a false sense of security. “Obviously, people believe they are buying safety with a small gun license,” he said. “However, this sense of security is deceptive, since these weapons could escalate a situation and could even be used against the owner.”
Dietmar Neuerer is the politics correspondent for Handelsblatt based in Berlin, Stephanie Ott adapted this article for Handelsblatt Global in New York. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]