OMG — I own a gun!

The difference between gun laws in Germany and the US

Recently a friend from the US was visiting, an 18-year-old girl named Maya. She came down from her room one evening and said: “I opened a box and found a gun.” What?? We all proceeded upstairs to see what on earth she was talking about. Turned out she had found a pistol in the back of a drawer in a box we had not opened in decades.

The little hand pistol Maya found in the drawer — to our surprise and horror, especially of my wife.
The pistol is around ten cm long, and had a tiny magazine with …
… five mm pellets (if you can call them that).

I checked on the Internet and found that this was a Röhm RG 3 “Schreckschuss-Pistole” (alarm pistol), which has been available in exactly this model since the beginning of the 1950s, for around €65 today. The ammunition consists of blanks, which simply make a loud noise.

I photographed the gun and ammunition and took the pictures to a police station to find out the status of this weapon — which I vaguely recall I may have bought at a train station shop, maybe thirty years ago. They confirmed that it was a pistol that fires blanks, like the ones I had found, but also gas cartridges, about the same size as my blanks. They discharge a very small quantity of some kind of irritant gas, quite harmless unless fired at close range directly into an eye.

Well, the police said that according to §8 of the gun laws it was okay for me to own the Röhm pistol, since it had a legitimate “PTB” registration, and I was over 18 years old. But I had to keep it in my home. What did I need it for? “I don’t need it at all,” I said, “and would like to get rid of it. Can I bring it in?” No, not so easily. To carry this gun outside my house I would need a “kleiner Waffenschein” (lesser gun permit), for €50. This takes some time, since they check your police record, the public prosecutor’s office, the residence registry office, the health authorities and a few others before issuing the permit.

“Then you can bring it in, but you must carry it hidden in your pocket or briefcase.” Hidden?? The German term actually translates to “covered”. I was informed that the small gun permit does not allow you to carry a gun in a holster or in clear visual display.

They told me where I could get a small gun permit, so I could bring in the gun. Or, as a compromise, I could bring it by in two stages, first the pistol and then the blanks — “but you cannot transport them together, outside your home, unless you have the lesser gun permit.” Even with it I would not be allowed to take the blank pistol to public meetings, demonstrations, sporting events or theatres. “Can I take it into the forest and fire off the pellets I have, just to see how loud they are?” The officer looked at me in horror: “Of course not, only in your house or in your private garden, if it is clearly fenced off.”

One more thing: while researching German gun laws on the Internet I ran into the following report:

Focus Online is a very big German news portal, carrying major political and social stories.

This report is about a 60-year old drunken man who fired multiple shots with a gas pistol, just like the one I own, in his flat. The police were able to overcome and arrest him, and nobody was injured. The headline above reads: “Man fires gas pistol in his flat”.

That is the situation of gun ownership in Germany. Getting a pistol that fires real bullets is an order of magnitude harder. Contrast that with what I experienced in the US. I have a friend in Minneapolis, Don, a peaceful fellow who owns three rifles, one of which he uses to go turkey hunting around Thanksgiving every year (he never actually bagged one). He took me to a gun show where I saw the most amazing array of weaponry — no ICBMs or heavy rocket launchers, but anything below that. There were assault weapons and attack rifles which any modern army would be proud to own. “Can you actually buy one of those??” I asked, pointing to a gun that looked something like this:

“No,” replied my friend, “I couldn’t afford it.” The price was around $20,000. But the stall owner, who overheard our conversation, ventured that he had other models that were equally accurate at 1000 yards and cost less than half that price. “I mean is it legal, could we theoretically buy one here?” I asked Don. “Sure,” said the owner, who kept listening in. Under federal law such “private-party sellers” were not, at the time (and I believe today), required or even permitted to perform background checks on buyers. They also were not required to ask for identification or record the sale. The man trying to sell us one confirmed this: “I don’t need anything from you guys — just the money.”

So that is the difference in gun procurement and ownership in Germany and America. And what are the statistics for the United States and other countries? I don’t want to over-dramatize the numbers (well, actually I do), but take a look at the following one-year statistics for 2010:

You can spend a good amount of time at generating such charts.

And to put it all into perspective, here’s a graph made by The Trace, using tools you find at the very useful site

Fareed Zakaria tells us in the Washington Post (on July 30 2015) that since 9/11 a total of 74 people have been killed in the United States by terrorists, while in that same period, more than 150,000 Americans had died in gun homicides. Almost three Vietnams. People tend to blame this on violent video games and mental health. Zakaria writes:

The United States has a gun homicide rate that is at least a dozen times higher than those of most other industrialized countries. It is 50 times higher than Germany’s, for instance. We don’t have 50 times as many mentally disturbed people as Germany does — but we do have many, many more guns.

At least we have stopped blaming gun violence on video games. Perhaps someone noticed that other countries have lots of violence in their pop culture but don’t have this tsunami of gun deaths. Japan, for example, is consumed by macabre video games and other forms of gory entertainment. In 2008, Japan had just 11 gun homicides. Eleven. Why? Hint: It has very tough gun-control laws.

Link: Five things to know about guns in Germany


A friend just showed me this wonderful page on CNN:

Would you believe it? Just click on the image and find out why.

Addendum II

On June 23, 2016, a 19-year-old deranged German man entered a cinema, fired shots and took over a dozen people hostage. Special police units stormed the building and shot the man dead. Early media reports said that upwards of 25 people had been injured, but we later found out that this consisted of coughing from tear gas the police had used. All hostages were freed, none had sustained any injuries. The hostage taker was carrying two blank firing guns, one of them a pistol like the one described above, the other a blank firing rifle. He also had a fake hand grenade. It’s really hard to get hold of SIG Sauer MCX semi-automatic assault rifle and a 9mm Glock 17 semi-automatic pistol in Germany, which the Orlando nightclub shooter was able to pick up by simply driving to a store. And then use to kill 50 people.

Addendum III

October 2nd, 2017: The news is wall-to-wall on the Las Vegas massacre. “America is exceptional for its unique, deadly gun culture,” headlines this Washington Post article. It contains some impressive analysis and graphics.

Addendum IV

Wiki world map of civilian gun ownership (click to enlarge)

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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