After Munich shooting, would tighter German gun laws make a difference?

Germany already has some of the strictest gun laws in the world. Are even tighter controls the answer in the wake of the recent shooting in Munich?

Michael Sohn/File/AP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a statement in Berlin, Germany, on the Munich attack, on July 23, 2016.

The German response to massacres on their soil in recent years has been to tighten gun control. But with some of the strictest gun laws in the world, where can Germany go next?

An 18-year-old obtained a handgun and 300 rounds of ammunition to use in a mass shooting in Munich on Friday that left nine people dead. Immediately, many wondered how the shooter, who had received psychiatric care and treatment for depression, was able to get access to the weapons.

On Sunday, German leaders began to call for even stricter gun control, as evidence emerged that the gunman, Ali David Sonboly, bought the gun illegally on the internet. But while politicians send up the call for stricter laws, some experts told The Christian Science Monitor that may not be the catch-all answer.

“I don’t think there’s any magic law that will solve this kind of problem – even in Germany,” says James Jacobs, director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University. “It’s probably not possible to stop the black market. We haven’t stopped the black market in drugs. It’s unlikely that they could stop the black market in guns.”

Officials suspect that Mr. Sonboly drew inspiration from previous mass shootings in Germany, since he visited the site of a 2009 shooting where a 17-year-old used a gun stolen from his father to kill 15 people. This shooting, along with a school massacre in Germany in 2002, provided the political impetus to push through stringent gun control measures. In contrast, efforts in the United States to introduce tighter gun control laws after a public shooting have often led to surges in gun sales and calls to resist changing the law.

Germany is the only country in the world where anyone younger than 25 must pass a psychiatric examination in order to apply for a gun license. Gun owners must prove expert knowledge in handling the weapon, usually gained through a months-long course, and all guns must be registered in an electronic database. With stricter gun laws, gun homicides in Germany dropped from 106 in 2002 to 57 in 2015, according to GunPolicy.org.

Germany’s two ruling parties, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, were quick to call for even tighter gun laws following Friday’s attack.

Sigmar Gabriel, the deputy chancellor, told the Funke Mediengruppe news group, “We must continue to do all we can to limit and strictly control access to deadly weapons.”

Dr. Jacobs says that even in England, which has the toughest gun laws in Europe, there is a significant amount of gun crime. "It’s very difficult to keep a person who is determined to obtain a firearm from obtaining one," he says. 

"I think there will be some tinkering around the edges, but I don’t see that there will be or that there needs to be a major departure in gun regulation," says Kenneth Ledford, professor of German history and law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. And Germany has a much greater gun presence than most Americans realize, he says.

German citizens legally own 5.4 million guns, making the country the fourth most-armed nation per capita.

"Germany has always had an armed police force, as opposed to England where there's a long tradition of an unarmed police officers. As far back as the 1980s, airports and public buildings are guarded by border police with machine guns," says Dr. Ledford.

The disparity between gun laws in different European countries is being called into focus, since guns can freely travel in the border-free Schengen Area. Though the serial number from the handgun used in Munich was wiped off, its most recent documentation was from Slovakia in 2014, The Telegraph reported, which was also believed to be the origin of the weapons used in last year's Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.

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