I’ve shed a tear nearly every morning since the massacre took place at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut on the 14th of December. Any time I look at a newspaper or scroll through my Facebook feed or hear a clip on German or English language radio, there has been some mention of the incident. It’s the tributes to the victims that really start the waterworks – lively, shining smiling photos of young school children reminding me of my own six-year old and the unimaginable pain their deaths have brought their families.
There are other reasons why this particular shooting seems to have struck a nerve. It’s been troubling to realise how dire mental health support is in stark comparison to the ease of getting a gun is in America. The ensuing discussion over how to better protect school children has been equally disturbing: should teachers be armed, how should we teach our children to react in such a situation, and should parents be doing more such as the ex-Marine who stationed himself in uniform in front of his children’s school. It was with great sadness as I read about theses last few stories and debates. What teacher do you know would want to “pack heat?” Shouldn’t we be arming our teachers with more supplies and resources like professional development opportunities rather than with guns? And the last conversation I wanted to be having with my children was on how to react in the face of an assault rifle let alone stationing a military presence in their elementary school.
As we’ve discussed the tragedy and the subsequent national and international dialogues over gun control, my husband and I can’t help but breath a sigh of relief that we made that decision earlier this year to return to Germany. As you can imagine, it was painful to tear ourselves away from the sunshine of San Diego, but in our hearts, we knew raising three small kids would be easier in a small German city. Our decision was driven more by aspects such as being able to walk to Kindi and school and leaving behind aspects such as a consumer-driven, disposable-oriented culture for this recycling-obsessed one. Lower crime rates and correspondingly more stringent gun control laws were of course part of the equation as well, but I never thought that guns in schools, elementary schools that don’t have a gang presence I mean, would really make me take pause like this.
Of course the school shooting in Winnenden, Germany, only 70 kilometers from us now, does not put the possibility of a school shooting out of the realm of possibility, but as my husband pointed out, it is nevertheless far less likely to happen in Germany. At this point, where the frequency of shootings in the US have become harder to keep track of, there are only two which remain prominent in recent German history: Erfurt in 2002 and Winnenden in 2009.
The simple facts are that there are approximately 25 million privately owned guns in Germany compared to 270 million in America (source: gunpolicy.org). The number of homicides due to firearms was 9,960 in the US in 2009/2010 while in Germany the number was 158. Acquiring a gun is also far more difficult here than in the US. The Waffengesetz set out the laws regulating who can purchase and possess weapons including guns and they are amended and changed according to events and needs such as the shootings in Erfurt and Winneden.
These are the criteria that need to be met to possess a firearm:
- Age (min. age 0f 18)
- Personal adequacy
- Expert knowledge
There are various levels of licenses such as green, yellow and red which indicate what type of gun you are allowed to own. Green allows you to own non-assault weapons and the number of frequency of acquisition is capped relatively low, and each acquisition has to be approved. A yellow license holder is permitted to own more weapons, and a red license is available to people such as collectors and experts who are allowed to acquire an unlimited number of weapons, but for collectors, often they are limited to the “theme” of their collection. You can find the entire Weapons Act in English here.
The Waffengesetz are far more detailed and thought out and require a more involved process towards actual gun possession than in the US where a much wider definition of anybody can go to a mainstream outlet such as Walmart and buy a gun. And not just any gun such as a BB gun. I do mean the same assault rifle used in Newtown.
I am looking forward to leaving a year marked with a lot of transition, tough personal decisions and societal tragedy behind and at this point would like to wish all German Way readers a safe, healthy and happy new year.