The scene could have come from a first-person shooter: a young man aims a pistol at the driver's window of a Berlin police car, pulls the trigger and fires a firework cartridge into the vehicle. It explodes inside the car, flashing red and white. Pictures like these show the full extent of the violence against the fire brigade and police on New Year's Eve. In addition to firecrackers, the perpetrators repeatedly used blank pistols.
During a TV interview with a firefighter, for example, a masked man forms the Albanian double-headed eagle with his hands, then he shoots several times in the air. A Berlin police officer suffered burns from a burst of fire from a blank pistol. But also in Hamburg, a group of 15 to 20 people forced three bus drivers to stop with blank pistols.
After the New Year's Eve incidents, the debate focused on a ban on the sale of firecrackers to prevent future excesses of violence. Berlin's Senator for the Interior, Iris Spranger (SPD), for example, wants to encourage this via the Conference of Interior Ministers. However, the cases in which alarm pistols were used against law enforcement officers show that such a measure could only be suitable to a limited extent to prevent such attacks on the police and fire brigade. In the "Tagesspiegel" on Wednesday, Spranger spoke out in favor of tightening the gun law for alarm guns.
She received support on Friday from Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD), who wants to tighten gun laws. A permit is required for the purchase of alarm guns. These played a major role on New Year's Eve, but were "not a harmless instrument," said Faeser during a visit to the fire department in Berlin-Neukölln. "It's a weapon. Permission is required for this,” emphasized the Federal Minister of the Interior. "I think this tightening is an important signal."
So far, alarm guns, irritant gas guns or signal weapons (also called SRS weapons) and the associated ammunition can be purchased in Germany without major restrictions. The only requirements: the weapons must have a test mark from the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt and the buyer must be 18 years old. Among the current offers from arms dealers are deceptively real models such as a Walther P99, the prototype of which is used by various police forces with live ammunition. Their price is around 150 euros, others are cheaper.
However, the purchase alone does not mean that this weapon can also be used publicly. According to the current legal situation, a so-called small gun license is required for this. However, the weapon may then not be carried in plain sight and may only be used to avert danger. Blank cartridges and tear gas cartridges are used as ammunition, and there are attachments for fireworks. Violations of the weapons law, such as carrying a gun without a license, could be punished with a fine of up to 10,000 euros. In Berlin alone, 89 of these violations of the Weapons Act were identified on New Year's Eve, and 74 alarm guns were confiscated.
Spranger now wants to prescribe a small firearms license and the associated reliability check for the purchase of a blank-firing gun, and it must be proven that there are no criminal investigations against the buyer. The Neukölln district mayor Martin Hikel (SPD) also spoke in the WELT interview for a similar change in the law. The traffic light coalition agreement of the SPD, Greens and FDP from December 2021 had already provided for a corresponding change, but this has not yet been implemented. The police union (GdP) even requires registration when purchasing.
Gun manufacturers and dealers reject a corresponding tightening of gun laws. "What happened on New Year's Eve cannot be prevented by tightening gun laws because it is already prohibited anyway," says Ingo Meinhard, Managing Director of the Association of German Gunsmiths and Weapons Dealers (VDB) when asked by WELT. The law only provides for exceptions to the rules for carrying SRS weapons in public for special cases such as firing blank cartridges at theater performances and giving start signals at sporting events.
Without a firearms license and without a permit, a blank pistol may only be used on your own fenced property or at a shooting range and only if this does not affect other people. Contrary to widespread belief, there are no special rules for New Year's Eve. Arms dealers always point out these rules to buyers, emphasizes Meinhard. In his view, violent perpetrators could also obtain used alarm guns on New Year's Eve or on May 1st from friends or through classified ads.
According to estimates by the association, there are currently 43 million alarm guns in circulation in Germany. This number is based on information from manufacturers and dealers about production and sales over the past decades. "The number sounds high," Meinhard admits. "Many owners don't know anything about these guns because some of them have been stored in attics or basements for decades," he says. Therefore, he considers the danger that could emanate from these weapons to be low.
However, data from the National Weapons Register shows that interest in alarm guns is increasing in Germany. According to the responsible Federal Ministry of the Interior, the number of small gun licenses issued rose to 776,459 by November 30, 2022. At the beginning of 2022 there were still 740,174 – an increase of 36,285. There was a similar increase in previous years.
The VDB refers to events such as New Year's Eve in Cologne in 2015, which led to this increased demand for alarm guns and self-defense items. "In 2016 defensive weapons were practically sold out in specialist shops," says Meinhard, whose association also rejects a ban on selling firecrackers: fireworks are sold primarily through discounters, but according to estimates by the VDB, around 15 percent of annual sales of New Year's Eve fireworks are attributable to the arms trade. This seasonal business is also an economic factor for the member companies of the VDB.
It also remains questionable whether tightening of gun laws and a ban on firecrackers will change the behavior of young people at the same time. The former youth councilor of Neukölln Falco Liecke (CDU), who has been dealing with juvenile crime in his district for years, doubts that. "We are having a mock debate here," said Liecke when asked by WELT. From his point of view, a lack of respect for the state and its representatives cannot be remedied in any case. A package of measures is needed for this. Everything else is just a "picking at a phenomenon".
"The reasons for this behavior in certain Neukölln settlements have been known and grown for many years. A lot of problems come together there,” explains Liecke. On the one hand, the families from which the perpetrators came have grown, which means that young people are often pushed out of the apartments that are far too small and onto the streets. In addition, fathers are often not present in these families, so there is a lack of upbringing and role models. And on top of that, due to the lack of school qualifications for these young people, the path to a normal career is blocked.
“Recognition in social networks is sought as a replacement. And there the following applies: the harder and more brutal, the better,” explains Liecke. He therefore calls not only for social and youth work in the affected districts, but also for more consistent action against the perpetrators, i.e. rapid criminal prosecution - also for violations of the weapons law.
Assistance: Katja Mitic