What Growing Up in Rural Germany Taught Me About Gun Control
By Michaela Haas, Reasons to Be Cheerful
In the Bavarian village where I was raised, guns are a part of life. Mass shootings are not.
I love guns. I grew up with them. My grandpa taught me how to shoot them in our garden when I was eight years old. Like many kids who grow up in rural communities, guns were part of our life. Many in our village had at least one.
Every Friday evening, my grandfather, my father and most men (plus a considerable number of girls and women) would meet at our local pub for marksmen contests. The trophies my ancestors won still line a shelf in my parents’ modest home.
But — and here comes a crucial difference — I did not grow up in rural America, but in rural Germany. The guns we shot were BB guns and air rifles, maybe a Walther or Beretta. The people who used “real” rifles, such as a repeating rifle, were hunters, of which we had plenty in our village.
The author as a child in Bavaria, Germany. Photo courtesy Michaela Haas
Germany, if you want to have a “real” gun, you need to have a good reason. Maybe you’re a hunter; maybe you need to protect yourself; maybe you use it for sport. Whatever your reason, you need to apply for a permit and your arguments will be considered and, sometimes, rejected. If you belong to any extremist organization, such as a neo-Nazi group, you are automatically barred from owning a gun. Magazines with more than 20 rounds for handguns and more than 10 rounds for long guns are illegal. The government figures if you’re that bad a shot, you shouldn’t own a weapon in the first place.
The German National Weapons Registry registers all legal weapons and follows their whereabouts from production or import until destruction. Weapon dealers are required to report every sale.
Not unlike when you purchase a vehicle, you need to acquire a license, pass a vision and skills test, and you need to prove that you are able to lock up your guns securely. The police might come to your house unannounced to check that the weapons are locked away where you said they would be. Every five years, authorities will recheck that the reasons you needed a gun still apply.
If you don’t know the whereabouts of your weapons or the police find them unsecured, they have the right to confiscate them. You’ll need to undergo training all over again if you hope to get them back. Nobody in Germany practices what to do during a mass shooting at an elementary school. Why? Because it has never happened.
Today I live in California. And like everybody who has a heart, I am traumatized by the images of grieving parents and the 911 calls of 10-year-olds hiding in an Uvalde classroom. But two days before the massacre in Texas, I was traumatized by another shooting. The family member of a very close friend here in the US shot and killed another family member. This one barely grazed the headlines because “only” one person lost their life, a “routine” news flash in a country where more than 110 Americans die from guns every day.
We barely pay attention anymore. I cannot write more details about this personal tragedy here because I would break down and not be able to continue writing. But this perpetrator, like the Uvalde shooter, shared particular traits common to many shooters: He was a young man — angry, addicted, depressed — who should never have had access to a gun.
I understand gun culture. But if you love guns, you should want them to only end up in the hands of the most responsible people. As Nicholas Kristof writes in the New York Times: “Automobiles are a model for the public health approach I’m suggesting. We don’t ban cars, but we work hard to regulate them — and limit access to them — so as to reduce the death toll they cause. This has been spectacularly successful.”
Nobody would propose that any blind or untrained person should be able to operate a race car. And yet, the US is the only country with more civilian-owned firearms than people: 120.5 firearms per 100 residents. There are nearly 400 million guns in cabinets, nightstands, glove compartments and closets. Guns are the leading cause of death among children and adolescents in America. They kill more minors than Covid and car crashes. And yes, this is different from every other country: The homicide rate in the US is 7.5 times higher than that in 28 other high-income countries combined, which researchers largely attribute to the firearm homicide rate, which is 24.9 times higher.
The data is clear: States with more guns have more gun deaths. This is one of the main reasons America has 16 times as many firearm homicidesas Germany per capita, and its arsenal is five times as lethal as Canada’s.
No other country kills as many children with guns. Across the 29 countries in the aforementioned study, the US accounted for nearly 97 percent of the firearm deaths among children four years old or younger, and 92 percent for kids ages five to 14.
Like many people who live in the US, I’ve thought about getting a gun, too. During the first pandemic summer, my spouse and I were attacked by gang members who promised to come back and “rough us up.” When I called the three closest gun shops, they all had the same message: We’re totally sold out. I bought a stun gun instead, and after accidentally firing it and nearly hitting my dog in the process, I stored it away. That was the end of that.
The question my European friends ask most frequently is, “How can you live in a country with so many guns? Isn’t it dangerous?”
Yes, it is. My home is only ten miles from the Presbyterian church in Laguna Woods where a shooter killed one and injured five churchgoersafter a luncheon two weeks ago. The 2019 racist synagogue shooting in Poway that killed one worshipper and injured three is only a few miles from my mother-in-law’s home. A good friend was one of the first responders. When I lived in Boulder, Colorado, I used to shop at the King Soopers supermarket where a 21-year-old killed ten customers and clerks last year. In 2018, I was only a few miles from the Borderline Bar in Thousand Oaks when a former Marine killed 13 and injured 16 with a legally purchased semi-automatic pistol and seven banned high-capacity magazines. The bullets are coming closer. The danger that I might lose loved ones — or my own life — is real.
I have heard and read many times that the Second Amendment gives Americans the right to own guns. But when I looked deeper into the history, I learned from historian Heather Cox Richardson that the “well-regulated militia” mentioned in 2A was never meant as a “gun free-for-all” until the NRA started pouring millions of dollars into elections.
There are successful solutions to gun violence, as England, Australia, New Zealand and other countries that have experienced mass shootings have proven. After a gunman killed 16 people in 1987, Great Britain banned semi-automatic weapons like the ones he had used. Now Great Britain has one of the lowest gun-related death rates in the world. Australia issued mandatory gun buybacks after a 1996 massacre, which took nearly one million firearms off the streets, and as a consequence, saw mass shootings plummet to only one in the 26 years since. After the 2019 Christchurch massacre where a white supremacist killed 51 mosque-goers, New Zealand’s parliament banned semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles with a near-unanimous vote. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, “I could not fathom how weapons that could cause such destruction and large-scale death could have been obtained legally in this country.”
That an 18-year-old like the Uvalde shooter cannot legally buy a beer, but is free to purchase an assault weapon, is impossible to justify. Even police forces are scared to confront bad guys with these weapons. And yet, Texas Governor Greg Abbott proudly made it even easier to purchase guns and accessories by modifying seven gun laws last year after several shootings.
Like many people who consider America their home, I am saddened, disgusted and outraged by the death of 19 elementary school children and their two teachers, by the unrelenting staccato of sadness from Sandy Hook — El Paso — Las Vegas — Orlando — Parkland — Buffalo — Uvalde.
90 percent of Americans demand background checks, at least two-thirds want gun safety laws. An overwhelming majority of voters wants to protect us and our children from gun violence. And yet, we’re still stuck with thoughts and prayers.
After the Sandy Hook massacre, Wayne LaPierre, the then-head of the NRA, said, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” The Uvalde shooting put an end to that myth. In response to that often quoted saying, survivors and gun safety advocates have come up with their own version of a solution: The only thing that can take out a bad guy with a vote is a good guy or a good woman with a vote. Even a former gun industry executive believes that “the only way [gun safety legislation] will happen is if the [gun] industry senses that there is enough political pressure to cost them votes.” Ultimately, ballots have the power to stop the bullets.
Michaela Haas, Ph.D., is a Contributing Editor at Reasons to be Cheerful. An award-winning author and solutions reporter, her recent books include Bouncing Forward: The Art and Science of Cultivating Resilience (Atria). Visit www.michaelahaas.com