Weekly Exchange: Gun control in the U.S. vs. in France and Germany


In the latest installment of Weekly Exchange, WSPN’s Emma Nallet discusses the European refugee crisis from a new perspective after she gained a different insight during her experience in the US.

Emma Nallet and Teresa Hank-Gomez

In the first issue of Weekly Exchange, Emma Nallet, an exchange student from France, and Teresa Hank-Gomez, an exchange student from Germany, examine the differences between gun control in the US and gun control in their home countries.

Gun Control in the U.S. vs. in France:

Feb. 14, 2018 was a perfectly ordinary day, neither exciting or boring, until a 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz entered the school and began shooting with his AR-15 at students who were trapped in an endless nightmare. When the police eventually came, it was already too late. The shooter had time to run outside, blending in with the mass of students who were attempting to escape the horror scene. It was only later in the day that Cruz was taken into custody by a police officer, without incident, after the officer identified the teen’s clothing via a description shared by authorities. The now infamous shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, Fla. killed 17 students and faculty members and wounded many.

Rapidly, the media circulated images of broken families, weeping students and police forces doing their utmost to keep the situation under control. And soon, everybody came to the same conclusion, calling the events at Stoneman Douglas High School just “One more deadly school shooting.” But that conclusion was without taking into consideration the Parkland survivors’ moral strength and desire to drastically change things.

As a high school student myself, I feel deeply concerned by gun violence. I come from France, a  country where the right of the people to keep and bear arms is completely absent from the Constitution. After the shooting, many people started to ask me questions about how French gun laws compared to America’s and how I felt about the shooting.

In France, there is an important distinction between having the right to bear a gun and having the right to own one. Today in France, only policemen, customs officers and probation officers are allowed to carry a firearm. People whose life is threatened can be granted exceptions under conditions and following a request by the Minister of the Interior to bear a handgun. Besides the police, bearing a weapon concerns roughly only fifty people.

In order to own a gun, a marksman must obtain a prefectural authorization beforehand. State officers first and foremost have to make sure people making the request are at least 18 years old. Then, authorities must confirm that requesters have never been incriminated, a judicial protection order does not concern them and they never received a psychiatric service without their consent. In addition to background checks, guns are divided into four categories, a system that aims at limiting abuses. Categories vary from A to D according to their dangerousness.

Category A encompasses real weapons of war. Just like in the United States, the French can’t own any fully automatic weapon such as a Kalashnikov. Only the military can carry category A firearms on an official mission. There is no exception to the rule.

Category B weapons are subject to authorization. This category essentially concerns police officers and includes firearms with a barrel shorter than 18.5 inches and a removable magazine with a capacity larger than three rounds. For these, one must have a sports shooting license, which means this person must have an active membership in a shooting club, be present at a firing range at least three times a year, and visit a physician annually for a physical and mental certification that you are capable of owning a gun. Private individuals with a blank criminal record can also make a request to the Prefecture or the Minister of Interior to carry a gun for self-defense.

Weapons in category C cover hunting weapons limited to three rounds, but each firearm must be registered. The owner must have a sports shooting or hunting license. For the latter, owners must undertake a full day of theory and practice, including learning about safety, protected species and dog breeds.

The last one, Category D, comprises lightly regulated items, such as pellet and paintball guns, pepper spray and deactivated display weapons. To own a gun in this category, one only has to register on an official list, but restrictions on minors still apply.

Needless to say, French and American policies regarding gun control differ widely. This difference impacts gun violence. According to a study from the American Journal of Medicine, the firearm death rate is 10.2 percent per 100,000 in the US, while in France it does not exceed 2.8 percent. There’s a firearm homicide rate of 3.6 percent in the US, while it dips as low as 0.2 percent in France. Likewise, gun ownership in the United States is 30 percent, whereas in France it was 14.96 percent in 2016.

France is also affected by school shootings, but these tragic scenarios remain very rare. In March 2016, a 17-year-old student armed with a rifle, two handguns and two hand grenades, penetrated Tocqueville High School, situated in Grasse, and started to fire at several people. Fortunately, he was rapidly arrested and only had time to lightly wounded three students and his teacher. Investigations concluded that his motivations were linked to the bad relationships he had with other students. He also presented a fascination for satanist imagery and the Columbine high school shooting.

Despite the example of Tocqueville High School, mass shootings are few and far between, but this does not mean that France is not threatened at its heart by gun violence. Four years earlier, France was shaken by an ambush at the gates of a Jewish school in Toulouse, when terrorist Mohamed Merah murdered a 30-year-old rabbi and his two young sons. 2015 and 2016 were largely marked by terrorist attacks including attacks in Charlie Hebdo, Paris and Nice. In aftermath of the Nov. 13 attacks, the French government launched into a struggle against firearms traffic. In order to reach its objective, the government tightened gun laws and created cyber-patrols to monitor online trafficking networks, in addition to an increase of controls on main highways and entrance points.

Whether we are French or American, our generation has been marked by this troubling perspective: the perspective of losing life or seeing loved ones murdered. Our childhood and adolescence have been punctuated by terrorist attacks, global warming, ISIS, wars in the Middle East, the revival of despotic governments, the rise of inequalities and other afflictions. However, in spite of this profoundly harrowing environment, I deeply believe in the prospect of a world where security would not be a privilege but be granted. I am not writing as a French expatriate, but as a student and human being who can no longer passively bear the loss of so many innocent people. The Parkland shooting proved that circumstances do not allow compliant acceptation anymore. In spite of pressures and intimidation, Parkland students have made their mark on history and drastically transformed mentalities. They are the vector of change who dare to rise up and denounce institutions in order to get them to listen to reason. The Florida gun control laws recently adopted is the living proof of their impact that goes beyond American borders. Parkland survivors such as Emma Gonzalez are a source of inspiration for every young throughout the world. They demonstrated that youth is powerful, socially aware and capable to change what was considered immutable. This is through the courageous and relentless struggle of young people ready to fight for their ideals that the world will perceive a fairer future.

Gun Control in the U.S. vs. in Germany:

Since the last shooting in Florida, many people have become active and have taken part in the debate about gun laws in the US. Every country deals differently with this issue and there is certainly a major difference between gun control in the US compared to Germany.

Since it is more of a privilege than a right for Germans to own a gun, there is a long procedure to get a firearm. Someone applying for a gun license usually has to wait a year until the purchase of a gun is possible. Fully automatic weapons are banned in Germany and there are severe restrictions for other types of weapons. Those who apply for a certain gun license have to be at least 18 years old and have a legitimate reason for owning a gun such as hunting.

A German applying for a gun license has to undergo what’s called a reliability check. This includes verifying that the person is not an alcohol or drug addict, checking of criminal records and also checking if the person has mental illness or any other attributes that might make him questionable to authorities. Each weapon might need a different license.

Laws are very strict in Germany. I was never close to a real gun, and I was shocked to notice how easy the purchase of guns can be in the US. When my German family came to visit, they went to a gun show where diverse guns were openly laying on tables, surrounded by pro-Trump stickers. At the same show, the so called “Zombie bats” could be purchased. Those were baseball bats that had nails sticking out.

In the six months since my exchange year in the US started, I noticed that some people are very proud of their country, but also critical about the government. I think that there is a big mistrust for the police and that some people are very protective of their property. Because Americans believe in the constitutional right that everyone should be allowed to defend themselves, the US has loose gun laws.

Going back in Germany’s history, there was a gun control law in 1919 that the German legislature passed to effectively ban all private firearms possession. The government relaxed the regulation a bit in 1928, but put in place a strict registration regime that required citizens to acquire separate permits to sell, own or carry guns.

I think the German people don’t share that American feeling of wanting to defend their property with guns. Many people trust the police to protect them. However, coming back to the modern times, there is a rise of populism and nationalism around the globe and in Germany as well. The shift to nationalism and distrusting the government is visible, as the far right party “AFD” recently gained power in Germany’s Congress.

There are certainly some gun enthusiasts in Germany. For example, some Germans began the German Rifle Association, largely based on the National Rifle Association in the US. There are those Germans who seek to replicate the United States’ far more libertarian approach to gun control.

Germany underwent several strict gun reforms after the country experienced school shootings. In 2002, a student killed 16 people in the city of Erfurt. After this shooting, a new Weapons Act became effective, strengthening requirements for the safe storage of firearms. The new act also restricted the use of large caliber weapons by young people.

Later in Mar. 2009, a high school shooting happened in Winnenden, a little town near the German city of Stuttgart, where I come from. A 17-year-old got his hands on his father’s gun and killed 16 people, injuring nine others. This rare tragedy was a reason for many Germans to protest and the government to finally implement a national firearms registry, requiring the owners of 5.5 million legally owned guns to register with the government.

Germany has, per capita, the fourth-highest gun ownership of any nation. However, Germany’s strict gun laws keep firearms largely out of the public eye, and the intense governmental monitoring of gun owners’ that followed the Winnenden shooting helps reduce the threat of gun violence.

Between 2009 and 2016, there were no major mass shootings in Germany. Then a shooting happened in a Munich shopping mall in July 2016, resulting in ten deaths. After the shooting in Munich, other incidents have occurred but resulted in fewer than four deaths, such as in 2015 when a man killed two people in what seemed to be random shootings.

Meanwhile, according to the Gun Violence Archive, the US has had more than 60 shootings that killed or injured at least four people as of Mar. 2017.

Opinion articles written by staff members represent their personal views. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent WSPN as a publication.