What is the importance of firearms

Weapons and armor

Dagmar Ellerbrock

To person

PD Dr., born 1966; Head of the research group "Feelings, Violence & Peace" at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Lentzeallee 94, 14195 Berlin.
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Gun culture - is there such a thing in Germany? Weapons and culture are so far apart in the German self-image that a compound word is hardly imaginable. Since the Second World War at the latest, the German self-image has been shaped by a growing strangeness towards private gun ownership. Why bother with private firearms? The rampage of recent decades has shown that even in a society in which private gun ownership is publicly marginalized, private guns can play a role. [1] The belief that the gun culture was an originally American phenomenon, began to crack after Erfurt and Winnenden.

Whoever wants to understand in which contexts the private use of weapons [2] takes place, what constitutes its fascination and which logics it follows, who wants to understand the social significance of the private - legal and criminal - use of private weapons and what changes it is subject to well-advised to study the genesis and the lines of tradition of these weapon practices. With such an understanding, forms of private use of weapons can be contextualized and it can be recognized which arguments are only rhetorically constructed and which statements are meaningful.

The first thing to do is to define the concept of the weapon culture as an ideal type. In the following, this is understood to mean all norms, rules and habits that govern the use and possession of firearms. Such a definition reveals that every society, no matter how liberal or restrictive its gun law is, has its own gun culture. In this sense, the distance between large parts of German society and private firearms and the clear regulation of private gun ownership can be understood as an expression of a specific facet of German gun culture. What are their roots and contexts?

On the status quo and the amnesia of the German gun memory

What is noteworthy is the largely distant attitude of the media, politics and the public towards private firearms than the unreflected assumption that this has always been the case - the almost timeless normal German state of affairs. The assumption that private weapons were always and strictly regulated in German countries is a recent phenomenon. The high political and moral charge shows that this assessment is primarily based on current political identifications and less on historical and legal facts.

The demonstrative public renunciation of private gun ownership is the result of two lost world wars and a political culture that has been programmatically committed to democratization since 1945. The specifically German variety of social-democratic reorientation included the explicit rejection of any form of militarism. This caused an immediate loss of importance for private and military weapons practices. With regard to military weapons practices, this program quickly eroded in the political pragmatism of alliance and economic considerations. With regard to the civilian weapon culture, however, the attitude of strict renunciation maintained itself. Private weapons practices became more and more marginalized in the young Federal Republic. Since the 1970s and 1980s, a public consensus has finally been solidified, which increasingly marginalized private gun ownership and use and located only in the milieus of shooters and hunters.

This development, and with it the assessment that Germany is a country without an arms culture, is bought at the price of considerable displacement. Not only in view of the recent rampages, but also in view of the remarkable number of private firearms - depending on the estimate between five and ten million - it is evident [3] that a political discus about the social handling of private weapons, which includes all social groups, is long overdue and should be conducted at an adequate level of information and reflection. Historical perspectives can convey depth of focus and reflexivity, because anyone who follows the development path of German weapon culture will quickly discover that it is a plant with deep roots and widely ramified branches.

Premodern traditional holdings

Some offshoots go back to the premodern. Some (especially medieval) branches have now died or withered, others have been reissued in a modernized form and new branches are as invented traditions sprouted again in the course of the 19th century. Continuity can be found above all for the principle of ensuring the physical integrity of fellow human beings, which has always represented the iron limit to which no private weapon was allowed to touch. Shooting in inhabited places was already forbidden in pre-modern times. [4] Carrying loaded firearms was prohibited in the vicinity of marketplaces, churches and courthouses, as well as in inns where weapons had to be handed over to the innkeeper for safekeeping in a separate room. Nevertheless, there are always cases in which people shot out of the houses, disregarded the shooting ban in inhabited places during parades, celebrations and weddings and, especially in youthful exuberance, resorted to guns at times and in places that were considered completely indisposed. [5]

A second line of continuity, which can also be found from the premodern to the modern, is the regulation of the use of weapons for hunting. In times of feudal society, whoever was granted the right to hunt (especially high hunt) was directly determined by social positions: aristocrats - men and women - had access to the hunt, while citizens and farmers carried rifles in the woods and fields was forbidden. This regulation later translated into the imprecise memory that gun law was the right of the free. [6] It is correct that the right to use firearms for hunting was granted only to aristocrats, that is to say to free persons. Beyond that, however, the possession and use of firearms were not regulated any further; it was a guarantee right that everyone was entitled to. [7] Feudal hunting privileges and the socially exclusive regulation of the use of weapons fell in the revolution of 1848. After that, the possession and use of private firearms was permitted in German countries as long as no fellow citizen was harmed. The armament in inhabited areas and places remained regulated, all other forms of the use of arms were free. [8]