Germany installs new gun registry

Change met with almost no opposition

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BERLIN — Imagine a vast registry that details every legal gun owner in the country, along with information about all of their firearms.

Now imagine the gun lobby not making a fuss about it.

That's what has happened in Germany, where a new gun database went into service at the beginning of the year.

Until recently, some records were kept on index cards across what used to be 551 separate local registries. Now, law enforcement officials can sit down at their computers and scroll through lists of owners and their guns in seconds.

Hunting is popular in Germany, and gun manufacturers are plentiful and powerful. But the push toward increased regulation and oversight, spurred by a string of school shootings in recent years, has come with little opposition from gun groups. Many gun advocates say that if cars can be registered and regulated, so can weapons.

The tone is far different from that in Washington, where the Newtown, Conn., shootings have prompted President Barack Obama to unveil new proposals to ban assault weapons and tighten background checks.

There, opponents in Congress -- including some pro-gun-rights Democrats -- have expressed skepticism about sweeping new regulations. The National Rifle Association, meanwhile, has proposed increasing the number of weapons at schools, a measure that would be unlikely to draw much support in Germany.

"The German minister of interior promised to guarantee a very high level of security of the data, so for us it's not a problem," said Frank Goepper, the general manager of Forum Waffenrecht, one of Germany's main gun rights groups.

"We are used to it," Goepper said of German regulations, which are significantly stricter than in the United States. "We are able to go hunting with it. We are able to do our sports with it. So it works."

Now, German law enforcement agencies know that there are 5.5 million legally registered guns in their country of 80 million people. Law enforcement officials say the gun database will help them quickly trace ownership if they find a legally registered gun connected to a crime. If they are preparing a raid on a house, they can scout the address in the database to be better prepared for what weapons might lie within. Before the database, they could only guess at overall numbers, and finding the weapons registered to a certain address had been laborious.

German gun owners must be licensed and pass strict safety exams to use their weapons. Police in Germany have the power to drop by gun owners' homes to check that the firearms are locked up according to regulations. And few people are allowed to carry guns in public.