By Michael Birnbaum
The Washington Post
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.
"When a weapon was involved in a crime, there really weren't any instruments to be able to track it down," said Joachim Sturm, the head of the Interior Ministry's weapons department, who led the project to develop the register. "We had a year-long discussion about its contents."
Sturm said his eventual ambition was to expand the database so that it tracked guns from the moment they were manufactured, not just when they are sold. That might also help officials keep better tabs on illegal weapons, which many groups estimate as far outnumbering legal ones, at upward of 20 million. (Sturm claims the actual number is far lower.) Even if illegal weapons turn up, Sturm hopes to have an easier time tracking its origins.
"We want in the future to be able to fully view the life cycle of a gun, without any gap," he said. "From its birth at production to its end. Every move, every development."
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.
"This is something that is sort of unanimously supported when it comes to political parties," said Jan Arend, an official in Germany's Green Party who has worked on shaping gun legislation. "I can imagine what the outrage would be in the United States."
In 2010, the latest year for which data is available, 26.3 percent of homicides in Germany were committed with a firearm, according to U.N. statistics; in the United States, that figure was 67.5 percent.
"We now have the instruments that we need," said Dennis Golcher, an official in the weapons administration section of Berlin's police department. "We really appreciate this national register. It has considerably improved our work."
Many German gun enthusiasts view their American counterparts with a mixture of envy and raised eyebrows.
"Maybe it's a cultural difference," said Goepper, the member of the gun rights group. "Maybe we are used to being treated badly as gun owners in Germany."
Some gun owners say they expect a certain amount of regulation, even if they would prefer that their country used a lighter touch.
"If you drive a car, you need a driver's license, and they also tell you what is dangerous with your car," said Katja Triebel, whose family has owned a gun store in Berlin's Spandau district for 90 years. "The same should be the case with guns."
Triebel — who was wearing stylish black plastic-frame glasses and the red pants favored by German outdoors enthusiasts — said that her primary concern with the registry was that it was too easy for the wrong people to take a look at it.
"Collectors are worried they will be robbed," she said. "And everything that is registered can be taken away by the government."
Washington Post special correspondent Petra Krischok contributed to this report.