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.