This spring, OPB News aired Gun Stories, a week-long series of reports that will examine the varying perspectives in the Pacific Northwest on guns. In the summer of 2013, we sent Amanda Peacher to Germany through the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship program. This story was one in a three-part series she produced about guns in Germany, a nation that has some of the strictest gun control regulations in the world.
Sonya Pfeilschifter marches onto the shooting range with her head down and a focused stride. You wouldn’t know it, but her heart is racing. She’s about to compete in the German National championships for air rifle shooting in Munich.
In this sport, a fast pulse can be a problem.
Right now she’s in fourth place. If she’s going to win, she has to have an absolutely steady hand. She focuses on the target ten meters ahead.
The eight women raise their guns. Pfeilschifter presses her cheek into the side of her rifle, takes a deep breath, and aims.
She hits the target just outside the center ring. To win, she has to shoot that well or better nine more times.
Pfeilschifter is a professional athlete who’s been competing as a sport shooter for thirty years. She has several world championships under her belt.
So, what draws Pfeilschifter to sport shooting?
“It’s basically all about focusing on one point and concentrating,” says Pfeilschifter. “One hour before, you might be having fun, or joking around but you know in that moment you need to shut everything else out. You need to switch something in your head. It’s entirely about concentration. That’s what’s so appealing.”
In some competitions, shooters have to hold their focus for three hours. They shoot standing, kneeling, or lying down.
Guns for sport and community
Sport shooting is popular in Germany. There are more than one point five million sport shooters in the country.
In southern states like Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, even the small villages have shooting ranges. In some towns, spending a day at the shooting range and gathering over schnapps after is as common as playing soccer. Parents bring kids to the ranges and start them on air guns as teenagers.
When sport shooters get really serious they make it here, to the German National sport shooting championships in Munich. They train for years, and they come from all over Germany to compete.
“The fascination of sport shooting, of the sport itself lies in the hidden, it’s the body control, it’s the concentration that you are training,” says Claudia Kuller, national coach for the junior rifle squad.
“We tend to think of sport as activity, dynamic, but that’s not necessarily always true.
And, like any sport, athletes have good days and bad days.
“Today was not good,” says twenty-six year old Christian Rietz. “Yesterday I shoot air pistol everything was fine. I shoot a personal best. And today I shoot free pistol and— it was not my day. It was very very bad I think.”
Rietz is being humble, but he’s a really good shooter. He’s competed in the Olympics and won a bronze medal in rapid fire pistol competition.
Like a lot of shooters, he says he doesn’t view his gun as a deadly weapon.
“Sport shooting is a sport. Our sport materials are gun,” says Rietz. Our guns are dangerous, that is also right. But for the shooter, our guns are material — like shoes for the athlete.”
And Claudia Kuller says safety is a big part of sport shooting philosophy.
“I think what we teach is the responsible usage of something which looks like a gun, but for us it’s a tool that proves how accurate you are, how much you can control yourself,” says Kuller. “I think this awareness needs to be increased.”
Controversy over new gun regulations
“That’s the psychology of sport shooters,” says Hardy Schober, a gun control advocate with Aktionsbundis Amoklauf Winnenenden.
“They think it’s more a tool and not a weapon but if you think about it, weapons were invented to kill, cars to drive, knives to cut,” says Schober.
“Weapons are instruments are for killing. Sport shooters need to acknowledge that.”
And even though Germany has strict rules for sport shooters and safe gun storage, gun crimes still happen.
In August, a gunman in Dossenheim, Germany killed two people and injured five others at a tennis club restaurant before killing himself. He was a licensed sport shooter with seven legal firearms at home.
Sonya Pfeilschifter says these kinds of incidents put sport shooters on the defensive.
“In Germany, we have a bad reputation—because of all these shootings,” says Pfeilschifter.
“That seems to be different in the US, I believe. There people might take it too lightly but at least it’s kind of accepted. Shootings happen and then two days later everyone moves on. Here in Germany we are so discredited so that there are always new laws passed and they are stricter and stricter. Those who are into sport shooting are a tight-knit community. No matter how often we explain the background, it doesn’t register for the broad public.”
After the Dossenheim shooting, some politicians from the Social Democrats and the Green Party called for stricter regulations on sport shooters.
They say that guns used for sport should be kept at the shooting ranges and not at home. Hardy Schober’s organization says that many gun deaths could be prevented that way — including the three people who died in Dossenheim.
“We are not against sport shooters, we are just against that they are using freedom in their reasoning,” says Schober. “Someone who exercises this dangerous hobby by using a deadly weapon has to be prepared to follow certain safety limitations in the future.”
Schober’s organization wants to ban certain big bore weapons. Many sport shooters worry that more regulation will discourage people from getting into the sport. Sport shooting is as much about community as it is about hitting on target.
You can sense that in the audience at the national championships. Back at the women’s air rifle competition, the crowd gasps when a shooter makes a great hit or they groan when her shot lands astray.
Sonya Pfeilschifter is preparing to fire her last shot. She’s now in the lead, and if she hits the target just right, she’ll be Germany’s next national air rifle champion.
Pfeilshchifter takes her time. The other women fire.
And then finally, she pulls the trigger.
Her shot hits the bullseye near dead center. The crowd gasps, and then erupts into cheers for the veteran shooter.
If all goes by plan, Pfeilshchifter will be back next year to defend her title. But for now, she’s headed to the bier tent to celebrate with her local shooting club, wearing her gold medal around her neck.
Translation services for this series provided by Thomas Schmidt. Voiceovers by Jason Sauls and Julie Sabatier.