To its fans, paintball may seem like a harmless enough sport, a game of skill and tactics in which teams of players shoot colored paint pellets at one another. But under controversial new gun laws and other measures being considered by the German government, games that are deemed to "simulate the killing" of your opponent which, according to some, could include paintball may be banned.
"This is about a ban on degrading games in which killing or injury are simulated," Wolfgang Bosbach, deputy chairman of the Christian Democratic Union's (CDU) parliamentary faction, tells TIME. "In general, we need tougher gun laws because we have to protect the public from the misuse of weapons, and we also need to take our laws seriously." (See pictures of America's fascination with firearms.)
There has been heated debate over Germany's gun laws ever since a school shooting in the southern town of Winnenden on March 11, when 17-year-old Tim Kretschmar went on a rampage, killing 15 people before turning the gun on himself. After much wrangling between the conservative CDU and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government, the parties have finally agreed on a number of measures aimed at tightening Germany's gun controls, which are already quite strict compared with other European countries. (Read about Merkel in the TIME 100.)
The new measures include more spot checks on gun owners at their homes to ensure that weapons and ammunition are being stored and locked away properly; raising the legal age for using a high-caliber weapon for target practice from 14 to 18; amnesty for people who hand over illegal weapons to the authorities; and biometric security systems to ensure that weapons are being used by their rightful owners. After the Winnenden shooting, it emerged that Kretschmar had used his father's gun, which he found in his parents' bedroom. His father had a permit to own the gun, but current law dictates that it should have been stored in a secure location.
The gun lobby is powerful in Germany. There are more than 15,000 gun clubs with at least 2 million members. During the summer, popular shooting festivals where people drink beer, enjoy the sun and shoot at targets take place in towns and villages across Germany. According to the Interior Ministry, there are 10 million registered weapons in Germany and more worryingly up to 20 million illegal weapons. Germany tightened its gun-control laws in 2002, after a school shooting in the central town of Erfurt left 18 dead. But after the Winnenden shooting earlier this year, campaigners lobbied the government for even tougher legislation, which, they say, could prevent further massacres. (See pictures of the Virginia Tech tragedy.)
While many Germans would agree that tighter gun control is a good idea, the possible ban on paintball has players up in arms. The sport has become hugely popular in Germany, with 200 venues and 250,000 people who play regularly or occasionally. There's even a German Paintball League, whose games are televised. If the new rules under consideration are voted into law, the popular sport could be treated as a civil offense, punishable with a fine of up to $6,500.
"It's crazy to ban paintballing. It's an extreme sport, but it's absolutely harmless," says Lars Herzig, spokesman for the Forum for Paintball Sport. "Several courts have already ruled that paintballing doesn't simulate killing, so the politicians are on the wrong track. Why don't they ban boxing as well?" (See pictures of boxing in Thailand.)
As paintball fans complain that the proposed laws are heavy-handed, some politicians claim the measures are shortsighted, warning that tighter gun legislation isn't a quick fix to tackling gun crime. "There isn't a magic formula to prevent a killing spree," says Dieter Wiefelspuetz, interior policy spokesman for the Social Democrats. "The biggest challenge is to examine why some young men turn violent when they grow up."
But the relatives of those killed in Winnenden say the proposed measures don't go far enough. They are calling for tougher controls, including a ban on high-caliber firearms and on violent computer games and videos. "The new measures are just cosmetic because the government is under public pressure to do something to tighten gun laws before the election in September," Hardy Schober, chair of the Winnenden Action Group and father of 15-year-old Jana, who died in the shooting, tells TIME. "We want high-caliber weapons to be banned, and handguns should only be stored under supervision at gun clubs." (See pictures of bullets.)
The new laws still need to be approved by the CDU and SPD parliamentary groups, but the government is hoping to rush the bill through parliament before the summer recess in July. With the federal election coming up in September, the government knows that gun control is an easy way to get votes. But more difficult is deciding how much control is too much and how much is not enough.