As with every other mass shooting, the sale of guns in the US rose after Newtown, as many feared stricter gun laws. But exactly how easy is it to buy a gun? DW's Christina Bergmann found out for herself.
"Why don't you take a Glock 9mm?" says the friendly young blond man next to me. "It can shoot through walls and doors and pretty much anything." Then he adds helpfully, "It depends a little on your hand-size" - we both look at my outstretched hand - "But you can't really go wrong with a Glock."
The young man, perhaps in his early 20s, is standing alongside me in a line of prospective buyers in a firearms store in Virginia. He wants to buy a particular handgun, and already visited the store last weekend. "But they were almost all sold out," he says.
The store, south of Washington DC, opened about 20 minutes ago, but the three cashiers can barely keep up with business. Statistically speaking, there are enough guns in the US for nine out of ten Americans to own one, and sales are increasing. But exactly how many weapons change owners remains unknown, because in many cases no formalities are necessary for re-sale.
But how easy is it really to buy a firearm? The best opportunity is a gun show, where dealers and private individuals can offer handguns and rifles for sale. While dealers usually still stick to the process they apply in their stores, gun sales between private individuals don't require any paperwork at all.
Different laws in Virginia
Another possibility is buying online. But as a first-time buyer I am suspicious of feeding my personal data into an anonymous website. To find out what I'm letting myself in for, I meet an acquaintance in Virginia. John - he'd rather not give his real name - grew up in a small town in Virginia, where, he says, weapons are part of everyday life.
"The first time I ever shot a gun I was probably nine years old, my grandparents owned a little cabin and we went up there in the fall and we would go hunting," he tells me.
John bought his first gun, a Winchester, at the age of 18. He now owns several, and makes sure that the formalities are in order when he buys or sells a weapon. But Virginia regulations do not force him to - a resident can sell a gun to another Virginia resident as if it were a bicycle, without background checks or papers. John is a little suspicious of this. "If I don't own it anymore I don't want paperwork on it and I don't want responsibility for it," he said. After all, who knows what the buyer will do with the gun in 10 years' time?
On to Maryland
If you buy a gun in Virginia, John tells me, the background check can be very quick.
"Literally within two or three hours you go to the counter, you can take it the same day, provided nothing comes back," he says. I decide to visit a firearms store myself a few days later - in Maryland, where I am a registered resident.
The first store I go to that morning is already very busy. It is in a typical row of shops between a Taiwanese restaurant and a pet store. The only difference is that its windows are barred and you can't see inside. It's my turn. I introduce myself as a journalist who wants to find out how to buy a gun. "Hm, let me just check if I'm allowed to talk to you," says the cashier and disappears into another room. The manager promptly comes out and informs me that I have to speak to their press spokesman, who turns out to be in another branch and has no time to talk.
'First-time buyer? No problem!'
I drive further east to another firearms store in Maryland. Business seems to be booming here too. This time I decide just to be a customer. "What can I do for you," a friendly female cashier says to me. "I have a lot of questions mainly," I tell her. "First-time buyer?" she asks, and when I nod, she continues, "No problem, my colleague will help you. We have a lot of people here buying for the first time - men and women."
Her colleague, who is in the middle of serving a middle-aged lady, points me to a sign: "First, you have to go on this website, and take this course," he tells me. "Then you'll get a certificate, which you bring to me, and then I can sell you a firearm." I ask him, "I'm a resident of Maryland, but I'm not an American, can I still buy a handgun?" "Do you have a Green Card?" he asks. I nod - I have an official work and residency permit. "Then it's no problem," comes the reply.
A weapon for personal safety
No one here has a problem with selling me a gun, even though it's obvious I have no idea how to handle one. Then I ask how much I have to pay up front. "Between $300 and $600 (225 - 450 euros)," I'm told.
I drive home and take to my computer. From the Maryland police website I learn that the "Firearms Safety Training course" will last around 30 minutes. I enter my name, date-of-birth, and driver's license number and click through the pages. I learn about the different types of revolvers, and I am warned to store my weapons and ammunition separately and in a safe, if possible. I wonder how I'm supposed to keep it ready if the masked criminals, which the gun store websites all warn me about, come at night.
Weapons training in 30 minutes
I really am through in half an hour, and print myself a certificate as proof. One part I have to send to the police - and then I'm fully entitled to buy a gun. The dealer simply has to carry out a background check by sending my details to the police. "That normally takes seven days," he informed to me. "But there's a backlog, so you may have to wait two to three weeks."
At the end of the day, I drive back to the firearms store in Virginia, where I waited in line for 45 minutes with the young, blond man in the morning. I want to find out if I can get a handgun here, where everything is supposed to be quicker and easier. "You could buy one here, but we would have to send the gun to a dealer in Maryland for you to pick up there so you can complete the formalities," the cashier tells me. "But we have so much to do here that we're not doing that at the moment. I'm sorry."
I thank him and leave the store. I could go back to the store in Maryland, choose a handgun, and take it home with me in two to three weeks. Not an entirely pleasant thought.