Splat, you're dead: German paintballers fight back

18th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

The sport remains in some lawmakers' sights because, they say, it "simulates killing" and a review is planned that could still see stricter rules in an already tightly regulated sport.

Berlin -- In March, German teenager Tim Kretschmer took a gun from his father's bedroom, went to his old school in Winnenden and shot dead nine pupils and three teachers, mostly with expert shots to the head.

The 17-year-old then picked off a bystander outside a nearby psychiatric clinic where he had been due to receive treatment, hijacked a car and shot two people before turning the gun on himself in a shootout with police.

Two months on, a dozen or so young men -- and one woman -- are limbering up after work in a large hall in northern Berlin to engage in an activity that some politicians across town think may lead to another Winnenden: paintball.

Last week Chancellor Angela Merkel's government changed its mind on including a ban on paintball in a package of measures it wants to rush through parliament in response to the massacre.

But the sport still remains in some lawmakers' sights because, they say, it "simulates killing", and a review is planned that could still see stricter rules in an already tightly regulated sport.

One can understand the unease of some critics: a sound like a machine gun echoes around Paintgalaxy, Berlin's one and only paintball hall. Some of the names of the country's teams, "W.A.R" for instance, also raise eyebrows.

But in Germany paintballers have to be over 18 to take part, one year older than Kretschmer, so the country's 50,000 regular players were outraged about the proposed ban.

"Everywhere else people are allowed to do what they like, in Sweden, France, the Netherlands. It's just us that can't," complained Franziska Lueddemann, the owner of Paintgalaxy.

"They even show it on (TV channel) Eurosport 2," she told AFP. "It is sport."

"It is exclusively a team sport. This whole argument that it might encourage massacres just doesn't hold water," said Stefan Wurbach, 29, an engineering student taking a break in Paintgalaxy.

"We train together as a team, we do everything as a team ... People don't do it for military reasons. They just do it for sport, like volleyball," he said.

The prospect of a ban had angry paintballers bombarding MPs with emails and letters, and even the association of the parents of those killed in Winnenden was unimpressed.

There was even talk of a new political party made up of paintballers and threats to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Don't mention the W.A.R

Paintball began life in the 1970s when a gun firing a pellet of paint was developed for the US forestry and farming industries, but consenting humans soon took the place of trees and cows and a new global phenomenon was born.

Whereas in other countries such as Britain paintball can take the form of grown men playing soldiers in forests, in pacifist Germany -- still scarred over 60 years after World War II -- it is very much a civilian affair.

Paintballers are also at pains to point out that they are not shooting but "marking" one another, and with paint that sometimes tastes like strawberries.

And unlike in other countries, only over-18s can take part in Germany.

"It's not military here in the slightest. They're not allowed to wear combat gear in the hall," said Paintgalaxy owner Lueddemann, who gave up what she said was a dreary job in the tax office to set up her business.

An in-depth study carried out by sociologists at Germany's Trier University over four years and published in 2000 found that many paintballers were looking for "violence simulation" but concluded it was basically harmless fun.

"The theory that ... behaviour similar to killing or harmless forms of violence would then be replicated in real life cannot be verified at the present time," the report said.

"It is 'normal' young men (and women) with conventional lifestyles and unremarkable lives," they said. "After the game people return to their daily lives as soon as the game is over ... and homemade cakes are served."

And apart from "W.A.R" most other teams have much more peaceful-sounding names -- the "Stuttgart Leprechauns", the "Undercover Pimps", "CommandoBlowJob U30" and the "Bumble Bees" to name but a few.

"I definitely think it's to do with Germany's history," gamer Wurbach said.

"But Germany has also always been a strict, bureaucratic state. I think when it comes to legislation we take first prize ... The authorities are everything but flexible," he said.

For civil liberty campaigners, the prospect of tighter regulations or even a ban is another example of the government being overly intrusive in people's private lives.

Berlin is one of the few European cities where, in some bars, people can still smoke a ciggie with their beer, but in other aspects of life the state is seen as getting ever bigger.

High-tech surveillance methods introduced, the government says, to catch would-be Islamic terrorists remind some Germans of the Stasi, the hated secret police in the former communist East Germany.

Other targets in the cross hairs of zealous regulators have included Kinder Surprise chocolate eggs -- children might choke on the plastic toys inside -- and candy cigarettes.


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