Grieving Germany asks: Why?
A fatal school shooting spree Friday prompts calls for tighter controls on guns and video games.
BERLIN — After a school shooting rampage that left 17 people dead, Germany is coming to the realization that school violence is not just a US phenomenon.
In a country accustomed to low crime rates and prohibitive gun laws, Friday's murderous spree at Gutenberg High School in the small city of Erfurt, in eastern Germany, raises the shocking specter of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, in which 15 people died.
"This happens a lot in America, but it's not just an American thing anymore," Robert Kippel, a student attending an Erfurt memorial service yesterday, told the Associated Press.
Like the shooters in Colorado and other US school rampages, gunman Robert Steinhäuser has been described by classmates as a frustrated, quiet loner. .But, whereas the targets at Columbine were primarily students, 19-year-old Steinhäuser's prey were teachers. The former Gutenberg High student, who had been expelled for forging doctors' letters that he wanted to use toward delaying fulfillment of graduation requirements, killed 13 teachers and three others before taking his own life. Specialists here are still analyzing a host of factors before making any direct parallels with Columbine or other US incidents, including Steinhäuser's family life, the effect of various media, and his relationships with peers and teachers.
In the aftermath of the shooting, politicians are clamoring for tightened gun laws and point accusatory fingers at "the media" and video games as promoting a culture of violence.
The second son of a middle class family, Steinhäuser, who lived with his mother, loved guns and shoot-'em-up computer games. He legally owned the 9-millimeter pistol and pump-action shotgun he carried with him on Friday.
While the death toll has shocked Germany, where schools observed a minute of silence yesterday, there have been a few previous, lesser incidents of school violence. In 1999 a German high school student fatally stabbed a teacher, and in 2000 a teen shot his school principal dead. Earlier this year a Bavarian vocational school director was killed.
Adolf Gallwitz, a professor of crime psychology at southern Germany's Univ. of Applied Police Sciences, sees roots of the Erfurt shooting in two societal developments. For one, he says, growing academic pressure at schools is leaving behind some students who in turn want revenge on their teachers.
Secondly, says Mr. Gallwitz, single parents are increasingly struggling to get by and have less time for their children.
"Of course, computer games and the Internet cannot offer the feedback, the attention, or the affection of a parent," he says. "And here we have a small percentage [of teenagers] in all societies who react adversely and are at risk."
Until last Friday, most Germans comforted themselves that a pronounced gun culture was an American peculiarity. Now they are re-evaluating their already strict gun laws.
In a strange coincidence, the German parliament passed a law on Friday that made a license obligatory for the purchase of gas-powered and blank pistols, and prevented people who had been convicted or shown violent behavior from buying guns. The legislation still requires approval by the upper house, the Bundesrat.
Today there are more than 7 million legally owned guns in Germany, and some estimates put the number of illegal firearms at 20 million. The withdrawal of the Soviet Army from East Germany and the wars in the Balkans are believed to have resulted in a flood of guns onto the black market.
"From the viewpoint of the police, the private ownership of weapons is not the problem," says Wolfgang Dicke, chief executive of the powerful German Police Union. "In 2000, there were 60 cases nationwide where legally owned weapons were used in violation of the gun law."
While a debate on tighter gun laws continues, the more agonizing question of motivation for crimes like that in Erfurt is gripping the country. "What we need now is a greater intolerance of the portrayal and glorification of violence," Edmund Stoiber, the conservative challenger to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the September election, told Welt am Sonntag newspaper. He called for greater controls of video games and movies with excessive violence.
Mr. Dicke, meanwhile, rejects the US solution of sending armed guards into schools. "It's more important to me that the school remains an open place for education," he says. "To teach children nonviolence, I can't lock them away."
Amid the consternation comes a cer-tain grim relief that the Erfurt rampage was not worse.
It is possible that if Rainer Heise, an art and history teacher, had not confronted the shooter and locked him into a classroom, there would have been even more victims. Police later found 500 rounds of ammunition in a school rest-room.