School shooting prompts Germans to look at social concerns

In the Internet age, laws might not be enough to prevent such a tragedy.

Fabrizio bensch/reuters
No easy answers: Students comforted each other at Winnenden, Germany, school Wednesday.

Germany is in mourning following a school shooting Wednesday in which 16 people were killed, including the young man – a recent graduate – who carried out the attack. As the country takes stock, politicians are calling for tightened gun laws and pointing fingers at the video games and media for promoting what they see as a culture of violence.

Within minutes of the tragedy, images of police and grieving students covered television and computer screens. Experts say the coverage only compounds the problem that might be helping to sow the seeds of such attacks.

"The amount of attention we're giving this shooting can have an enormous effect on others' thinking about the same thing," says Bernd Holtusen, of the German Youth Institute in Berlin. "People's readiness to use violence becomes greater after a shooting."

Wednesday's shooting at a school in Winnenden, a suburb of Stuttgart, was the nation's worst since 2002, when another teen gunman killed 16 people in a school in Erfurt.

Thursday, details on the gunman, Tim Kretschmer, began to emerge. Former classmates say he was a loner, but noted that he hadn't created problems. A diehard table tennis player, he also had a passion for horror films and violent video games – a point that's already prompting calls for tougher gaming measures.

Mr. Kretschmer's access to his father's licensed gun collection has also intensified debate on tightening already relatively strict gun laws. Politicians Thursday rejected the idea of armed guards or metal detectors to schools.

In the province where the shooting took place, some 100 such threats have been recorded in the past two years, according to the Interior Ministry. Experts point to a "copycat" effect and say crisis-intervention teams should be used in schools to look for warning signals.

"What's behind it is a mixture of depression; suicidal tendencies; and just cold, plain anger, the feeling that this act is a way to take revenge," says Jens Hoffmann, a crime psychologist at the University of Darmstadt.

What is worrisome, says Professor Hoffmann, is the way the Internet has turned perpetrators into stars. In Finland, one youth even communicated with another shooter. "What we're seeing – and that makes us very nervous – is how the Internet plays an increasingly important role in the grim dynamics of those acts."

After the 2002 Erfurt attack, the age for owning a firearm was raised from 18 to 21. Manufacturers of computer games were also required to be more specific on the age groups that each game targets.

A focus on root causes is needed, says Erich Marks, who heads the German Crime Prevention Congress in Hannover. "We don't need more laws," he argues. "We don't need private security in schools – a school is a school, it isn't a castle.... The whole society has to be more interested in the problems of the young."

Although gun ownership is practically impossible unless one belongs to a shooting club, police say that Kretschmer's father, a wealthy businessman, legally owned more than a dozen weapons, including the semiautomatic pistol used in the attack. All except the pistol are believed to have been stored in a locked safe. Charges have been filed against the young man's father for failing to comply with gun laws.

Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann said Thursday that gun-control laws had been already made as strict as they could. Parents, he said, must pay more attention to their children.

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