Gun control: a useless shot in the dark

Germany has some of the tightest gun controls in the world, but that didn’t stop yesterday’s school shooting.

Kevin Yuill

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The horrific tragedy in south-west Germany yesterday, where 15 people died at the hands of 17-year-old gunman Tim Kretschmer, before he died in a shootout with police, will provoke many questions – especially as it came so soon after a similar shooting spree in Alabama.

The fact that 12 of the dead were pupils and teachers at the Albertville School, at which Kretschmer was a former pupil, added to the horror and the speculation. Murderous rampages like this are thankfully rare. Although that fact will be of little comfort to those who lost loved ones and friends in the melee, this should be the one fact to be remembered when the inevitable question – what might have prevented this devastation? – arises.

Two responses to such a tragedy emerged in the British press and blogosphere. The first, rather knee-jerk response is to ask why the authorities don’t control the estimated 10million guns possessed by Germans? The second looks to psychological risk-profiling in order to spot potential teen killers ahead of time. Yet the Kretschmer shootings demonstrate the pointlessness of both responses.

Germany has some of the most onerous gun controls of any country in the world, some passed in response to previous school shootings. Ironically, the German parliament approved tighter gun-control laws on 22 February this year in a move designed to stop the spread of violent crime. The new legislation bans the carrying of replica firearms and so-called airsoft guns as well as knives with a fixed blade of over 12 centimetres.

Previous legislation, passed in April 2008, raised the legal age to obtain a gun licence from 18 to 21. Additional medical and psychological tests were also implemented for under-25s, and pump-action shotguns with pistol-shaped grips were banned. This legislation received a sympathetic hearing after a former pupil injured 11 students at a school in the western town of Emsdetten before turning the gun on himself in 2006. In 2002, a shooting at Gutenberg high school in the town of Erfurt in central Germany came on the day that the country’s parliament approved a new Bill tightening its already strict gun controls.

People wanting to buy a hunting rifle must undergo background checks that can last up to a year and those wanting a gun for sport must be a member of a club and obtain a licence from police. Anyone deemed aggressive, unreliable or with criminal convictions cannot legally buy a gun in Germany. Gun collectors also need a permit.

A hunter in Saxony spoke this week of the gun control process: ‘For hunters and gun club members, they have to answer more than 4,000 questions to get the licence and there is a specific emphasis in teaching and questions on gun law. You have to have everything registered.’

He continued: ‘It is pretty strong scrutiny in Germany, but it was ever stricter in GDR (East Germany) times. Not even hunters had their own guns. When we went out hunting, the chief forester handed out the guns and ammunition and every shot was registered and recorded and all guns and ammunition were counted back in at the end of the day (1).

The only further precaution that might be taken would be to remove entirely all of the estimated 10million legally-held guns in Germany. However, previous experience should make Germans think twice about the effectiveness of such draconian measures. Moreover, prohibiting gun ownership would be the equivalent of banning horseriding in the United Kingdom, something that would be regarded as unthinkable. Yet horseriding kills more young girls in Britain than legal firearms kill in Germany. Even if guns were completely banned, anyone with a little bit of time and planning could make a weapon capable of killing many more people.

So this unfortunate incident is a salient demonstration that no law can prevent a shooting spree. But one of the other responses is to try to find some motive in order to be able to prevent future school massacres before they happen. Again, Kretschmer seems to confound the idea that it is possible to predict the possibility of such massacres by psychological profiling.

‘There is a preparation time which goes on for weeks and even months’, Dr Jens Hoffman, a criminal psychologist at Darmstadt’s technical university, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung yesterday. Hoffmann suggested that a psychological risk-evaluation system could have spotted the killer. It would include questioning to reveal whether a person identified with other teenage killers, had shown off a weapon or had had other problems, including with drugs (2). Many of the papers noted Kretschmer’s targeting of young women and some bloggers wondered whether a type of Asperger’s syndrome (presumably the psycho-killer strain of the disease) might be present in mass murderers. In other words, there is an attempt to label this tragedy a result of a disease.

Yet according to press reports, Tim Kretschmer fit none of the existing profiles and appears to have been entirely unremarkable. Studies in the United States have shown the fatuousness of such psychological profiling. There, the Secret Service and the Department of Education commissioned a report into preventing school shootings. After years of careful study, it concluded that: ‘There is no accurate or useful “profile” of students who engaged in targeted school violence.’ It could only lamely comment that ‘many attackers felt bullied, persecuted or injured by others prior to the attack’ (3). That narrows it down, then.

The lesson to be drawn here is that further gun controls would be pointless and that attempts to identify a disease in young men (some press reports spoke of Kretschmer’s apparent misogynistic targeting of girls at the school) is wrong-headed. The lessons drawn from previous incidents about the need for gun controls and personality checks were wrong.

The danger remains that intrusion into the lives of ordinary Germans – either in the form of inspecting their homes for guns or the equally odious psychological assessment of young men – might still emerge in the aftermath of this terrible, but extremely unusual event.

Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland in England, and is author of Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action. Read a review of the book here, or buy it from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi argued that the Virgina Tech shooting was a massacre without meaning. Helen Searls explained that high school shootings are still rare. In response to the 2005 Red Lake massacre, Kevin Yuill pointed out that over-reaction causes more harm than good. Brendan O’Neill examined Britain’s gun culture and Josie Appleton explored the grief-fest which seems to follow every tragic event. Or read more at spiked issue Guns and shooting.

(1) Strict German gun law framed after 2002 school massacre, The Times (London), 11 March 2009

(2) Experts call for tests to spot potential killers – not more gun laws, Guardian, 12 March 2009

(3) The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the prevention of School attacks in the United States, United States Secret Service and United States Department of Education, 2002 [pdf]

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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