|Not Only in America: Gun Killings
Shake the Europeans
By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr.
May 11, 2002
PARIS, May 10 — The assassination of the right-wing Dutch politician Pim
Fortuyn and a series of mass shootings — at a German school and at normally
tranquil local legislatures in Switzerland and France — have shaken the
European notion that such incidents happen only in America, and hint at a
gnawing sense that Europe's established institutions are unable to address
grievances as they once did.
Europe has strong gun laws and a long-held conceit that its citizens, if not
as law-abiding as those of Singapore, are at least not like gun-toting
Mr. Fortuyn, whose rise in Dutch politics was symptomatic of the resurgent
appeal of politicians talking about law and order, was gunned down in a
killing that was, as the British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, put it,
"completely out of character with what we believe the Netherlands is about."
Yet it followed by just a few weeks the assassination in Italy of a senior
Labor Ministry official who had been assailed by unions for trying to reform
labor laws, indicating that political killing in Europe is scarcely unknown.
More shocking for Europeans has been the recent spate of mass killings. In
Erfurt, Germany, last month, an expelled student killed 13 teachers, 2
students, a policeman and himself. In Nanterre, France, in March, a
psychiatric patient shot dead eight city councilors with no warning or
explanation. In September, a 57-year-old man angry over a dispute with a bus
driver threw a grenade and fired an assault rifle at the regional
legislature in Zug, Switzerland, killing 14. This week in Hungary, two
gunmen killed seven people in a bank robbery.
Stunned and grieving, some Europeans have taken to re-examining their
societies, fretting that they have lost the communal warmth that once
prevailed outside their largest cities.
Instead, they fear they are leaving their frailest citizens feeling isolated
in an indifferent, money-driven marketplace, which is widely described as an
American pathology spreading with globalization.
Some blame the United States outright, saying it exports gun-driven violence
as blithely as it does software and Boeings. Calls for banning blood-soaked
video games, Hollywood movies and hip-hop music videos are just as loud as
calls for gun control; this week the German government proposed restrictions
on violent computer games.
"These killings are read as signs of a diseased society," said Heather
Grabbe, research director for the Center for European Reform, a British
research institute. "There's a sense of losing the close-knit communities
that keep people from doing this kind of thing."
Although overall crime has risen only slightly in the last decade in Western
Europe, criminals have become more aggressive. Unable to hot-wire
well-secured cars, they hijack them at gunpoint. House burglaries are down,
but muggings are up.
Last year, in two surveys using different criteria, France surpassed the
United States in crimes per capita.
That shocked the French, who tend to refer to high-crime areas with such
phrases as "a real Bronx," or "a Chicago" — a crime-as-Americana vocabulary
common across Europe.
"In Holland, when things get violent, we have an expression: `This is an
American situation,' " Lousewies van der Laan, leader of the Dutch Liberal
Democratic Party in the European Parliament, said after Mr. Fortuyn's
killing, adding: "That was the reaction. People were saying: `What is this,
the Wild West? What is this, America?' "
White Europeans are also feeling a threat from angry out-of-work teenagers
among their darker-skinned immigrant populations — whether from Pakistan,
Suriname, Algeria, Turkey or Senegal — who often identify with the
tough-talking young black Americans they see on MTV.
Every European country has a hard-core hip-hop scene. One of the top songs
in Sweden right now is a rap number about guns and power, delivered in
Swedish except for recognizably American swear words and gangsta accents.
Menacing graffiti, muggers prowling subways, gang brawls in shopping malls
and other signs of urban hostility are coming to European cities as they did
to American ones decades ago. Residents are jumpy enough to have made crime
an issue in virtually every election.
By American standards, Europe still has very few murders. France's
per-capita rate, for instance, is one-eighth that of the United States, said
Alain Bauer, who teaches criminology at the University of Paris.
Even in historical terms, France, like much of Europe, is very safe. "Four
centuries ago, we had 100 to 150 homicides per 100,000 citizens," Mr. Bauer
said, citing estimates made from church death certificates. "Now it's around
"We're still very, very low," he said. "But these big shootings reveal a
general level of violence that is rising."
The Nanterre, Zug and Erfurt killings publicly punctured the myth that
Europe is gun-free.
Other than Switzerland, where former soldiers keep their assault rifles at
home, France is Europe's most heavily armed country. By one measure, 23
percent of households have firearms — compared with 8 percent in Germany —
but those include shotguns used by bird and boar hunters and family relics.
Stricter French gun laws have slashed legal sales — to 100,000 now from
300,000 a decade ago, according to the national armorers' association, which
represents owners of small shops and custom gunmakers and has shrunk to 600
members, from 1,200.
European countries do have strict laws. Even Switzerland, with the loosest,
requires a permit to buy a gun from a shop, while a mere written contract
covers a private sale. Britain outlawed pistols in 1997, a year after a man
with four licensed ones shot 16 children to death in a school playground in
Dunblane, Scotland. French licenses require a police and medical check and
membership in a gun club, and they expire after three years.
But enforcement is a problem.
The permits for the two 9-millimeter pistols and a .357 Magnum owned by
Richard Durn, the Nanterre killer, had expired, but he still had them, even
though he had once threatened a psychiatric social worker with one.
Police checks do not catch killers with no records. Robert Steinhäuser, the
19-year-old Erfurt killer, obtained his pistol and pump-action shotgun
legally by joining a gun club. He stockpiled ammunition and even warned a
friend not to go to school on April 26, the day he arrived in a black hood
and roamed from classroom to classroom, shooting teachers in the head.
Although such crimes are becoming more common in Europe, the willingness to
commit them is still often seen as a Satanic influence seeping over from the
United States. Mr. Steinhäuser's taste for death-metal music and bloody
video games disturbed Germans, and the chief of the national police union
said after the killings that "so-called American conditions have reached
Edward Luttwack, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International
Studies in Washington who has written about crime in Europe, even drew a
specifically American connection to the weapons used in the Nanterre and
Pump-action shotguns, .357-caliber Smith & Wessons, even Glock pistols are
the kinds of weapons glorified in movies from "Dirty Harry" to "The Matrix."
Glocks, he said, are Austrian, but the notion of firing two at once is a
"These aren't hunting weapons or grandpa's military pistol lying around,"
Mr. Luttwack said. "These are cult weapons that don't have a natural place
in Europe. For a German kid to own a pump-action shotgun is the equivalent
of an American kid having a belt-fed machine gun. This is American media
imagery that has an impact in Europe."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company