Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
What next, after four violent attacks in seven days?
Germany is, understandably, reeling. Within a single week, the country has now experienced four massacres or attempted massacres, leaving a death toll of at least 13 (including three attackers) and many injuries.
In the United States, a wave of public violence like this would leave citizens deeply upset and shaken. In a country with such normally low levels of violent crime as Germany, the reaction is one of even greater disbelief and soul-searching. How could such violence occur in a country with such strict gun control? And what, if anything, can the country do to ensure such attacks never happen again?
Germany’s current wave of attacks began last Monday night, when a 17-year-old Afghan used an axe to attack passengers on a train near Würzburg, injuring four (three seriously) before being shot by police. Then on Friday, an 18-year-old German-Iranian man fatally shot nine people in a Munich shopping mall, five on them under the age of 16, and injured 35 others, three of whom are still in critical condition. On Sunday afternoon, a 21-year-old Syrian refugee armed with a machete killed a pregnant woman in the city of Reutlingen, injuring two others. Then later the same evening, a 27-year-old Syrian blew himself up outside a music festival in the small city of Ansbach, ending his own life and injuring 15.
Simply making sense of all this violence in such a short space of time is a challenge for Germany. Making the shock yet more intense is that three of the attacks happened in the same federal state, Bavaria, while Sunday’s machete attack in Reutlingen occurred in the neighboring state of Baden-Württemberg. In a country where the idea of someone running amok in a city with a gun is all but unthinkable, how has this rash of violence flared up so suddenly?
One thing that’s sure is that it probably isn’t due to lax gun laws. Germany’s are especially strict—indeed, they’re practically a model for how tight such laws can get while stopping short of a total ban. Licenses are limited to hunters and competition shooters, and applicants must demonstrate trustworthiness, “personal adequacy,” expert knowledge and the necessity of owning a firearm in the first place. Outside the army and police force, public carry of a gun in Germany is only permitted under very rare circumstances, such as for private security guards protecting politicians. The largest permissible magazine for competition shooting is 10 rounds, while for hunting it is two rounds. And following a school shooting in 2009 carried out by a teenager who had taken his parents’ gun, the law was tightened even further to allow routine inspections of homes that keep a licensed firearm, in order to ensure a proper gun safe is being used.
Even with these restrictions, German gun ownership is on the high side for Europe, with 400,000 citizens licensed to own a firearm. As this map shows, the numbers are still lower than in Finland, Serbia, or Switzerland, where adult males are often expected to store a rifle at home (though not ammunition) in case they are called to participate in the country’s citizen militia. Still, Germany has maintained a low rate of gun violence, with just 1.01 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people in 2012.
It would be inaccurate to suggest these laws have failed. Without them, Germany’s horrible week could unquestionably have been far worse. Close-range weapons such as axes and machetes can inflict terrible damage, but it is much easier to hurt more people with a gun. That two attackers were unable to access such weapons can be deemed a limitation on damage that likely prevented further carnage.
Still, restrictive gun laws didn’t stop Sunday’s music festival attacker from assembling a homemade bomb, one that could have been far more lethal if the attacker had managed to enter the music festival rather than being turned away at the gate. Likewise, the Munich shooter was still able to use the Darknet to acquire a serial number-less gun and 300 rounds of ammunition. Right now, Germany is looking for ways to tighten up its controls yet further.
A polished solution hasn’t yet arrived, reasonably so given that less than 24 hours have expired since the last attack. Bavaria’s regional government is calling for better equipment for its police force. As for further gun control, Interior Minister Thomas De Maizière has struck a note of caution. Talking to the newspaper Abendblatt, he said:
“I’m always against immediately tightening laws after an incident before we know all the background. In view of the changing security situation, we have already tightened laws in Germany and Europe in recent months. Our gun laws are among the strictest in the world…so we need to look carefully before further legislative changes.”
More immediate pressure is coming to bear elsewhere. Angela Merkel’s refugee policy is already coming under attack for the relatively large numbers of asylum seekers it has let into the country. Three of the attackers were indeed refugees, with the Syrian Ansbach bomber due to be deported to Bulgaria within days. The extreme-right AfD party has particularly gone in for the attack on Merkel, though its own statements suggesting police should shoot refugees trying to enter the country hardly bolster its credibility on public safety.
In reality, Germany’s asylum policies have in fact toughened over the past few months, and tighter controls would probably not have prevented the week’s events. The deadliest attack of the week, in Munich, was carried out by a German citizen who seems to have been partly inspired by the 2011 attacks in Oslo and Utøya, Norway, carried out by the Neo-Nazi Anders Breivik. The Munich shooter had visited the site of a German school massacre (one that resulted in tightened gun laws) and may have targeted young people in particular in revenge for bullying at school. The machete attack in Reutlingen, meanwhile, is currently being treated by police as a crime of passion, arguably a rather dated way to describe a misogynist murder.
The remaining two attackers seem at present to have had more conventional terrorist motivations, with both either expressing allegiance to the so-called Islamic State or possessing its paraphernalia. It seems likely that at least some of the toxic mix of male rage, trauma, and untrammeled narcissism displayed in the past week’s attacks has been unlocked or inspired by the current wave of international terror. But Minister De Maizière is right. If you are pushed by shock into sweeping changes before you have full details of what you’re dealing with, the end result is often more of the same.