The terrible spectacle is all too familiar: Heavily armored police officers and Special Forces operatives blocking access to an otherwise deserted school building; crying students, their faces filled with horror and panic, running to shell-shocked parents; ambulances and patrol cars waiting as helicopters observe the chaos from above.
Today it was the turn of Winnenden (pop. 27,600), a pretty town some 12 miles (20 km) outside Stuttgart in southern Germany. At 9:30 in the morning, Tim Kretschmer, a 17-year-old former student of Albertville Realschule entered the school's plain, white flat-roofed building wielding a 9mm Beretta and, as a police spokesman described it, "simply opened fire". On his rampage through classrooms and corridors, the youngster, clad in black combat gear and reportedly wearing a mask, killed nine pupils, all of them aged 14 or 15, and three women teachers, and injured seven others. One of the injured students died later at a hospital. See pictures of the aftermath of the Virginia Tech tragedy.
But the gunman didn't stop there. Kretschmer, who graduated from the school a year ago, fled on foot and headed toward central Winnenden. Along the way he shot a pedestrian an employee of a near-by psychiatric clinic before hijacking a green Volkswagen Sharan along with its terrified owner. Threatened at gunpoint, the driver, 41, turned his vehicle towards Stuttgart. But heavy traffic made the murderer worried and so they turned back again. After a wild trip down country roads, the car crashed into a roadside ditch on the Autobahn entry ramp near the town of Wendlingen am Neckar, some 24 miles (40 km) from Winnenden. The driver managed to escape to a patrol car nearby, but the shooter vanished in the opposite direction. After killing a salesman, 36, and his client, 46, at a car sales yard in a local business area, the gunman was shot in the leg by law-enforcement officers but managed to vanish between the parked cars in the vicinity. The killing spree, which took a total of 16 lives, finally ended when Kretschmer, aware that the police were closing in, shot himself; he was found dead at around 12:30 p.m.
Not much is known about the killer so far. The son of a businessman from the neighboring village of Leutenbach (pop. 4,800), he had started an apprenticeship after graduating with middling success in 2007. According to Baden-Württemberg education minister Helmut Rau, Kretschmer had been known in his former school as an "entirely unremarkable" student who had "never attracted attention in any fashion". Obviously, the politician added, the youngster must have had a "double identity". (Read "How the NIU Massacre Happened".)
Kretschmer's motive remains unknown. Police have speculated that he may have heard about yesterday's Alabama massacre, news of which broke in Germany overnight. A misogynistic motive is also being investigated since the vast majority of the victims are female.
But the means by which Kretschmer obtained the murder weapon seem clear. A late-morning search of his parents' house has revealed that his father, a member of a local gun club, is the legal owner of 15 firearms; one pistol that had not been locked away, as well as many rounds of ammunition, were missing, the police say. Germany's gun laws are relatively strict but registered competitive marksmen, hunters and collectors can acquire guns after their physical and psychological soundness has been ascertained. (Cover: "The Columbine Effect".)