Arms and the Germans

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German students comfort each other after a shooting spree at their school

One week after the three-year anniversary of the rampage at Columbine High School, a similar horror played out in Germany. A 19-year-old, recently expelled from Johann Gutenberg Gymnasium in Erfurt, returned to the scene of his humiliation armed with a pump-action shotgun and a handgun, killing 17 people, including 14 teachers, two students and a police officer. He then shot and killed himself.

The comparisons to Columbine are inevitable: an angry young man, dressed completely in black, takes his revenge on a school. But there are differences: Friday's death toll is slightly higher, German police believe there was only one gunman and the killer zeroed in on teachers rather than fellow students. And perhaps most importantly, Germany, where it can take up to a year to pass background checks required just to buy a hunting rifle, has far stricter gun laws than the U.S.

Coincidentally, the country's legislature passed even more stringent gun laws just hours after the shooting occurred. Still, while it's not yet known how the Erfurt shooter acquired his weapons, the deadly incident is a reminder that many believe Germany's gun problem isn't with its laws, but with existing weaponry. "Gun ownership was very high in the former East Germany, and when the Eastern bloc collapsed, those surplus military weapons flooded the private market," says Rebecca Peters, a senior fellow at the Open Society Institute, the philanthropic arm of the Soros Foundation in New York.

And some Europeans feel that all the laws in the world won't do much to curb Germany's real gun issue: the huge shipments of military-grade firearms, including AK-47s, a terrorist favorite, that make their way into the country each week, often smuggled in from former war zones in Balkan states. Last year, members of the German military were brought to trial and later convicted on smuggling charges, stemming from more than 10,000 counts of illegally handling explosives and 7,000 gun law violations. "Germany has strict laws, but it doesn't really matter," says Peters. "They haven't dealt with the rush of guns coming in from Eastern countries, over borders that are becoming less restrictive every day."

Germany's not alone. Several other European nations, including France and the United Kingdom, are experiencing an uptick in gun violence as well, thanks in part to the same deluge of Eastern European weaponry. Still, the sheer volume of guns coming over its borders sets Germany apart.

Background checks or not, angry and disturbed young men will always find a way to play out their fury and exact revenge. And if there are guns around, young men will find them and use them. Some would argue that eliminating that temptation means eliminating guns. Others insist that responsible gun ownership is the cure for irresponsible behavior. The bottom line is that after years of passionate debate and argument, no country in the world has found a system that completely keeps guns away from would-be killers.