Mass shootings, the tip of the iceberg of armed violence in Europe | International

Police stand guard after the shooting at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, December 22, 2023.DAVID W CERNY (Reuters)

Mass shootings are no longer an unknown phenomenon in the European Union. Following the terrorist attacks in France that shocked Europe in 2015, the bloc reacted quickly and strengthened its common policies on civilian access to firearms. Since then, annual figures across Europe have remained between one and three such attacks, a constant average for 15 years. The most recent took place in the Czech Republic more than a week ago: a 24-year-old student shot up a university in Prague, killing 14 people and injuring 25 others. Although experts agree that these incidents are just the tip of the iceberg of all gun violence on the continent – ​​is not increasing in itself faced with the threat of its spread to other countries, insist that the EU must not let its guard down, particularly with regard to illegal arms trafficking.

Since 2008, 44 mass shootings have been recorded in Europe (most institutions define them as those resulting in the death of at least four people, not including the attacker). The Prague attack, one of the deadliest in recent years, is the third recorded this year, followed by two others committed in Serbia in May. The three attacks have in common that they were carried out by young people under the age of 25 – one of them in Serbia was committed by a 13-year-old teenager – a growing phenomenon in European countries. Alexei Anisin, dean of the School of International Studies at the Anglo-American University in Prague, warns against this: “The young attackers do not belong to religious or terrorist organizations, on which the main focus is of security and intelligence in Prague. This is why they tend to surprise the authorities more, as happened in Prague.”

The European Commission warned in early December of the “huge risk” of attacks in the EU over the Christmas period, bearing in mind the political and social tensions caused by the war between Hamas and Israel started in october. However, it was difficult to predict that the next attack would have nothing to do with the conflict, but rather involve a young man suffering from psychological problems in the Czech Republic, one of the countries with the most gun control policies. more lax in the EU. To the point that, since 2021, it constitutionally protects the right to bear arms.

“The country is a major manufacturer of firearms and these have a great symbolic value in society, as is the case in many countries governed by communism in the mid-20th century,” explains Nils Duquet, director of the Flemish Peace Institute. , a Belgian institute specializing in defense issues in the EU. Following the 2015 Paris attacks, the European Parliament and the EU Council promoted a new control directive aimed at making it harder to access semi-automatic guns. The reform was approved in 2017 and immediately rejected by the Czech Republic, which took the case to the Strasbourg Court, saying it violated its national sovereignty. European justice rejected his appeal, leading to constitutional protection of gun ownership.

France and Germany, main scenarios

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Although in the last fifteen years there have been four mass shootings in the Czech Republic – none recorded in Spain – the problem goes beyond national borders. In Europe, France and Germany are the main theaters of these incidents, with seven and five attacks respectively, according to a count by the Flemish Peace Institute. The Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Austria also report multiple such attacks, as well as Balkan countries like Serbia and Albania. As a result of these events, nearly 500 people died across the continent, almost half of them in shootings carried out by terrorists. “They are less common, but they are generally the ones that cause the most victims,” explains Duquet.

Experts point out that mass shootings are only the most visible image of gun violence in Europe. According to the Belgian institute, the majority of deaths caused each year by these devices are due to homicides, or around 1,000; and suicides, around 5,000, figures significantly higher than the casualties caused by the mass attacks. Small Arms Survey, an independent research project based in Geneva and specializing in gun violence, estimates that the EU countries with the highest number of weapons per 100 inhabitants are Cyprus (33.96), Finland (32 .36) and Austria (29.99), followed by Malta. (28.26) and Sweden (23.14). Spain is at the bottom of the list, with an estimated number of 7.52.

Aarón Karp, senior consultant at Small Arms Survey, explains: “In every EU country there is a part of the population who wants to own firearms. And while there is a large hunting culture, it is not uncommon for there to be a high number of porters. There are cases in which this entrance hall is very powerful.” This explains, in part, the high numbers recorded in Nordic countries like Finland or Sweden, where there is an important hunting tradition. “But this does not necessarily mean that there will be more shootings “Criminals generally do not use legally obtained hunting weapons,” explains Duquet.

An exception to the rule is the Prague attacker, who had eight weapons – including two long ones – and to shoot he used an AR-10 assault rifle, from the same family as the often used AR-15 during attacks in the United States. . Czech authorities said they had opened an investigation into how the student obtained permits for so many weapons without being part of shooting or hunting associations and with a medical history detailing psychological problems, one of obstacles to obtaining firearms, according to current legislation.

Advancement of the illegal market

Despite these questions, Anisin – who was in Prague during the attack – assures that there was not necessarily a political or social debate to strengthen the arms control policy. The big problem lies, as experts recognize, in the growth of the illegal arms market. More than half of mass shootings over the past 15 years were committed with illegally obtained weapons, primarily those committed by terrorist organizations. The latest European arms control directive, approved in 2021 to replace that of 2017, establishes more rigorous monitoring of the black market and stimulates the exchange of information between Member States. However, there is still no specific data collection system at community level and the figures vary between countries.

“EU countries know about legally registered weapons, but the problem arises with data on seizures of illegal weapons, because registration usually takes a back seat,” explains Duquet, and highlights the importance of collaboration between countries: “Trafficking is an international problem and collaboration of this scale is necessary. The European Commission estimates that up to 35 million firearms are in the hands of civilians, while around 630,000 are listed as stolen or lost.

Added to this problem is the political instability caused by the war in Ukraine launched by Russia, which, for the European Commission, “increases the potential for proliferation of firearms” in the bloc. “When there is national or regional instability, people decide to arm themselves. The highest purchase spikes are recorded after a mass shooting or exceptional cases like a pandemic or war,” says Anisin. For Duquet, the “Ukraine effect” will have an impact in the medium term.

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