1703926472 Mass shootings the tip of the iceberg of gun violence

Mass shootings, the tip of the iceberg of gun violence in Europe

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

Mass shootings are no longer an unknown phenomenon in the European Union. After the terrorist attacks in France that shocked Europe in 2015, the bloc reacted quickly and strengthened common guidelines on civilian access to firearms. Since then, annual figures across Europe have been between one and three attacks of this type, a constant average for 15 years. The most recent occurred more than a week ago in the Czech Republic: a 24-year-old student was shot at a Prague university, killing 14 people and wounding 25 others. However, experts agree that these incidents represent just the tip of the iceberg and that violence carried out with weapons on the continent does not in itself increase the risk of it spreading to other countries, insisting that the EU must not let up especially in the illegal arms trade.

Since 2008, 44 mass shootings have been recorded in Europe (most institutions define them as those in which at least four people died, not counting the attacker). The attack in Prague, one of the deadliest in recent years, is the third recorded this year, following two others carried out in Serbia in May. What the three attacks have in common is that they were carried out by young people under the age of 25 – one of them in Serbia was carried out 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: “The young attackers do not belong to any religious or terrorist organization, where most of the security and intelligence work in Prague is focused.” Europe and that is why they tend to surprise the authorities more, as happened in Prague.”

Mass shootings the tip of the iceberg of gun violence

The European Commission warned in early December of the “enormous risk” of attacks in the EU over the Christmas period, taking into account the political and social tensions caused by the war between Hamas and Israel that began in October. However, it was difficult to predict that the next attack would have nothing to do with the conflict and would instead target a young man with mental health problems in the Czech Republic, one of the countries with the laxest gun control policies in the EU. To the point that from 2021 it will constitutionally protect the right to bear arms.

“The country is a large producer of firearms and these have a great symbolic value in society, as is the case in many countries ruled by communism in the mid-20th century,” explains Nils Duquet, director of the Flemish Peace Institute, Belgian institute specializing in defense issues in the EU. After the Paris attacks in 2015, the European Parliament and the EU Council pushed forward a new control directive to make access to semi-automatic pistols more difficult. 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. The European judiciary rejected his appeal and led to constitutional protection of gun ownership.

France and Germany, main scenarios

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Although there have been four mass shootings in the Czech Republic in the last 15 years (none have been recorded in Spain), the problem extends beyond the country's borders. In Europe, according to a count by the Flemish Peace Institute, France and Germany are the main scenes of these incidents, with seven and five attacks respectively. The Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Austria also report several attacks of this type, as well as Balkan countries such as Serbia and Albania. As a result of these events, almost 500 people died across the continent, almost half of whom died in terrorist shootings. “They are less common, but they tend to be the ones with the most victims,” says Duquet.

Experts emphasize that mass shootings are only the most visible picture of the violence that occurs with firearms in Europe. According to the Belgian Institute, most of the deaths caused by these devices each year are due to homicide, about 1,000; At around 5,000, the number of suicides is significantly higher than the number of victims of the massive attacks. Small Arms Survey, an independent research project based in Geneva specializing in armed 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.

1703926465 735 Mass shootings the tip of the iceberg of gun violence

Aarón Karp, senior advisor at Small Arms Survey, explains: “In every EU country there is a part of the population that wants firearms. And when there is a large hunting culture, it is not uncommon for there to be a large number of porters. There are cases where this lobby is very powerful.” This partly explains the high numbers in Nordic countries such as Finland or Sweden, where there is an important hunting tradition. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be more shootings. “Criminals generally do not use legally purchased hunting weapons,” says Duquet.

An exception to the rule is the Prague attacker, who had eight weapons – two of them long – and used an AR-10 assault rifle from the same family as the AR-15, which was often used in attacks in the United States, to fire. Czech authorities have claimed to have opened an investigation into how the student obtained licenses for so many weapons without being a member of a shooting or hunting association and having listed in his medical history psychological problems, which under current law is one of the obstacles for the purchase of firearms.

Promoting the illegal market

Despite these questions, Anisin – who was in Prague during the attack – assures that a political or social debate was not necessarily sparked in favor of tightening arms control policies. The big problem, experts agree, is the rise of the illegal arms market. More than half of the mass shootings in the last 15 years have been carried out with illegally obtained weapons, mostly from terrorist organizations. The latest EU arms control directive, adopted in 2021 to replace the 2017 directive, provides for stricter monitoring of the black market and strengthens information sharing between member states. However, there is still no specific data collection system at the municipal level and the figures vary by country.

“EU countries are aware of legally registered weapons, but the problem arises with the data on the seizures of illegal weapons, since registration usually takes a back seat,” explains Duquet, underlining the importance of cooperation between countries: “The Trade is an international issue and “cooperation on this scale is needed.” The European Commission estimates that up to 35 million firearms are in the hands of civilians, while around 630,000 are believed to be stolen or lost.

Adding to this problem is the political instability caused by the Russian-launched war in Ukraine, which, according to the European Commission, “increases the potential for the proliferation of firearms” in the Union. “When there is domestic or regional instability, people decide to arm themselves. The highest buying spikes occur after a mass shooting or in exceptional circumstances such as a pandemic or war,” says Anisin. For Duquet, the “Ukraine effect” will have an impact in the medium term.

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