The guns of Winnenden and Geneva

One year ago today, 17-year-old Tim Kretschmer shot 15 people to death in two small towns near Stuttgart, Germany. Then he committed suicide. Nine of the slain were students at a school where Kretschmer had graduated a year earlier.

One year and one day ago, Michael McLendon went on a systematic killing spree in two small towns in Alabama. He hunted down his own relatives and their neighbors. He killed eleven before shooting himself to death.

Kretschmer’s killing spree caused a nationwide revulsion in Germany, of a kind that we in the United States have forgotten how to feel. German President Horst Koehler was in Winnenden today to commemorate the dead, and to call for tougher gun laws. Last year the state parliament of Baden-Württemberg doubled the appropriation for school psychologists.

Kretschmer’s father, whose gun collection provided the weapons his son used in the rampage, expressed his regret by voluntarily surrendering his firearms ownership permit. The gesture has not prevented officials from charging him with the equivalent of manslaughter.

In Alabama, by contrast, the Geneva County massacre was only one of the more memorable of our gun murders. National media found the Feb. 12 shootings at the University of Alabama in Huntsville far more interesting, even though the casualty count was only three dead and three wounded. Meanwhile the state Senate decided that a good way to respond to this deadly attack by an aggrieved university employee would be to propose a new gun law making it legal to go to work with a gun concealed in your car.1 No one talked seriously about checking our easy access to cheap and plentiful guns.

Germany often comes up in American firearms politics, more often than you’d expect. Pro-gun activists are fond of using faked German history to associate gun restrictions with Nazism. They claim that the Nazis imposed gun registration on Germany, and that this was a key factor in Hitler’s rise to absolute power.

This story is a compelling yarn with absolutely no basis in fact. Even pro-gun historian Clayton Cramer has shown that those Hitler gun-control quotes were made up. Yet they keep circulating, in varying forms, like so many computer viruses.

It’s no wonder that pro-gun Americans are in no hurry to consider what kind of lessons the Germans themselves have learned from their history. It could lead to cognitive dissonance. No one can accuse the Germans of being afraid of guns. Germans make guns, including some of the handguns most coveted by American collectors. They have gun clubs with venerable traditions, much older than anything in the States. Yet they regulate guns, register them, and make them hard to obtain.

And as a consequence, they’ve never gotten used to the kind of shooting spree that Tim Kretschmer carried out one year ago. They instantly went to work trying to prevent a recurrence.2

Michael McLendon’s killing spree has left us Americans unchanged and unconcerned. The anniversary of that attack was yesterday. But no dignitary traveled to Geneva, Ala., to commemorate it. No media outside of Alabama took any note of it.

It was just another day in America.


1 At least the measure is controversial. Some lawmakers in the state House of Representatives think it’s overkill to enshrine gun ownership above the property rights and safety concerns of business owners. It’s possible that the bill won’t pass both houses, despite the might of the NRA
2 In the year since Kretschmer’s attack, the only comparable episode was the February 18 murder of a teacher at a school in Ludwighafen. The attacker pulled a fire alarm and fired starter pistols (the kind used at track meets) to cause confusion. The murder weapon was a knife. 

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