In Europe's league of school shootings, Germany comes top

The latest killings, by a 17-year-old, have reignited a debate over the country's unenviable record

Chancellor Angela Merkel was at Chequers yesterday, attempting to bridge her major differences with Gordon Brown over the global financial crisis. Guns may not have been on the agenda, but there can be little doubt that the two made more than passing references to last week's bloodbath at Germany's Albertville secondary school.

Germany is now second only to the US in terms of the number of deaths that have resulted from school shootings. It is in the unenviable position of being top of the league in Europe, and many are beginning to ask whether radical changes to the country's gun control laws are not long overdue.

The carnage at the school in the provincial town of Winnenden, near Stuttgart, was wrought by Tim Kretschmer a 17-year-old former pupil. He walked calmly into three classrooms on Wednesday and gunned down eight teenagers and three women teachers. All were shot in the head at close range. He later killed three bystanders outside the school before he was cornered by police and turned his gun on himself.

Yesterday German police said they had averted a second school massacre that was planned for 20 April, Adolf Hitler's birthday and the anniversary of the US Columbine high school killings of 1999. They found bomb-making equipment in the bedroom of a teenage schoolboy who had boasted to his fellow pupils that he was planning to blow up his school near Düsseldorf. The carnage could have been even worse than in Erfurt in 2002, when Robert Steinhäuser returned to his school and gunned down 16 people.

After the Dunblane massacre in Britain in 1996, there was a public outcry that led to a complete ban on handguns and much tougher UK gun controls. Should Germany consider something similar? The evidence gleaned by police in the aftermath of Winnenden might lead one to think so.

Not only did Kretschmer's father keep 15 firearms and a staggering 4,600 rounds of ammunition in the family home, he also encouraged his son to use guns, even building a firing range for him. All this was perfectly legal, except for one thing. Although 14 guns and the bullets were in a safe, Kretschmer Snr kept a 9mm Beretta pistol in his bedroom in case of burglars. That was the weapon his son took, although it turned out that Tim Kretschmer knew the safe's combination and used it to get the ammunition.

Like some two million Germans, the adult Kretschmer is a member of one of the country's hundreds of Schützenvereine, or shooting clubs. Membership includes training with air guns and then firearms. After a year, new members are allowed to apply for a weapons permit, which entitles them to buy and keep guns at home, although not to carry them in public. This helps to explain why there are about 20 million guns held legally in Germany, mostly at home.

Tim Kretschmer's father took him to his shooting club regularly, and, only a few weeks before his son's shooting spree, taught him how to use the Beretta on one of the club ranges. Steinhäuser, the Erfurt school killer, was a full member of a shooting club. Whether these facts will bring changes in the law is another matter, however.

Germany's biggest shooting organisation, the Marksmen's Association, has 1.45 million members, and they all have votes. Last week the clubs continued to argue, despite Winnenden, that there was no need to tighten gun laws. But a gun control debate has now started. Winnenden's MP has called for all guns to be kept in shooting clubs.

Mrs Merkel faces a general election this September. The country's gun lobby is composed mostly of staunch supporters of her conservative Christian Democratic Party, and the Interior Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has already gone out of his way to calm their fears. "There is no evidence that stricter gun laws could have prevented the gunman running amok in Winnenden," he insisted last week.