THE HAGUE, Netherlands—Although no place in today’s world is immune to the kind of senseless violence that devastated Virginia Tech, much of the globe remains transfixed by what one European newspaper described as “the defining feature of the United States to the outside world.”
Other nations have suffered through such incidents. In 1996, a 43-year-old misfit named Thomas Hamilton gunned down 16 children and their teacher at an elementary school in Dunblane, Scotland. Germany next week marks the third anniversary of the Erfurt massacre in which an expelled student shot two classmates, 13 staff members and a police officer at a high school.
Six weeks after the Dunblane incident, Australians were stunned when a man later described by a judge as a “pathological social misfit” shot and killed 35 people in a coffee shop and adjoining souvenir store in the quiet Tasmanian city of Port Arthur.
But the Virginia Tech massacre continues to make headlines around the world, and the verdict on America’s so-called “gun culture” and comparatively lenient gun laws is a harsh one.
“The U.S. is not the only country in which random acts of gun violence have erupted in seemingly everyday circumstances to destroy lives, families and communities,” said Britain’s Guardian newspaper. “But the U.S. is one of the few countries that seems collectively unwilling and politically incapable of doing anything serious to stop such things happening again.”
The slayings Monday by a student at Virginia Tech reinforced a perception that in the U.S., it is “as easy to buy weapons as a loaf of bread,” in the words of one Russian woman on a Moscow street corner. “Any madman can get hold of a gun,” said Natalya Ivanova, a 22-year-old secretary. “If America had the same firearms restrictions that we have in Russia, this tragedy would never have happened.”
The news of another American mass slaying was especially puzzling in conflict-ridden countries like Afghanistan, where people said they couldn’t understand the need for personal weapons in a country as modern and secure as the U.S.
“Having the right to have a gun for civilians is completely wrong in a country like America,” said Haji Aziz, 48, a businessman from Wardak province in Afghanistan who said he has three Kalashnikov assault rifles at home for protection but said he will not let his sons use them. “Security is good there, they have well-trained police, they are not in a war zone, so why should they keep weapons at home?”
In Mexico, some commentators saw hypocrisy in a country that experiences such senseless gun violence while scolding its southern neighbor for not reining in its deadly drug wars. Mexicans are especially sensitive because law enforcement officials say that much of their violence is fueled by illegal gun trafficking from the U.S.
“All the world, we have opened our eyes to the situation with guns in the United States,” said David Ordaz, a researcher with the National Institute of Penal Sciences in Mexico City. “It is truly a source of worry for everyone.”
While editorialists in Britain and elsewhere noted that “even the most draconian gun-control regimes cannot deny weapons to criminals and the deranged,” they also emphasized how similar tragedies quickly moved Australia and other countries to adopt tough laws or strengthen those they already had.
In Israel, gun license regulations were tightened after a deranged gunman shot four social workers in Jerusalem in the early 1990s, and again after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1993 by Yigal Amir, an extremist who obtained a licensed gun when he lived in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
In May 2003, two shootings in Sicily and Milan sparked a countrywide review and stiffening of licensing procedures in Italy, which already had strict rules. Only 40,000 gun licenses have been granted and automatic weapons are strictly banned.
After the 1966 Dunblane shooting, nearly 750,000 Britons signed a petition demanding tougher restrictions on the ownership of handguns. Over opposition from Britain’s gun lobby, the government ordered a nationwide register of firearms.
Gun mayhem occurred with some regularity in Australia until the Port Arthur massacre. Within days, Prime Minister John Howard launched a gun reform proposal that culminated with the country banning the possession of automatic rifles and shotguns. Over the next year, shocked Australians turned in nearly 650,000 newly illegal guns, which the government bought back at market prices, and more than 70,000 other still-legal smaller guns.
Since 1996, the rate of gun deaths in Australia—including suicides, accidents and homicides—has fallen by half and the country has not suffered additional mass shootings. Australia today has a per capita gun crime rate less than a tenth that in the United States.
“We showed a national resolve that the gun culture that is such a negative in the United States would never become a negative in our country,” Howard said this week.
Gun restrictions in other countries have not been so successful.
In 2005, South Africa passed strict new gun licensing laws to address some of the word’s worst rates of violent crime. Under the rules, anyone seeking to buy and own a gun must first install a gun safe at home, pass a course on gun safety, laws and proper firearm use and allow police to interview at least three acquaintances about the would-be gun owner’s suitability to possess a firearm.
The new law dramatically cut the legal sale of guns in South Africa. But illegal weapons are still widely available and the country continues to have high levels of gun-related crime, from murders to carjackings.
In Russia, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, strict gun laws ban possession for self-defense purposes and require sportsmen to keep their guns at clubs. Today, less than 12 percent of the country’s murders are committed with guns, a number officials fear would soar if the rules were relaxed.
“That would be catastrophic for Russia,” said Alexander Gurov, a top Interior Ministry official and member of parliament. “The situation here would be much worse—10 times worse than in the U.S.”
(Hundley reported from The Hague and Rodriguez from Moscow. Contributing were Chicago Tribune correspondents Laurie Goering in New Delhi, India; Kim Barker in Islamabad, Pakistan; Oscar Avila in Morelia, Mexico; Chris Spolar in Rome; and Joel Greenberg in Jerusalem.)