26 April 2002: Robert Steinhäuser kills 16 at Gutenberg-Gymnasium in Erfurt, Germany before dying of a self-inflicted gunshot. (Source)

The Gutenberg-Gymnasium in Erfurt on May 5, 2002, a few days after the killing spree – Author: ASK (Source)

The Erfurt massacre was a school shooting that occurred on 26 April 2002 at the Gutenberg-Gymnasium, a secondary school, in the Thuringia State capital Erfurt, Germany. 19-year-old expelled student Robert Steinhäuser shot and killed 16 people, including 13 staff members, two students, and one police officer, before committing suicide. One person was also wounded by a bullet fragment. According to students, he ignored them and aimed only for the teachers and administrators, although two students were unintentionally killed by shots fired through a locked door.


Background

While Steinhäuser’s motive is unknown, media reports assumed it to be related to his expulsion from school without qualifications and his subsequent feeling of victimhood and hopelessness regarding his future job opportunities.[3]

Robert Steinhäuser (22 January 1983 – 26 April 2002) was a student of the Gutenberg Gymnasium until early October 2001. At the end of September 2001, he had spent a few days away from school, for which he presented a mandatory medical certificate which was quickly identified as a forgery. Because of this forgery Steinhäuser was expelled by the principal.[4][5][6]

The investigation revealed that Steinhäuser had been doing internet research into the Columbine High School massacre and had files relating to the crime saved on his computer.[7]

Due to the regulations used in the State of Thuringia at the time, Steinhäuser, on expulsion, found himself with no qualifications at all, and therefore very limited job prospects.[5]


Massacre

A Glock 17C pistol similar to the one used by Steinhäuser

On the day of the shooting, before leaving his residence at his usual time, Steinhäuser armed himself with a 9mm Glock 17C[8] and a Mossberg 590 Mariner 12-gauge pump-action shotgun,[8] which was unusable due to an earlier handling error. Steinhäuser probably entered the school unmasked at 10:45, carrying his weapons and ammunition in his sports bag or backpack at the time. He went into the men’s toilet on the ground floor and changed some of his clothes, including a black face mask. He left his coat, wallet and identification.[3][2]

The shooting started shortly before 10:58 am. From the toilet, Steinhäuser went to the secretariat. There he shot the deputy school principal and the secretary. In the next room was the headmistress, but Steinhäuser did not enter the room despite the door being unlocked. When the headmistress went to check the noise, Steinhäuser had already left the room. Upon discovering the bodies, she locked herself in her office and alerted the emergency services.

Steinhäuser moved from classroom to classroom, pausing briefly each time in the doorway to shoot a teacher, then moving on to the next room. At 11:05 am, a janitor called the police. At 11:12 am, the first police car arrived at the school. Steinhäuser opened fire on the police, fatally shooting one of the policemen.[2]

In front of the art material room 111 Steinhäuser met the history and arts teacher Rainer Heise. In later interviews Heise gave conflicting versions of the event, claiming that either he himself or Steinhäuser had removed his mask, after which he told Steinhäuser to shoot him while looking him in the eyes.[9] Steinhäuser is then said to have lowered his weapon and to have replied: “Mr Heise, that’s enough for today.”[10] According to Heise, he used this opportunity to push Steinhäuser into the art material room to lock him up there together with his gun. Steinhäuser then shot himself, his body being found by police a few hours later.[11]

From the first shot to Steinhäuser’s suicide the spree lasted no more than 20 minutes. One and a half hours later, Steinhäuser’s body was found by a special police detachment (SEK) in room 111. The gunman had killed 16 people in the massacre—12 teachers, two students, one secretary and one policeman.[12] Seventy-one rounds were fired throughout the whole series of shootings.


Reactions

A memorial plaque for the shooting

Steinhäuser’s family issued a statement to news sources saying that they “will forever be sorry that our son and brother has brought such horrifying suffering to the victims and their relatives, the people of Erfurt and Thuringia, and all over Germany.”[13]

In 2004, after repeated public criticisms of the police response to the shooting, the state government of Thuringia tasked a committee to release a final report on the incident.[14]

The state government of Thuringia reprimanded the principal of the school for the expulsion of Steinhäuser, saying she had overstepped her legal powers and violated the rules of the procedure. There were no further legal consequences for the principal and she remains in charge of the school as of 2017.[15]

Likewise, the Thuringian education law was caught in the crossfire of criticism. Since Steinhäuser was already an adult, the school administration was not required to inform his parents about their son’s expulsion from school. In contrast to most other German states at this time, the state of Thuringia did not automatically award the middle school certificate at the end of the 10th grade of the Gymnasium. Students who did not pass the final exams therefore did not have a school certificate, which left them with limited job prospects.[5] In response to the shooting, a law was enacted that would give high school students the option to take an exam at the end of year 10 at their own request. Since 2004, this exam is mandatory for all Thuringian high school students.[16]

The shooting also led to public discussions on the effect of violence in media and its effect on the youth, especially in relation to computer games of the first-person shooter genre, so-called killer games and dealing with fictional violence in other media. According to the report of the Gutenberg Commission, Steinhäuser had some violent movies such as Fight Club, Predator or Desperado, as well as the video games Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Hitman: Codename 47 and Half-Life. Steinhäuser was apparently not interested in the game Counter-Strike, which was often mentioned in connection with the shooting by the media. The discussions contributed to a revision of the Protection of Young Persons Act and helped to strengthen the rules for these areas.[16]

In addition to the reform of the youth protection act, gun laws were tightened. The legal minimum age for those who wanted to join a shooting club was raised from 18 to 21 years and anyone under 25 years wishing to handle firearms was now required to undergo a medical-psychological examination.[5] Pump action firearms were banned altogether. Furthermore, the retention requirements for firearms and ammunition have been significantly tightened.


Legacy

After the rampage, around 700 students were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, about one hundred of whom were still under treatment for one year later. Ten years after the killing spree, there were still six witnesses in psychological therapy, including four who had initially rejected a follow-up program. These adolescents had “time-delayed disturbances such as memory gaps and extreme avoidance behavior”. The Thuringian accident insurance fund as payers has so far taken over childcare costs for the victims in the amount of about 5.6 million euros, including about 2.2 million euros as pension payments, for example, for survivors’ pensions.[17]

Steinhäuser’s last words – Für heute reicht’s (“that’s enough for today”) – was also the title of a controversial book about the massacre written by Ines Geipel, who alleged that there were several mistakes made by the police on the case. Geipel, and relatives of some of the victims, criticized police for the initial speed of their response. The police had initially believed there was a second gunman, leading them to retake the school one floor at a time rather than storm the entire building.[18] Police laws and police training were reformed in most federal states in response to the shooting. While police patrols used to have to wait for a special task force, policemen all over Germany now get the necessary training and equipment to deal directly with mass shooters.[5]

Heise was hailed as a national hero for locking Steinhäuser in a room which ended the killing spree, but was later subject to backlash from some members of the public due to questions about his role. Erfurt Mayor Manfred Ruge said he fully believes Heise, but acknowledged the teacher’s rather direct and animated style combined with the vast media coverage had caused resentment in the town.[19]

The massacre led to the development of a code word that could be broadcast over the public address system to warn teachers of a shooting. “Mrs Koma is coming”, which is “amok” spelled backwards, was later used at the Winnenden school shooting to alert teachers to that attack. (Source)

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