- Associated Press - Saturday, April 9, 2011

AMSTERDAM (AP) — Church services were held Sunday in a quiet suburb outside Amsterdam to mourn six people killed by a gunman at a crowded mall, as investigators puzzled over his motive and struggled to explain how he was able to obtain and legally own five firearms in the Netherlands.

The attacker, identified as 24-year-old Tristan van der Vlis, had minor run-ins with the police, including an illegal weapons possession charge in 2003 when he was 17 that was eventually dropped, District Attorney Kitty Nooy said.

“This is definitely part of our investigation,” she said.

Mr. van der Vlis opened fire in Alphen aan den Rijn with what witnesses described as a machine gun on one of the first pleasant Saturdays of spring, authorities said. In addition to the fatalities, he wounded at least 15 others, including an infant, before fatally shooting himself in the head at the Ridderhof mall, officials said.

Three of the wounded remained in critical condition. The infant’s injuries were said to be not serious. Authorities refused to say whether any other children were killed or wounded in the attack, and they haven’t publicly released a list with the identities of the victims, citing privacy reasons.

Police said they discovered a note from Mr. van der Vlis in his car, threatening bombings at other malls. His mother found a suicide note at the home where he lived with his father near the mall. Neither gave any indication of why he wanted to hurt other people.

Alphen is about 20 miles southwest of Amsterdam. Church services closed to the media were being held at the Goede Herderkerk (Good Shepherd Church). A church closer to the mall is cordoned off in connection with the ongoing forensic investigation into the shooting.

“This hacks our society apart,” Mayor Bas Eenhoorn said at a news conference. “I hope that people seek each other out to express their grief and their fears that are the result of this terrible incident.”

A candlelight procession to the mall was planned for Sunday evening.

Mr. van der Vlis’s apartment building remained under police guard. Neighbors gave mixed comments about his character.

“He seemed to me to be a nice guy; he always greeted me nicely,” Veronique Troon said. But she said that one time he asked her about her native Brazil, saying, “‘That seems like a very, very dangerous country, don’t you think so?’ I found it very weird.”

An online condolence register has been signed more than 7,000 times.

“I always thought these terrible things only happen abroad, but now here, too,” wrote Thea Hilbrants of Groningen, Netherlands. “Terrible, incomprehensible. I wish much strength for everyone touched by this.”

Queen Beatrix and Prime Minister Mark Rutte also have expressed their shock and sympathy for victims.

Witnesses, including some interviewed by the Associated Press, said the blond-haired man wore camouflage pants and a black jacket as he stalked the halls of the mall. The attack lasted around 10 minutes, and witnesses saw him changing magazines in his gun.

The exact type of weapon has not been disclosed, but the city confirmed in a list of facts about the incident that the shooter had permits for five weapons, including three he had with him at the time of the attack, one of which was an “automatic weapon.”

Witnesses said he later shot himself in the head with a revolver.

Under Dutch law, owning revolvers and rifles is allowed only with a permit, and they must be kept unloaded and locked unless they are in use at a firing range or during hunting. Owning fully automatic firearms is legal only for the military and special police units — though an explanation of the law on the Justice Ministry website mentions there are exemptions under some circumstances, for instance for collectors.

Investigators have said Mr. van der Vlis had no military background.

Saturday’s attack is unusual in the Netherlands, but not unprecedented. The country has had two school shootings and two political assassinations in the past 15 years. In 2009, a man killed eight people and wounded 10 by driving his car through a crowd watching a royal parade.

Despite their illegal status, automatic weapons are frequently found during drugs busts and often are used in gangland killings.

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