Monday, October 6, 2008


This sparsely populated nation near the Arctic Circle has long clung to an ethos of rugged individualism where, unlike in most of Western Europe, the right to bear arms is deeply ingrained in the culture.

Stunned by the second school massacre in a year, however, Finns are questioning their gun laws and other social problems such as rampant alcoholism and high suicide rates.

Leading newspapers splashed the word “Why?” on their front pages, seeking answers into what drove Matti Saari, a 22-year-old student with no previous criminal record, to kill 10 people in a shooting spree at his vocational college before killing himself.

“It’s a time for very serious self-reflection,” said Bishop Simo Peura, who held a service for shocked residents of Kauhajoki after the massacre on Sept. 23. “We have to ask ourselves what our values are and what kind of society we want to live in this country.”

In an editorial, the newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet lamented the damage to the nation’s image.

“So we live in a country which not only stands out for domestic violence and other types of physical violence,” the paper said. “It is also reaching the top of the world in regard to mass murders in schools.”

In an eerily similar attack in November, 18-year-old Pekka-Eric Auvinen killed eight people and himself at a school in Jokela, near Helsinki. Six years ago, a 19-year-old chemical engineering student killed six people and himself, and wounded 80 when he detonated a homemade bomb in a crowded shopping mall.

Because of the parallels between the two school attacks, police said Auvinen and Saari might have been in contact with each other.

“Their actions seem so similar that I would consider it a miracle if we did not find some connecting link,” lead investigator Jari Neulaniemi was quoted as telling Finnish news agency STT.

The gunmen in both school massacres posted violent clips on YouTube before the shootings, were fascinated by the 1999 Columbine school shootings in Colorado, and died after shooting themselves in the head.

Police said they probably bought their weapons at the same gun store.

Meanwhile, the government pledged to tighten Finland’s gun laws and keep mentally unstable people from obtaining firearms.

Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen said it was time to consider restricting access to guns in a country with more than 1.6 million firearms in private hands.

“We need to study if people should get access to handguns so freely,” Mr. Vanhanen told reporters on a visit to the college. “I’m very, very critical about the guns and during next few months we will make a decision about it.”

Interior Minister Anne Holmlund said the government was working on a proposal to restrict gun laws by giving police greater powers to examine gun applicants’ health records. Saari acquired a permit for his weapon in August, police said.

Finland has deep-rooted hunting traditions and ranks - along with the United States - among the top five nations in the world in civilian gun ownership. After the last massacre, the government had pledged to raise the age for buying a gun from 15 to 18 but never did so.

Officials said it was too early to say whether Saari suffered from mental illness, but doctors had treated Auvinen with antidepressants before the Jokela shootings.

The shootings have fueled concerns about disturbing trends among some Finnish youths, especially young men.

“There is an undercurrent of tension that people are not aware of,” said Jouko Lonnqvist of the psychiatry department at the University of Helsinki. He said depression had shifted from being a middle-age problem to one affecting the young, but he didn’t give figures.

The National Public Health Institute estimates that about 15 percent of 18- to 30-year-olds in Finland suffer from mental problems. Dr. Lonnqvist said other European countries have similar statistics.

In 2006, Finland had the second highest suicide rate for youths ages 15 to 19 in the European Union, after Lithuania, according to EU statistics agency.

On the issue of drinking, Finland’s National Public Health Institute said last year that alcohol had become the country’s biggest killer of both men and women, and was the main single cause of accidents in the country. It was not known whether Saari had a problem with drinking.

Salla Saari, a psychiatrist who headed a crisis group after last year’s school shooting at Jokela and unrelated to the gunman in last month’s shooting, said the adulation of violence was a “worrying feature” among some young Finnish men who “don’t see the consequences of it.”

Stockholm University criminologist Jerzy Sarnecki said the copycat effect was likely a major factor in the two shootings.

“Each time it happens in a country, the probability that it will happen again gets higher,” Mr. Sarnecki said. “It triggers a terrible amount of fantasies in people who are psychologically unstable.”

Mr. Sarnecki said the school shootings around the world can be traced back to Columbine.

“Columbine left a very, very strong impression because of the attention it got in the media,” he said. “There have always been young people who have been frustrated, the death philosophy has always existed, but now when this pattern has been created it is being repeated.”

In Kauhajoki, a town of 14,000, shock and despair reigned as residents sought to make sense of the massacre.

“I don’t have an answer to why this happened. It will continue to affect us for a long time to come,” Mayor Antti Rantakokko said.

Grieving residents placed candles and flowers outside the school, 180 miles northwest of Helsinki.

“How is this possible?” Milja Jaakkola said with tears in her eyes as she clutched her young daughter. “There must be something wrong in this society, but I just don’t know what it could be.”

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