Johnny's Got His Gun

Last week's school shooting in Hungary is not only a social problem but a political one as well

Hungarians are still reeling from last week's school shooting in the southern city of Pecs. A 23-year old pharmacological student went on a shooting rampage, killing one person and wounding three others, one of them seriously. The killer gave himself up shortly after.

Hungary had never experienced a school shooting until now. Hence, news of the incident came as a complete shock to most people. For some, there is a fear that Hungary is slowly but surely becoming like the US and Germany in a bad sort of way. While many of the positive aspects of the west are sadly still lacking (i.e. political accountability and economic prosperity, to name just a few), many negative aspects attributed to western society and culture – drug abuse and school violence, for example – appears to have quickly made inroads.

Over 40 people have been killed in school shootings worldwide so far this year. Some analysts have observed that this is merely part of a much larger trend affecting western societies as a whole. Hence, it's no coincidence that this form of violence has become more prevalent and intense over the past few years.

Indeed, the bloodiest school shooting on record occurred only two years ago in the US when a student at Virginia Tech University killed 32 people before turning the gun on himself. In Europe, meanwhile, the continent's bloodiest school shooting occurred just last year in Germany when a student killed 17 people before being shot by police. Recently, a similar incident was narrowly averted in France when a disgruntled student took his father's gun to school with similar intent.

Aside from school shootings, school violence in general is a rare event in Hungary. The last such incident happened five years ago when a student from Azerbaijan killed a fellow student from Georgia with an axe. The killing was politically motivated, that is, the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh was the main reason for the murder. As a result Hungarians tended to overlook this incident since both the perpetrator and victim were foreigners; thus, for most this was not really a case of Hungarian school violence.

Until last week, the bloodiest example of school violence to have occurred in the country took place in 1998 at a small town primary school in eastern Hungary, when a 31-year old teacher began to slash out at pupils with a bread knife, indiscriminately stabbing at anyone within her reach. By the time the school principal jumped the teacher and disarmed her, 8 students and 3 teachers had been injured.

Unfortunately, root causes to this and other such problems are seldom touched in deference to searching for a scapegoat. In the case of the school shooting last week in Pecs, it's quite apparent that the authorities are not constructively dealing with the issue at hand. This should come as no surprise since the shooting in Pecs is not only reflective of a growing social problem, but is the indirect result of recent political decisions and public policy.

As part of the government campaign to curb public spending in order to fulfill the dictates of the IMF, the Hungarian government has slashed spending dramatically in the health care sector. This included the closing of several important institutions, including a sanatorium in Budapest for children with lung problems and a major psychiatric hospital. For many observers, the closing of these two particular institutions wasn't merely a way for the government to cut costs; since both these institutions were located on prime real estate, it more than likely appears that they fell victim to the insatiable appetite of property speculators.

Is there a connection between the perpetrator of the school shooting and the closing of a psychiatric hospital?

The Hungarian government naturally denied these charges. However, the rationale for closing these institutions not only failed to convince people of the need to do so, it also revealed to most the cynicism of government officials. For instance then health minister, Agnes Horvath, claimed that the sanatorium on a hill overlooking Budapest is not needed as fresh air is no longer important in this day and age since there are drugs and other forms of treatment for those with lung problems.

The same kind of cynical attitude prevailed when the psychiatric hospital in Budapest was likewise closed. As the largest mental institution of its kind within the country, experts had warned that closing the institution would lead to catastrophic consequences. Other hospitals were under increasing pressure due to budget cuts, therefore there were fewer places which were able to absorb these patients. Subsequently, many ended up simply on the street without medication and professional help. The growing problem of the homeless in Budapest and elsewhere has thus been exacerbated by the government's callous disregard of both the physical and mentally handicapped.

Although there doesn't appear to be a direct connection between the perpetrator of the school shooting in Pecs and the closing of the psychiatric hospital in Budapest, the undercurrent is nevertheless one and the same. Because of a lack of money and resources, those suffering from mental problems are minimally treated – if treated at all. Not only this, as a result of these budgetary constraints there appears to be little or no networking among the parties involved that could help in both the treatment of those concerned and to prevent any problematic situations from arising.

The perpetrator of the school shooting in Pecs was known to have psychiatric problems and was even diagnosed as a latent schizophrenic. Even so, he was able to become the member of a local shooting club and obtain a permit to legally own a gun. Not only this, but one club had already refused him membership because of his erratic behavior. Still, this didn't prevent him from becoming the member of another club and obtaining a gun permit.

The same loopholes were also apparent at the university where he studied pharmacology. A psychiatric test or any other similar type of test wasn't required even though elsewhere such a requirement is important considering the area of his study. Finally, a psychiatrist who had examined him previously was not informed or aware of the fact that his patient was the member of a shooting club and had a license to legally own a weapon.

In retrospect, as is so often the case, this tragedy could have been avoided. There have been ample warnings that the excessive austerity measures imposed by the government on behalf of the IMF would lead to problems of this nature. In particular, there are at present scores of people with a host of mental conditions wandering the streets without proper treatment or medication.

Thus, what is surprising is not that what happened in Pecs had come about, but that more such incidents haven't occurred. Not only this, unless the Hungarian authorities realize the full extent of the problem – in that it is a political problem as much as a social one – then we can expect school violence to be not such a rare occurrence in Hungary as it once was. (John Horvath)