Mass Shooting in Prague Brings Grief and a Focus on Guns

After days of hunting in vain for clues to a gruesome double murder of a man and his baby daughter in a forest east of Prague last week, the Czech police called off their search for evidence leading to the identity of the killer. Nothing had been found, they said, that “would currently indicate any imminent danger.”

The next day, their elusive quarry broke cover in the center of Prague, the Czech capital, killing 14 more people, wounding more than 20 others on Thursday at Charles University and sending a nation into mourning.

The Czech police connected the two episodes through ballistic analysis, saying on Friday that the gun used to kill the father and baby on Dec. 15 in Klanovice Forest had been “found in the house where the shooter at the university lived.” The police identified the gunman as David K, in keeping with European police protocol to give only a first name and last initial for privacy reasons. They say he had been a student in world history at the university, and killed himself after the rampage.

But while the killing spree on Thursday afternoon at the university appears to have solved the murder mystery in the forest, it opened more riddles:

How did a 24-year-old enrolled at the Czech Republic’s premier institute of learning go from being a standout student with no criminal record to the author of the country’s bloodiest mass shooting since the aftermath of World War II?

And how, in the heart of one of Europe’s most serene cities, did he amass an armory without arousing suspicion, stash weapons in the Faculty of Arts building at the university and open fire on fellow students and passers-by?

As the police on Friday scrutinized eight online threats of copycat attacks, and Czech leaders, without offering details, vowed to prevent future gun violence, students at the Faculty of Arts proposed a simple way to prevent any recurrence: Ban guns.

“We believe that due to the seriousness and circumstances of the shooting at the Faculty of Arts of Charles University” a student petition said, “the possession of weapons, with the exception of armed security forces, should be unconditionally excluded by law.”

That is unlikely to happen, not least because the right to bear or arms, or at least to protect oneself or others using a gun, is enshrined in the Constitution — the closest equivalent Europe has to the Second Amendment in the United States. That right, guaranteed since 1991 by the country’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, was embedded in the Constitution by Parliament in 2021 after intense lobbying by hunters and other gun enthusiasts worried that the European Union might try to chip away at their gun rights.

“Compared to the rest of Europe, the Czech Republic is an island of freedom for the possession of guns,” said Jozef Kraus, a gun owner and the head of security and strategic studies at Masaryk University in the Czech city of Brno.

Unlike the United States, Mr. Kraus said, mass shootings in the Czech Republic are extremely rare — there have been only two in recent decades — and guns are generally associated in most people’s minds not with violent crime but with hunting, sport and the liberties enjoyed since the collapse of the communist regime imposed by Moscow after World War II.

“Owning a gun here is a symbol of individual freedom,” he said. “It is like owning a car. It will be very difficult for the government to do anything to remove guarantees that people can defend themselves against intruders or the state.”

Petr Matejcek, the Prague region’s police chief, insisting that officers could not have prevented the slaughter at the university, was cautious on Friday about whether tighter gun laws might have helped. “The police will investigate whether the system failed or whether it was an individual failure,” he said at a news conference. The university gunman, he added, legally owned eight weapons.

The prime minister and president, a former general, both own guns. Would-be gun owners have to pass a medical test, have no criminal record and demonstrate they know how to handle weapons safely. For each gun, they must explain to the police why they want to be armed and acquire a permit.

In a country with a population of around 10.7 million, more than 300,000 people have gun-ownership licenses, and many have several firearms, bringing the total number of legally declared guns to around a million.

That is far fewer than the 2.7 million guns that a 2018 study by the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based group, estimated were in civilian hands in Serbia, where guns laws are strict but illegal weapons have long been widely available. The Serbian government tried to crack down on illegal guns after back-to-back mass shootings in May, but it is unclear whether it made much headway.

As the Czech investigators worked to establish a motive on Friday for the deadly shooting by David K. — they earlier ruled out any connection to international or domestic terrorism — the country canceled soccer and hockey matches, usually immovable features of the pre-Christmas calendar, and declared Saturday a day of national mourning.

The university’s Faculty of Arts remained sealed off Friday morning. Mourners gathered around candles and flowers outside the building, and an overnight thunderstorm followed by morning rain added to the capital’s somber mood.

Amid the grief were questions: Why did the gunman open fire at the university? Could more lives have been saved? And did the Czech Republic’s permissive attitude toward gun ownership play a role?

The authorities said at a news conference that the gunman appeared to have acted alone. They also offered more details on the events that led up to the shooting.

Early on Thursday afternoon, the police received information that a man who might be armed had threatened to kill himself and was on his way to Prague. A nationwide search began, and by 1:15 p.m., it had been narrowed to Charles University, the authorities said.

The first shots rang out just before 3 p.m., and the police were on the scene in four minutes, the authorities said. The police began to search for the gunman, and within 30 minutes, had him surrounded on the roof, they said, adding that hundreds of officers were involved in the operation.

“People may criticize the police and say it should have happened sooner,” said Mr. Matejcek, the regional police chief. “We need to understand that the perpetrator was hiding. There are a number of buildings around, there were people who were watching, and it would have been very unfortunate if the use of firearms by police caused further injuries.”

The authorities believe the gunman fatally shot his father in a village outside Prague on Thursday before heading to the university.

The police also said that they were investigating whether the gunman was linked to a series of expletive-laden messages threatening mass murder that were posted in Russian on the Telegram messaging platform under the name David Kozak.

The messages, viewed by The New York Times, were written in Russian, apparently by a native speaker well versed in vulgar slang. If the gunman and the Telegram writer were the same person, it was not clear how a Czech citizen raised in a small village in Central Bohemia would have acquired such mastery of the language.

Amid a flurry of reports on social media that the gunman’s family was of Russian origin, the interior minister, Vit Rakusan, said on Friday that David K. was Czech and had grown up in a Czech family.

While students started their petition calling for a ban on guns, the focus on Friday was on grief — which broke through the widespread indifference to religion in a country that ranks as one of the world’s most atheist nations.

As the first details began to emerge about the lives lost — the police said that Lenka Hlavkova, the head of the university’s music studies department, was among those killed — students, faculty members and members of the public were invited to a church memorial service on Friday evening.

Albert Marsik, a graduate student at Charles University, said he was struggling to make sense of the shooting. He was delivering a presentation in a linguistics class on Thursday when he heard shouting, he said.

“Nobody shouts here ever,” Mr. Marsik said of the building, where students study English literature, sign language, philology and other subjects. “It was suspicious immediately.”

Then he heard sirens and gunshots, Mr. Marsik, 25, said in an interview. The police arrived at his classroom and ordered everyone to evacuate.

The university had been one of the safest and most idyllic places he had ever known, Mr. Marsik said. The shooting changed that.

“I’m sure we are capable of putting all the effort we can into keeping this safe space,” he said, “but it definitely damages this feeling that everybody has had forever.”

Alzbeta Kvasnickova contributed reporting.