Scenes familiar to Americans filled the Russian media on the morning of September 20. The country watched as Perm State University students ran to safety. Inside, a shooter went on a murderous rampage, resulting in at least six dead and 20 injured. The shooting, the second one this year, was carried out by a freshman. Just a few months earlier, on May 11, 2021, there was a massacre at a school in the city of Kazan, which ended in the deaths of seven eighth grade students and two teachers.
School shootings have never been a major issue in Russia. Unlike American students familiar with active-shooter drills since the 1999 Columbine massacre, Russian students have worried primarily about becoming hostages in a terrorist attack—a fear born out of the horrific 2004 Beslan school siege. The first school shooting in contemporary Russian history took place at a Moscow school in 2014. The deadliest one occurred in 2018 at the Kerch Polytechnic College in the annexed Crimea region. It claimed 20 lives. Questions of why school shootings happen and how do we stop them have been circulating in the local media for months now.
In the United States, gun violence is fostered by the lack of sensible firearm regulations, a phenomenon well-documented and widely discussed. At least in theory, Russia’s gun laws are much stricter. In order to own a firearm (excluding military-grade weapons such as the AR-15) one must be over the age of 18 and pass a mental health assessment. Candidates who are discovered to have mental illnesses or substance abuse issues are disqualified. These rules should have prevented the Kazan shooter, who was pronounced delusional upon his arrest, from acquiring a firearm. Yet they didn’t.
While we don’t have many examples to speculate about, we can assume two things have gone wrong. It’s likely the mental health checks were conducted improperly and hastily or not at all. It’s also possible the shooter wasn’t required to present his license to actually purchase a firearm. He bought a gun he would later kill nine people with on April 16 and his permit was issued just days later, on April 28. Had the evaluation been done properly or had the gun seller cared for the rules, there would be nine fewer grieving families in the world today. Both of those rules could have been enforced by the government. Yet they weren’t.
The Russian government failed the Perm victims. It vowed to tighten the regulations surrounding the firearms trade after the Kazan massacre, but not much was actually done. Instead of taking the promised legislative action, it made excuses to justify inaction. Raising the legal age for gun ownership has been one of the measures proven to be most effective in decreasing the number of mass shootings. In the summer between the Kazan and the Perm massacres, the Russian parliament, however, decided against it, not willing to complicate the access to guns for younger military and law enforcement personnel.
Instead of imposing stricter gun regulations, Russian special services began announcing that they have been preventing attacks, including school shootings that were presumably planned by teenagers. Most of the accused would be arrested on dubious evidence, such as the perception that they were oddly quiet or withdrawn—common signs of mental illness in teenagers. Some would be sent to jail, others assigned to psychiatric treatment. These draconian measures not only appear useless in preventing massacres, as seen in the Perm tragedy; they can effectively ruin the lives of potentially innocent youth.
Fourteen-year old Yaroslav Inozemtsev was arrested in 2020 on suspicion of planning an attack at his school. Prior to the court’s ruling, he was sent to a psychiatric hospital and treated with strong medications that caused him to suffer intense side effects. Whether innocent or guilty, Inozemtsev should have been offered proper mental health care, not a looming prison sentence and drugs. If anything, the arrests of innocent (until proven guilty) young people offer the government a path of least resistance: no legislative work on gun control and “prevented attacks” to soothe the nervous public.
This only makes clearer the need for stricter gun regulations in both the United States and Russia, and across the globe too. It’s a solution that we know to work. Regardless, the Russian government tries to appease the public by arresting teenagers in need of therapy. American officials don’t act in order to prevent losing the National Rifle Association’s funding or the support of the political far right. Yet both countries know that better regulations will be the only concrete solution to the epidemic of school shootings. Despite the example’s being overused, all the officials from both sides needed to do was to enact gun laws such as Australia implemented after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre. Because they worked. How many more school students, teachers, and guards need to be shot dead before change happens?