Mass murder in Prague – what we know, and what we don’t

Zuzana Šotová (investigace.cz)
Photo: Josef Šlerka (investigace.cz)
Zuzana Šotová (investigace.cz)
Photo: Josef Šlerka (investigace.cz)

“Hey, guys, someone’s shooting in the city center,” read a message from one of our colleagues at investigace.cz at 3:20 PM on Thursday, December 21. He was near the site. We soon found out that the shooting was happening at Charles University’s philosophy department building. The police have so far confirmed 14 victims, 25 more people were injured. The shooter, a student of the faculty, is dead. 

Prague police chief Martin Vondrášek later described the events at a press conference. The shooter first killed his own father in a small town near the Czech capital before noon, and planned to commit suicide as he was heading to Prague. He left home with guns, among those at least one assault rifle, which he legally owned. At this point, the police were already looking for him. He was supposed to attend a class at a Charles University building in Celetná street, near the city center of Prague. The police evacuated the school, however, the shooter didn’t attend his class. Instead, he was already about 15 minutes walk from there, in the philosophy department building at Jan Palach Square, a small picturesque place surrounded by historic buildings, galleries, and the view of the Prague castle. 

Information about the shooting came one minute before 3 PM, and police arrived at the philosophy department building minutes after. At 3:15, students and faculty members received an email instructing them to lock themselves in whichever room they are currently in, barricade the doors, turn the lights off, and wait. They were sending messages to their loved ones and exchanging information about the situation. “Are you in hiding? Please tell me you’re hiding,” read messages in one of the students’ group chats. The replies described where the students were hidden, how narrowly they escaped, and what they saw. 

At 4PM, police confirmed that the shooter “has been eliminated” – he shot himself as he was seeing policemen getting close. 

People from inside the building were then evacuated, and the whole faculty was searched by the police and a bomb squad. Later in the evening, the police announced that they had found a “huge arsenal of weapons” at the faculty building and that if it weren’t for their quick reaction, there would have been even bigger bloodshed. The search of the crime scene ended the next day, on December 22 at 9 AM.

Meanwhile, the Czech internet was quickly flooded with more or less accurate information as well as outright disinformation. There were message excerpts from conversations of students locked inside the invaded building. Pictures and videos from the traumatic event. Information about another shooter – which the police officially debunked. Also alleged information about a Telegram account of the shooter, where he supposedly announced the attack – police are investigating it, however, there are indications that it’s fake. Interior minister Vít Rakušan asked the media not to publish any information about the mass murderer in order to prevent anyone from considering him as an inspiration.

Police announced that there were several threatening calls where someone wanted to shoot people as a reaction. They also announced that they will follow up on any forms of online comments and content approving the attack.  

Since Thursday night, students, friends and faculty members have exchanged messages on social media, trying to get hold of their loved ones. Late in the night, there was a list of missing people circulating, most of them who are women. The police have identified all victims by Friday morning. Charles University’s Department of Music Sciences announced that its director was one of the victims. 

Most of the people who were injured are in stable condition, some had to have surgery on Thursday night. 

The mass shooting – the worst case of a serial murder in Czech history – raises an important question: is it too easy to obtain a firearm license? In the Czech Republic, it is up to general practitioners to approve such a license – if they demand a psychological test, or simply sign  their patient’s papers. In the case of large firearms, their acquisitions need to be approved by the police. But this step is also mainly viewed as a formality. For example, the Prague university shooter had a permit to hold 8 firearms, two of them assault weapons. 

The right to defend oneself with a firearm is anchored in the Czech human rights declaration, which was a reaction to the European regulation of gun ownership.  

The police are quite certain that the shooter is also responsible for another murder case from a couple of days ago, when a man and a baby in a pram were shot dead in Klanovice forest near Prague.

As a senior police officer said at a press conference on Friday, the shooting “was either the failure of the system, or of an individual”. Now it is also up to Czech journalists to figure it out.

Zuzana Šotová

A Czech journalist, Zuzana Šotová has worked for the Czech Center for Investigative Journalism since 2020.