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Mass Shootings: Lessons Since Columbine
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As anti-gun advocates intensify their campaign to use mass carnage to hollow out the Second Amendment’s individual right to bear arms, a cornerstone of their campaign — that fewer guns would reduce violent crime — has been undermined by a new studyon gun violence. Conducted by the Centers for Disease Control — one of the least politicized federal agencies — it shows that guns are used for defensive purposes 3.6 times as often as offensive use. Efforts by Democrats to label gun violence a disease have been stymied since a GOP Congress passed legislation barring such labeling.

Recently the Secret Service released a report on mass shootings in 2017. The report summarized 28 incidents in which three or more were shot:

Between January and December 2017, 28 incidents of mass attacks, during which three or more persons were harmed, were carried out in public places within the United States (see map for locations). These acts violated the safety of the places we work, learn, shop, relax, and otherwise conduct our day-to-day lives. The resulting loss of 147 lives and injury to nearly 700 others had a devastating impact on our nation as a whole. As the uncertainty they caused continues to ripple through our communities, those charged with ensuring public safety strive to identify methods to prevent these types of attacks. To aid in these efforts, the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) examined these 28 incidents, to identify key themes for enhancing threat assessment and investigative practices. Regardless of whether these attacks were acts of workplace violence, domestic violence, school-based violence, or terrorism, similar themes were observed in the backgrounds of the perpetrators, including:

• Nearly half were motivated by a personal grievance related to a workplace, domestic, or other issue.
• Over half had histories of criminal charges, mental health symptoms, and/or illicit substance use or abuse.
• All had at least one significant stressor within the last five years, and over half had indications of financial instability in that timeframe.
• Over three-quarters made concerning communications and/or elicited concern from others prior to carrying out their attacks. On average, those who did elicit concern caused more harm than those who did not.

Drilling down into the report (only 7 pages) yields a few nuggets worth sharing: (1) Of 28 events firearms were used in 23 (82%), with 10 (43%) of them obtained illegally; (2) the age range was 15 to 66, with 37 the average; (3) the 15-24 age range had the second lowest percentage (55+ had the lowest) of assailants.

In 2016 author and noted gun enthusiast Chris Bird published Surviving a Mass Killer Rampage. (The author uses the term “mass killer” instead of the commonly used “active shooter” because most people who regularly shoot are law-abiding.) His book details many highly publicized mass killings over a fifty-year period, but the main focus is lessons learned since Columbine 1999. (It should be observed that kids are more likely to be killed by lightning strikes than in mass shootings.)

Bird’s book covers three types of mass killer: terrorists motivated by ideology; narcissistic losers motivated by the desire for notoriety; and resentful losers seeking revenge. In his foreword to the book, arms expert Masaad Ayoob notes that as of 2016 there were (round figs.) 1,350,000 full-time first responders: 765,000 law enforcement officers empowered to make arrests; 346,000 firefighters; and 241,000 emergency first responders (paramedics and technicians). With a 2016 population of some 323 million, that means one first responder per 240 people; if we count only police officers, it is one officer per 420 people. As police cannot be omnipresent, nearly every time intended victims will face grave danger without the help of police.

At Columbine the teen killers planned to detonate homemade propane bombs in the school’s cafeteria, at peak lunch hour when its 488 seats would be filled to capacity. After the explosions, the killers planned to shoot anyone who managed to get out. But the bombs did not detonate, so they carried their guns into the school. In 16 shooting minutes they killed 13 and wounded 24. The reason the bombs did not detonate was that the killers had tested a bomb with a certain make of timer; then they bought two more timers for the bombs they carried to Columbine. Between the original purchase and the later one the manufacturer had changed the clock hands from metal to plastic. The killers did not know this. When the detonators were triggered, the electrical circuits in the bombs failed to close. Had the bombs gone off, most of those in the cafeteria would have been killed or wounded.

Ohio police officer Ron Borsch compiled a database of nearly two hundred mass shootings dating back to 1975. The typical mass killer shoots five persons per minute. About half these events are stopped by a person confronting the killer. Half of those interventions were by unarmed individuals, one quarter by armed civilians and one quarter by law enforcement. The remaining half of these incidents were terminated by the killer, either by suicide or flight. Some 98 percent of mass killers act alone. They generally shoot until someone stops them, do not negotiate, and rarely take hostages. About half the shots fired by killers hit their target, but they shot at point-blank range against unarmed victims. Police are far more skilled than the typical mass shooter. Yet they hit with only 20 to 30 percent of their shots, as they usually fire at longer ranges. (The Inverse Square Law holds that as distance increases arithmetically, light intensity — and hence the odds of hitting a target — decreases exponentially.)

A major pitfall for would-be rescuers is that people can actually pull the trigger even after losing consciousness, by convulsive trigger pull. Also, if a person is shot and falls to the ground, the blood pressure returns to the brain and can revive them sufficiently to enable them to fire added shots.

Michael Martin, chief instructor of the U.S. Concealed Carry Assn. (USCCA), studied 48 mass shooting events — defined by the FBI as four or more shooting victims — since Columbine. In his new book, Countering the Mass Shooter Threat (2017), Martin analyzed which mass shootings might have been prevented by five measures proposed by gun-control advocates: (1) magazine capacity limits; (2) an AR-15 or other long rifle sale ban; (3) gun-free zones; (4) universal background checks; (5) banning gun purchases by anyone on the government’s no-fly and terror watch list.

Martin’s overall conclusion was that none of the above gun control measures would have stopped any of the mass shootings. One idea, applying the terror watch (542,346 — 262,306 members of terror groups plus 280,000 with no terror group affiliation) and no-fly (81,000) lists would ensare only false positives. None of the mass killers were on either of the lists. (Banning members of terror groups remains a sound idea, as a matter of overall security.)

Specifically:

  • The time duration of the events, not magazine size, is what counts. At an average event duration of nine minutes — Columbine was 47 minutes (but only 16 shooting minutes) — a killer using a Civil War era Sharp’s bolt-action rifle would kill 108 given a 5-second interval between shots;
  • Gun-free zones are killing zones, with 85 percent of victims killed in gun-free zones. Gun control expert John Lott has noted that within a 20-minute drive of the Aurora Theater were seven theaters that permitted guns, unlike Aurora. Guess which one the killer targeted?
  • Fighting back makes a difference. In nearly one of five events the shooter was subdued by his intended victims.

Martin recommends a post-9/11-scale response:

  • Look for behavioral signs. In 80 percent of these events, shooters told people in advance what they planned to do. Troubled homes, abnormal collection of firearms and ammunition, socially dysfunctional social media posts are among the indicators. The Sandy Hook community has created a “See Something” initiative; “Evan” (2:20), a video about the program, bears watching.
  • Create an emergency operations plan. Drills and scenarios.
  • Implement special plans for schools and places of worship.
  • Run, Hide, Fight. Escape if you can, find a safe room, but if all else fails, fight, using any accessible environmental tools. This Run. Hide. Fight. video (5:55) was produced by the city of Houston in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Medical triage and treatment. Drills and scenarios.

In all, there are four stages to a typical mass shooting: (1) after 2 min. victims call 911 — 4 die; (2) 911 operator takes 30 seconds to gather information — 2 more die; (3) after 4 min. police arrive on scene — 6 more die; (4) after 3 min. police end event — 5 more die. Martin notes FBI figures showing that 42 percent of all mass shooters and 70 percent of all school shooters commit suicide in place.

A model school security program, NetTalon’s Virtual Command (Fox59 video, 4 min.), was established at Southwestern High School in Indiana. For $400,000 a high-tech integrated response system linking the school with first responders including automatic instantaneous 911 notifications upon lockdown, which can be initiated by any administrators or teachers. As 911 calls typically are made 2 to 4 minutes after shooting starts, and incidents typically run 9 minutes, this alone is a huge boost to curtailing casualties. In each classroom the teacher can update status, between “all safe,” “under attack,” or “need medical attention.” At the sheriff’s office staff can initiate in each room active countermeasures to disrupt the attacker, such as flashing strobe lights, loud sirens and smoke cannons. The attacker can be cordoned off until responders arrive. Automatic locking doors deter most attackers. No mass shooter has ever spent time trying to breach well-protected areas. Churches are harder to secure, but can draw upon congregation resources; many of the nation’s 12.8 million (as of 2015) concealed weapon permit holders attend services.

Law Enforcement. Parkland was a case study in official negligence and worse. Great Mills, Maryland was a case study in rapid official response (true also of the hunt for the Austin, Texas serial bomber). Then there is the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre, with even worse news: the FBI had a longstanding relationship with the shooter’s father, who was a confidential informant:

The FBI had a decade-long confidential informant relationship with the father of Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen, prosecutors admitted Saturday, 12 days into the trial of his wife.

The undercover relationship with the father, Seddique Mateen, continued even though the bureau was tipped off in 2012 that its informant was himself raising money to plan a terrorist attack on the government of Pakistan.

The father’s status also played a role in the FBI’s decision not to seek prosecution of Omar in 2013 after they investigated him for violent threats, attorneys for the shooter’s wife said. If Omar had gone to prison in that case, the infamous Pulse shooting might have been avoided.

An anonymous source inside the school claims the school ignored security recommendations made a few weeks before the carnage:

This threat assessment was done by a retired Secret Service agent, and it was known that he was going to do this assessment by the Safety Committee but that no one else at Stoneman Douglas would be aware of it, including administration except for that one administrator on the committee.

The Secret Service agent came in. He parked in the front of the school for 20 minutes. He was never approached by anyone. He gained entry to the campus never being stopped by anyone at any time and put Post-Its on 21 random people.

Among the recommendations allegedly ignored by the school were locking the front gates and not immediately evacuating classrooms when the fire alarm sounded. Doing so stampeded students into the hallway, where the shooter awaited them.

Stories Change. One need go no further than to consult Officer-Involved Shooting Guidelines, adopted by the International Chiefs of Police in 2013. Cops in gunfights can easily mistake a gun for other objects. Guideline 4.2 for the immediate aftermath of a shooting, includes this: “If officers have an immediate need to talk about the incident, they should be encouraged to do so solely with individuals with whom they have a privileged relationship.” Guideline 5.1 provides in part, during the investigation: “For those offices directly involved in a death or serious injury to another person, a minimum of three days’ leave, using either administrative leave or regular days off, should be granted.” And Guideline 5.2 provides in pertinent part that officer recovery time before providing a formal statement “can range from a few hours to several days.… An officer’s memory will often benefit from at least one sleep cycle prior to being interviewed leading to more coherent and accurate statements.”

Heroes — REAL & Phony. Versus the hoopla about the student crusade against the NRA stands the true heroism of Meadow Pollack, whose killing at Parkland was movingly recounted (4 min.) by her father. Meadow’s brother, Hunter, was denied a speaking spot at the March 24 “March for Our Lives” extravaganza — at which speakers and celebs were protected by a veritable armada of armed security. (In the “you can’t make this up” category: One day after the MFL march, a relative of Al Sharpton, who attended the MFL, was charged with capital murder in Dothan, Alabama; seems he drove the car while his passenger shot a motorist — who allegedly stole his car — in the head.)

How much courage does it take to: (a) accept invitations from friendly media interviewers to be asked softball questions: (b) become pals-for-a-day with celebrities; (c) be given a speaking slot at a monster national rally targeting the NRA; (d) meet politicians who pander to the anti-gun youth constituency; (e) all under armed guard?

Now consider the sacrifice 18-year-old Meadow Pollack made: With four bullet wounds already, she crawled outside the classroom in which she was ambushed, into the doorway. She saw a freshman friend lying by the door. She crawled over to her friend and shielded her with her own body. But the killer came back, and pumped five more bullets into Meadow, which penetrated her and killed her friend.

Gun Owners. A 2014 Pew Survey of gun ownership shows gun ownership predominantly rural, male, white, and middle age or elderly, with the northeast lagging the other three regions. Gun owners are already subject to myriad regulations. Claims of self-defense are disfavored, despite the famous words of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, from Brown v. United States (1921):

Detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife. Therefore, in this Court at least, it is not a condition of immunity that one in that situation should pause to consider whether a reasonable man might not think it possible to fly with safety or to disable his assailant, rather than to kill him. [Italics mine.]

The “Gunsplaining” Card. An ace in the public debate is that gun owners know much more about the subject than ardent gun controllers. Thus a universal background check effort in Maine failed, due to gun owners capitalizing on their superior knowledge, as noted by a local activist:

“We know for a fact we lost the argument at the kitchen table and the bar and the bowling alley,” he said. “The gun enthusiasts were talking to their friends and relatives and neighbors. They felt about it in a way that was so passionate that they won those one-on-one encounters, and they were very successful in bringing in people to their side.”

Hostile media are another huge factor. John Lott checked 2,794 stories after the 2007 Omaha, Nebraska Westroads Mall mass shooting; not one mentioned that the mall was a gun-free zone.

Bottom Line. Much of the psychodrama around recent mass shootings has been generated by the Beltway mafias and amplified by the national media. There have been fewer mass shootings than in the 1990s, and gun violence has declined over the same period.

George Shultz, consummate Washington power player who held several top cabinet positions, summed up the core reality of internecine Beltway politics:

Nothing ever gets settled in this town. It’s not like running a company or even a university. It’s a seething debating society, in which the debate never stops; in which people never give up, including me, and that’s the atmosphere in which you administer.

Parkland is not even the end of the beginning, let alone the beginning of the end. The process is less continuum than circular chase.

John C. Wohlstetter is author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb (2d Ed. 2014).

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