The recent horror show in Parkland seems to have generated new sentiment that something needs to be done to stop mass shootings at schools. This is fine, but it remains up in the air as to whether the measures chosen will prove effective. History offers cold comfort.
Murder Weapons. FBI statistics for 2015 (the most recent year for which these figures have been compiled) show:
As to mass shootings, CNN compiled a list of the deadliest (34, ranging from 8 to 58 killed) from 1949 to the present; in all, 531 perished, an average of nearly 16 per event. Other numbers: There have been 12 mass school shootings (defined as those in which as least four were killed, not counting the shooter) since Columbine 1999, totaling 136 deaths; there were over 100 total shootings in the past five years, if one includes those with less than four dead.
“Military-Grade” Weapons. The popular notion is that automatic weapons are those whose rate of fire far exceeds that of manual models — think Die Hard, Ghost Protocol, 007 etc. This is not true. All “automatic” denotes is that a single trigger pull delivers continuous ammunition reload until either the shooter stops or the magazine is emptied. Nothing more. Military grade weapons usually can be fired in “selective” mode: semi-automatic, “burst,” and full automatic. “Semi” means one shot per trigger pull; a setting of “burst” denotes firing a set specific number for automatic fire — several rounds at a time, which conserves ammunition; and “full” means, as noted above, the ability to empty the magazine with one trigger pull.
The term “assault” was first used in 1944, the German Sturmgewehr 44, (trans. “assault weapon”). The best-known (and best-selling) assault rifle is Russia’s Kalashnikov AK-47 (designed 1946). Assault rifles use a smaller cartridge and barrel, and thus trade range for less muzzle recoil and ease of use. The U.S. M4 carbine (from the French term for cavalry weapon) is the current military assault rifle for American forces. A “submachine gun” — famed weapon of choice for American mobsters in the Depression years — goes a step down, firing pistol cartridges with less penetration and shorter range than assault rifles.
The civilian AR-15 is not, strictly speaking, an assault rifle, because it cannot switch between semi- and full automatic; it can be jury-rigged to fire automatic, but is not designed to do so. The military version, the M-16, can fire on full automatic setting. The M4 is designed for selective fire, and can fire up to 950 rounds per minute. (Amazingly, American soldiers were not issued a lightweight rifle capable of automatic fire until the late 1950s, when the M-14 supplanted the 1930s-vintage M1 Garand.)
The worst massacre on U.S. soil, last fall’s Las Vegas massacre, saw the shooter fire an estimated 1,100 rounds in 9 to 11 minutes (exact time span uncertain, as seconds were not tabulated). The grisly final LV total was 58 killed and well over 400 wounded (figures online are all over the lot).
Thus only half the shots the shooter fired from his elevated vantage point hit his intended targets. He used an AR-15 fitted with a bump stock to simulate automatic fire. His target: 22,000 people in a concert arena, his hit rate indicating how inaccurate bump fire is. His rate of fire can be topped by shooters accurately firing on semi-automatic, and nearly matched by an average shooter; a true military-grade automatic weapon fires at least 600 rounds per minute.
The shooter’s roughly 10 percent victim fatality rate is a very low figure given the organ damage typical of high-velocity ammunition (3:05). News reports suggest overload in the EMR response, during and after the “golden hour” that often is critical; citizens helped EMR personnel under immensely stressful conditions.
Government: The Watchman Sleeps. Can we trust the government to protect us? Staggering official laxity made possible the horror of Parkland. In the linked article NRO’s Kevin Williamson writes, of state and local law enforcement practices:
The guiding principle of American law enforcement is that it is easiest to enforce the law on law-abiding people, while enforcing the law on outlaws is something that looks terrifyingly close to hard work. That’s why gun control so ensorcels [sic] the bureaucratic mind. (Which is to say, the progressive mind: The essence of progressivism is replacing organic institutions with permanent bureaucracies.) If you are a federal law-enforcement agent with a comfy desk chair, you probably cannot imagine a more attractive anticrime program than gun control. Gun dealers have federal licenses, and they have to apply for them: You don’t have to go tracking them down — they come to you. They fill out paperwork. They generally operate from fixed addresses with regular business hours. Convenient! What you have is the power of political interposition, which is a mild form of terrorism. Want to operate a sporting-goods store? “F*** you, pay me.” And — mirabile dictu! — they pay. Sometimes, they even evince gratitude that you’ve done them the great favor of taking their money and allowing them, generous fellow that you are, to dispose of their own property as they see fit.
Chasing down fleet-footed 18-year-old criminals through the rough parts of Chicago on a cold February evening? That’s work. And that’s why we don’t do squat to prosecute actual gun crimes — the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago won’t even look at a straw-buyer case unless it’s a major organized-crime enterprise — but we twist ourselves into knots to figure out how to create new hoops for federally licensed firearms dealers and their customers to jump through every time some pasty-faced virgin shoots up a school.
On Jan. 5, 2018 the FBI received a very specific warning about the shooter’s intentions, including his infamous social media post about wanting to shoot up a school. Yet the FBI did nothing. Of the local authorities Williamson writes:
The Friday press conference on that little oversight was a masterpiece of modern bureaucracy. The FBI has “protocols” for handling specific credible threats of that sort, “protocol” here being a way of saying, “Pick up the phone and call the local field office or, if we really want to get wild, the local police.” “The protocol was not followed,” the FBI bureaucrats explained. Well, no kidding. Why not? No answer — the question wasn’t even asked aloud. Did law enforcement’s ball-dropping mean that a preventable massacre went unprevented because of bureaucratic failure? “I don’t think anybody could say that,” says Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, who is leading the investigation. His department had over the years received no fewer than 20 calls related to the shooter. What about that? “Make no mistake about it, America, the only one to blame for this incident is the killer himself,” which is exactly the sort of thing a sanctimonious schmuck says when he doesn’t want to consider the institutional failures right in front of his taxpayer-subsidized nose and the culpable negligence — to say nothing of the sand-pounding stupidity — of his own agency.
Yet four Parkland cops were on the scene during the shooting, but stayed with guns drawn outside the schools, behind cover, apparently told not to enter (8 min.) the school sans body cams they weren’t wearing. When cops from neighboring Coral Springs arrived, they went in the school. The Broward County (which includes both Parkland and Coral Springs) police had received 45 warnings about the danger posed by the shooter, but never did anything. The school, for its part, did not help; its surveillance tape was on 20-minute delay.
Wall Street Journal columnist Dan Henninger notes that bureaucratic bloat and sloth contributed to several mass carnage events in the past decade:
Missed signals at some level of the federal government or other public agencies preceded mass shootings at Sutherland Springs, Texas (25 killed), Charleston (nine people); the Orlando nightclub (49); Fort Hood (13); San Bernardino (14) and the Boston Marathon bombing (three dead and multiple severed limbs).
Pressure to apply government resources to spotting potential mentally ill shooters in advance runs into considerable evidence that predicting violence by the mentally ill is extremely difficult to do. Given the abysmal record of federal, state and local incompetence and sheer stupidity discussed above, it is hard to be an optimist.
Parents Aren’t Waiting. Some parents have already taken steps to address school risk:
BulletBlocker, a company that sells bulletproof backpacks ranging in price from $199 for a girly pink one to $490, has seen sales jump 300 percent since the Florida shooting, according to owner Joe Curran, who started the company in 2007 to protect his two school-aged children after the Virginia Tech massacre.
Four days ago, Larry Gilbert, a 53-year-old from upstate Syracuse, shelled out $95 for a metal device called the “JustinKase” that is placed under a door and latches to the door’s jamb to prevent entry. It was invented by a 17-year-old Wisconsin high school student, Justin Rivard, to keep active school shooters out of classrooms.
“My wife is a teacher at a local school and with what has gone on lately, I’ve become more and more concerned with her safety and her students’ safety,” said Gilbert, who has two daughters, ages 10 and 14.
President Trump raised the issue of arming teachers with parents and children at the White House, and with the nation’s governors as well.
Gun-Free Zones. The Sutherland Springs church massacre noted above was stopped by a nearby witness with a gun, who went into danger to take out the shooter. In the past two decades one online source cites 12 shootings that were stopped by good guys with guns; four such interventions were at schools. Another online source notes four countries with gun laws far stricter than in the U.S. where mass killings were carried out. While three of them (Russia, India and France) were terrorist attacks, the fourth, Norway in 2011, was carried out by a sole shooter. After detonating a bomb in downtown Oslo, the killer went to an island and shot 69 victims with his Ruger semi-automatic (not assault) rifle, before police could respond.
The details about the killer and the Norwegian government are sobering, including those about the killer’s online access and political correctness on the part of authorities:
Eventually he got both a hunting permit for the rifle and shotgun as well as competitive shooting permit required for pistol ownership, which takes a minimum of six months belonging to a shooting club. That was in September of 2010. Then in December, and in March of  he purchased the necessary chemicals to produce a fuse as well as an ammonium nitrate fuel oil bomb, from Poland. This was ostensibly legal as he was the tenant of a farm, the chemicals fertilizer, but nonetheless Polish intelligence contacted Norway, where he was temporarily put on a watch list before being cleared.
If there ever was a poster child for the perfect domestic terrorist, it’s Breivik. He’d spent years, years, writing about his Aryan mission, telling all who would listen about his great plan, raising funds for his “martyrdom.” Among his tools were the Internet, where racism takes on a different color. On the Internet, people rarely think that the people they’re talking about are real, human beings. It’s easy to be outrageous, flamboyant, and hyperbolic.
And racism is one of the tools he used to get away with murder. It wasn’t just what fed his hate, it generated noise for him, made him hard to spot. Norway has problems like all nations, and one of them is racism. Antisemitism. Xenophobia. Anti-Islamic sentiment is a growing problem, not just in Norway but all across Europe. But in this case, it’s so much a part of Norway that when someone said on the Internet, “I’m going to kill Muslim sympathizers,” and made videos of himself armed, getting ready for his special day, that instead of setting off alarms it just faded into the background.
The article notes that it took Norwegian police 90 minutes from alert to arrival on scene: 50 minutes to respond to reports, 20 minutes drive then 20 minutes by boat to the island of UtØy. The killer owned a hunting rifle, a shotgun, and a Glock pistol — all legally obtained (as was his chemical fertilizer explosive).
Much is made of Australia as a counter-example. In a 2012 article, gun crime scholar John Lott notes in detail: (a) murder/suicide rates Down Under declined at the same rate during the period of legal gun ownership and after the gun ban; (b) New Zealand, whose populace is well-armed, saw similar rates of decline during the same periods.
Returning to bureaucracies, there are fundamental structural obstacles to progress. Agencies exist, ultimately, to perpetuate their existence. Towards this strategic end they: (a) admit wrongdoing only when denial is clearly untenable — taking truth-evading action as the Broward county sheriff did last week; (b) ferociously protect their turf against poaching by other agencies; (c) opportunistically poach turf from other agencies. Exceptions to these rules of agency conduct seem rare. Agency performance too often takes a back seat.
Indeed, internal emails reveal a concerted effort to back the Broward sheriff to the hilt, as evidence mounts of his stupefying incompetence, indifference, and sheer arrogance. From the linked CNN interview, try these nuggets: the sheriff denies any obligation to review the event video — which he says may NEVER be released to the public (6:20); he flatly rejects accountability for anything he did not actually know; and he even manages — NOT making this up — to slip O.J., of all people, into his epic showboat tour:
TAPPER: The last question, sir. Do you think that if the Broward Sheriff’s Office had done things differently, this shooting might not have happened?
ISRAEL: Listen, ifs and buts and candy and nuts, O.J. Simpson would still be in the record books.
TAPPER: I don’t know what that means.
(Earth to idiot sheriff: O.J. remains in the record books.) The full CNN interview transcript, rich with outlandish assertions, merits a full read.
Bottom Line. There is a good chance that some things will be done. The most effective measures are likely to be local — actions by parents, by schools, and by authorities, such as just happened in Rochester, NY and in Florida. And while the National Rifle Association will have to give some ground, so will its enemies. Parkland is the billboard ad for government failure at all levels, and thus the last example to cite in promoting broad-gauged gun control.
Federal measures like background check may help at times, but often not. Purchase restrictions likely won’t help. There are some 350 million guns extant, guns are easily disassembled for smuggling, criminals buy on the street, and outright confiscation, given America’s traditions and Bill of Rights, literally risks a civil war. The best gun measure could be to arm teachers, in that they may be more willing to care for their charges than outside professionals, as was the case (7:20) in Parkland. Media coverage will usually shed more heat than light on any highly emotional, politically, and culturally divisive issue, ditching traditional culture for what Gov. Matt Bevin (R-KY) calls (6 min.) “a culture of death.” Bevin’s goal for children is “to protect their physical security, their emotional security, to protect their innocence” against toxic media, Hollywood/music, and policy/social elites who scorn such values (save as to their own kids). Given widely diverse and complex situations at the state level, a laboratory approach firmly grounded in constitutional federalism is best.
And as PJM’s Roger Simon notes, as our investigative and intelligence agencies cover up their own wrongdoing and undermine public trust in their performance, more than ever we need the Second Amendment’s constitutional protection against government tyranny.
Above all, it is time that the famous call from the authorities to the public — “See something, say something” — is paired with a second call, from the public to the authorities:
“Hear something, do something.”
John C. Wohlstetter is author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb (2d Ed. 2014.)