While working on repairing my Christmas lights, I heard the laughter of children next door. It brought a smile to my face. I love the sound of children laughing. A worried 9-year-old neighbor asked my wife, if something like Sandy Hook could happen to her school. My wife tried to calm her frayed nerves. One of the fathers of a child, who escaped physical harm at Sandy Hook, had a similar conversation shortly before the shooting. He said the odds were astronomical. Children should be laughing not crying.
As the country, moves forward from this evil act in Newtown, there will be debate on many passionate issues about mass killings and in particular the response to the horrendous school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. I believe there should be serious debate on all of these issues. Often after a catastrophe, theoretical ideas should be deeply evaluated for effectiveness. As a short note on my knowledge, I spent 33 years in law enforcement, the last 15 conducting threat assessments of potential lone shooters/stalkers. I am an adjunct faculty instructor on Threat Assessments of Lone Shooters.
Many have asked for armed security at all schools including the NRA. If I thought it would prevent another tragedy, I would be in favor. Considering the expense and the likely results to this feel good measure, I find this measure ineffective. Every year, highly trained and skilled police officers are killed in the line of duty. Some knowing they are entering harm’s way and others while doing something as mundane as having a cup of coffee, as was the case in Washington, when four officers were assassinated while eating at a restaurant. This past week, five police officers were gunned down across the country. How many banks are robbed despite security guards, alarms, and robust security measures?
An armed police officer who engaged the shooters and exchanged gunshots protected Columbine High School but the tragic consequences were not altered. The Holocaust and Capital shooters were not deterred while entering a highly secure environment protected by armed police officers. The Aurora shooter wore ballistic armor. The Virginia Tech shooter chose to risk a confrontation with an armed campus police force in a heightened state of alert. He was not deterred, nor the others who were focused on completing their vile missions.
The gunmen in these mass killings did not just snap as, so many advocated on the evening news. No one wakes up in the morning, hits the snooze alarm, and decides to engage in a mass killing spree. These suspects are consumed in what I refer to as an “emotional negative vortex.” It is an accumulation of negative events within their sphere of influence. Many had planned their violence for an extended period. According to early reporting, the Connecticut shooter, Adam Lanza, was in the process of being committed by his frustrated mother. You must stand in the shooters flip-flops and view the world. Most of them have “their” world collapsing around them. These people are not deterred from attaching some significance to their meaningless life.
They want to make a statement and use the media as a leveraging co-conspirator in their platform to achieve fame. Arthur Bremer, the shooter of George Wallace, was concerned at how the newspapers would cover his downgrading his target from the President to a presidential candidate. The Columbine shooters discussed what actors would portray them in the movies. In 1972, every terrorist in the world recognized the platform that news coverage provided to their cause during the killing of the Israeli athletes at the Olympics. CNN was a game changer in 1980. Now the 24/7 news cycle provides an insatiable appetite for real time news. The media stage is an added and important incentive.
Hollywood and video games
Violent entertainment is often blamed as a contributing factor to mass killings. It is hypocritical of many actors who oppose guns, but willingly take a paycheck from a violent movie. As opposed to Stephen King, who asked that his book Rage go out of print after being linked with two different shooters. There is an associative reaction when you are munching on popcorn, popping Junior Mints, while gleefully watching violent images on the screen. Taxi Driver inspired John Hinckley in his love-obsessed worship of Jodie Foster, and the wounding of four in his assassination attempt of President Reagan. George Henard, the murderer of 24 diners at the Luby’s Cafeteria in Lubbock, Texas, was believed to be inspired by the move The Fisher King. The Columbine shooters enjoyed watching Natural Born Killers. We have yet to determine if the Aurora shooter was inspired by the movie Batman.
There is no doubt that the realism of modern video games provides an excellent training model for engaging moving targets and figures that return fire. Retired Army Lt. Col. Dave Grossman has been a proponent for drawing attention to the risk of violent video games for a decade. I concur with his assessment that these games tend to desensitize game participants to real killing, as they attempt to achieve a high score trophy. A study conducted by Ohio State University, documented the increased aggression by those watching violent video games. Michael Carneal, who was reading a book on a school shooting from Stephen King, had never fired a gun prior to descending upon a prayer group at school and killed three. His firearm proficiency was attained by countless hours of playing a commercial grade video arcade game of marksmanship.
Speaking of books, a number of mass murders were known to have found solace and strength from the book Catcher in the Rye, in which the main character, Holden Caulfield railed against the phonies of the world. The deep pocket lobbyists from Hollywood and the video game manufactures will utilize their rights under the First Amendment to protect their market base. Quentin Tarantino has recently defended the violence in his films claiming that violence dates to Shakespeare. My recall of history in 1600′s, does not include mass killings of school children. Tarantino was also the writer of Natural Born Killers. More on this later. Many of us will view violent movies and play violent video games without resorting to violence. For those that do not possess the coping skills or the mental stability to separate reality from fiction, these vehicles can be a catalyst for violence.
1.8 billion dollars was slashed from mental health budgets between 2009 and 2011. An already poorly funded mental health system has been ravaged by budget cuts. E. Fuller Torrey, the author of The Insanity Offense advocates that only 1% of the mentally ill are violent, which equate to around 40,000 people. This select group is responsible for half of all rampages. Most states prohibit gun ownership from those adjudicated mentally ill. That means a judge committed them. It does not prevent those from acquiring weapons that have mental health conditions or have been committed voluntarily or through law enforcement actions. Illinois requires a 5-year waiting period between mental health hospitalizations prior to purchasing a firearm. Illinois has one of the strongest positions in the country. The NIU school shooter, Steven Kazmierczak, waited the required 5 years before acquiring his handguns and the shotgun that he used in his rampage. The sharing by states of patients adjudicated mentally ill with the gun database is woeful.
The current commitment process can be traced back to the result of O’Conner v Donaldson. In 1975, The U.S. Supreme Court set the threshold for incarcerating the mentally ill based on whether they were a danger to themselves or others. Essentially, are they homicidal or suicidal? This was to prevent the unnecessary incarceration of mental health patients for years, despite posing no danger. This decision severely limits hospitalizing those in need of treatment. The current course is to conduct an initial assessment of dangerousness. Due to limited bed space, staffing, budget and legalities; many patients are released within hours with a handful of pills and a referral to an outpatient clinic. It is what I refer to as the Pharmacology Cycle and leads to a revolving door for many suffering from mental illness. I have lost count of the individuals I interviewed who had multiple admissions for mental health ailments. I feel most sorry for the families, who are burdened with unimaginable hardships. The commitment process must be examined to help those that need treatment, as well as keeping the community safer.
I am gun neutral. Nothing I discuss here is meant to change any individuals mind. Gun control is one of several topics that will be discussed going forward. I own two weapons because they were tools of my trade. I have never been hunting and have no desire to return to the shooting range. The two polarized sides will never agree on terms. I personally do not see the need for a cache of weapons. I understand many have a keen interest in collecting weapons and associated sports. That being said, we would have to eliminate all weapon ownership to prevent murder by firearms and that will never happen. The previous assault weapons ban had minimal impact on the homicide rate and there were countless loopholes in the law. It sounded good in theory, but in reality was a failure. A six shot revolver with a speed loader can be an effective killing weapon. I know the discussion on high capacity magazines will probably result in mass killers carrying more magazines and reloading more frequently. Perhaps a few victims might be saved.
A gun ban did not prevent the Aurora shooter from rigging his apartment with explosives. The Columbine killers rigged the school to erupt into a fireball from propane bombs. Their devices failed to detonate and potentially saved the lives of 500 students in the cafeteria. Laws did not prevent a killing in Casper, Wyoming using a crossbow at a community college. He was perhaps the only person, who did not own a firearm in Wyoming. Gun laws would not have prevented a lunatic in China, from using a machete in attacking twenty-three children. Fortunately, no one was killed, but the victims will carry the visible scars for a lifetime. Four handguns were utilized in Dunblane, Scotland to kill 16 young grade school children in 1996. The UK has some of the strictest gun laws in the world. Due to these restrictions, they have less than fifty homicides by gun each year. Chicago has surpassed its murder rate from last year with 436 murders, despite Illinois having one of the tougher gun laws. Lanza obtained his weapons from his mother, as did many of the school shooters. I believe the guns laws should be examined and effective changes made. Record keeping should be computerized and streamlined. Background checks should be conducted at gun shows and Internet sales. Each side will invoke statistics and examples to strengthen their argument. The gun issue will be a vigorous debate in which agreement will never be achieved that satisfies both sides.
There are no easy answers in a complex situation. We cannot stand by and keep our fingers crossed that it will not happen again. Something similar will happen again. We have made tremendous strides in mitigating these assassins. Workplace violence has decreased through a more vigilant human resources approach. The team integration of students, counselors, teachers and parents has prevented numerous potential school shootings. Despite our best efforts, we continually miss the warning signs until the postscript. How many more Aurora’s, Tucson’s and Newtown’s will occur. We all want the sound of children’s laughter to return to the playground and school.