The mass murder of children and adults - students and faculty - at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT on December 14th 2012 is traumatizing to the general public. We have extended our personal and professional condolences. We cannot know or understand the trauma this tragedy of one deranged person has caused - from the victims to families, from faculty to emergency responders, and the community at large. Similarly, we cannot offer a uniform and single solution to an empirical problem that is like the hydra - a monster of many heads.
In death investigation, you must determine the underlying event that triggered the series of events leading to, and finally causing, the fatality. As an example, a person became intoxicated at an establishment after work, got behind the wheel of his vehicle and began his drive home on a road well known to him. Being impaired, he did not stop at a stop sign and proceeded through the intersection, being struck by a vehicle that was exceeding the speed limit. The driver of the impacting vehicle was not seatbelted and was pronounced at the scene. The intoxicated driver was transported to the local hospital with serious injuries, and released at a future date.
This, and similar scenarios are very common - one of the most common causes of death in our country. This scenario may seem simple to many - a drunk driver. However, the Cause of Death would likely be blunt force trauma as a result of being the unrestrained driver of a vehicle in a motor vehicle collision. The other contributing factor, the motor vehicle collision, was first initiated by an impaired driver who did not obey a traffic control device. What are the other issues in this scenario? Drinking until intoxicated at an establishment, driving while intoxicated, disobeying a stop sign; followed by an unrestrained driver who was speeding. Were it not for the first event - being intoxicated, in can be said that the intoxicated driver would have likely stopped at the stop sign on the road he frequently traveled. It can also be said that the other driver would not have received the fatal injuries were he not speeding and were he restrained. The criminal and civil courts will sort out who is responsible and to what degree (contributory negligence). The concept is that several factors contribute to one event, each requiring separate analysis and unemotional solutions. Just as one tragedy impacts many, each of those are different in cause and effect.
Specific to shootings, there are several contributing factors - but you must start at the beginning, with the attacker, and work to the end of the traumatic event. There are countless considerations - from mental status of the attacker, to premeditation and access to weapons. From there it begins at the location - from security to the reactive protocol of the occupants. An active shooter is someone that is free to kill until stopped. Once armed, the next goal is entry to the facility, followed by their destructive actions until stopped and/or the victims evacuate otherwise protect themselves. In the course of the active shooting, what protocols are in place to prevent, deter, warn, evacuate and defend? Should tire spikes be at the property entrance to prevent unauthorized vehicles? Should the facility be secured to a higher level? Is there a warning system - similar to a fire alarm - to concurrently warn the occupants and local law enforcement (just as your home and business alarms do)? Is it better to contain the occupants or evacuate? Is it better to contain the shooter or not? Should the facility be under armed protection? Our federal buildings are protected, but our most precious - our children, are not.
What about gun control by legislation? Usually the first reaction to such tragic events of injuries and death is to legislate, ban or otherwise control firearms is nothing short of an emotional, personal and subjective in manner or intent. As an analogy, based on our experience, the most controlled and regulated product in our country are prescription drugs. The abuse and illicit use of prescription drugs are on the rise - and more frightening, the deaths from the abuse and illicit use of prescription drugs are higher than the rise in use. The abuse of a prescription drug is the use outside of the directed dosage. The illicit use of a prescription drug is the acquisition and use by a person for whom that drug has not been prescribed. Youths take them from their parents medicine cabinet, college kids buy and sell them, and adults do the same - no one is immune, and they are seen as 'harmless' because they are prescription medications (as opposed to drugs). From manufacture to distribution, from the doctor writing the prescription to the consumer and the pharmacy - complete regulation and control. Yet, the abuse and illicit use resulting deaths rise. Our position of this analogy, like the motor vehicle collision example above, is that the the multi-headed hydra monster does not have a single issue or solution.
What of more control and regulation of firearms? Has it been or would it be effective? A mass shooting is defined by the FBI as a single shooting incident in which four or more people are killed. If five are injured and one killed, not a mass shooting. If the shooter kills one, two or three - before killing himself or being stopped, not a mass shooting. So, to stop 'mass shootings' one needs to only reduce the number of incident deaths to three or less. The goal would be to stop them before any deaths - but if there is a delay in recognizing the threat, warning of the threat, reporting the threat and then finally addressing the threat - the incident could be several minutes and victims. Each of these steps need addressed. What of the mental status of the attacker? With the defunding of mental health treatment and institutions over the years, many that need this help are not getting it - and are left to self-regulate and self-medicate their debilitating disease. It cannot be relied upon that they will see a mental health professional, get their medications or take them as prescribed.
Finally, federal law prohibits a person that has been treated or is being treated for a mental health issue to purchase or possess a firearm (this is a synopsis). When did the rise in mass shootings and access to firearms begin to rise? After the above referenced defunding mental heath programs and institutions in the 1980s and 1990s. Because there is no history of treatment or institutionalizing for the high percentage of those afflicted, it is left to the judgment of the firearms seller to complete the transaction or not - they have that discretion and use it. Moreover, most of the firearms used are not purchased, and if so not near the date of the incident - they have either been stolen or owned for a long period of time. Related to this, 'cooling off periods' are proven ineffective. Recent studies support that that the instruments used to kill are also multi-headed hydras: "suicide, murder and violent crime rates are determined by basic social, economic and/or cultural factors with the availability of any particular one of the world’s myriad deadly instrument being irrelevant” Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy [Vol. 30 No. 2 Spring 2007] 649 - 694
So, what of an armed person at a school or other public building or business? The issue of training and protocols, etc., are very important, to be addressed another day. What of the concept of an appropriate and effective immediate reaction to stop the imminent threat? Let's look at some examples in our history:
Mass Killings Stopped by Armed Citizens
There are several documented cases where armed citizens have stopped mass attacks by gunmen. Let me list a few: The Pearl, Mississippi school shooting was stopped by the vice principal Joel Myrick with a Colt .45, The Appalachian School shooting was stopped by two students with handguns. Both of the above incidents were stopped by the armed citizens threatening the shooter without firing. Pearl High School link
Appalachian Law School link
Plans to slay everyone in the Muskegon, Michigan, store and steal enough cash and jewelry to feed their "gnawing hunger for crack cocaine" fell apart for a band of would-be killers after one of their victims fought back.
Muskegon Shooting link
The mass church shooting in Colorado Springs was stopped by the shooter being shot by a church member with a CCW permit.
New Life Church link
The Santa Clara gunshop shooting in 1999 was stopped by an armed citizen after the shooter declared that he was going to kill everyone. Police found a list of intended victims in his car. Only the perpetrator, Richard Gable Stevens was shot.
Santa Clara Gunshop link
The December, 1991, Aniston, Alabama defense where a CCW holder stopped armed robbers who were herding employees, customers, and his wife into a cooler. He shot both robbers, killing one.
Aniston Shoney's Shooting link
July 13, 2009, in Virginia at the Golden Food Market: The gunman tried to shoot several people, was stopped by a CCW carrier.
Golden Food Market Shooting link
Just recently, in Early Texas, armed citizen Vic Stacy shot and stopped a deranged man who had just murdered two neighbors and was firing at police with a rifle. Stacy made a very long shot with his revolver, three times as far as the perpetrator was from the police officer, who had an AR-15 type rifle.
Early Texas Peach House Shooting link
What Were Not Mass Shootings?
Abraham Dickman had a history of anger against employees of the AT&T store in New York Mills, New York. On May 27, 2010, he walked into the store with a .357 and a list of six employees. He shot the first employee, but was stopped from further attacks when Donald J. Moore, an off duty police officer who was allowed to carry his own handgun when not on duty, drew and fired his .40 caliber, killing Mr. Dickman before he could fire any more shots.
AT&T store link
College Park, GA, May 4, 2009.
Two gunman entered a party and ordered the men separated from the women. Then they started counting bullets. “The other guy asked how many (bullets) he had. He said he had enough,” said Bailey.
When one of the assailants prepared to rape a girl, a student was able to access a handgun and engage the two attackers in a firefight, driving one off and killing the other before the thug could rape his girlfriend.
“I think all of us are really cognizant of the fact that we could have all been killed,” said Bailey.
College Park link
Another off duty police officer stopped the Trolley Square shooting with his personal handgun. He stopped the killing and contained the shooter until police reinforcements arrived and ended the situation.
Trolley Square Shooting link
Winnemucca NV shooting, 25 May, 2008
The shooter, Ernesto Villagomez, entered the Players Bar and Grill and killed two people. He reloaded and was continuing to shoot when a citizen with a concealed carry permit shot him and stopped the killing.
Winnemuca Shooting link
Parker Middle School Dance Shooting
14 year-old Andrew Jerome Wurst Killed one person and wounded three others when he was confronted by James Strand who subdued Wurst with a shotgun and held him until police arrived.
Parker Middle School Dance Shooting link
Destiny Christian Center Shooting, April 24, 2012
Kiarron Parker rammed his car into another in the church parking lot, got out and attempted to kill multiple church members. He was only able to kill one before a member of the congregation, the nephew of the lady killed, and an off duty police officer, drew his handgun and shot Parker, stopping the killing.
Destiny Christian Center Shooting link
Tyler Courthouse shooting, 2005 While police officers were involved in this shooting before and after Mark Alan Wilson intervened, no more people were killed after he shot the shooter, who had body armor, and who was able to return fire and kill the CCW holder, Wilson.
Tyler Courthouse Shooting link
The above list is from a colleague, who did not otherwise contribute to this blog. The relevance of the list is to demonstrate the option of being personally armed.