Is it too late?

I wrote a different post originally, but I find my thinking in a few hours has already changed.  Stepping back from the cliff of passion and emotionalism, my jaundiced eye becomes apparent.

After yet another horror taking the lives of many in a school building, I believed I had come upon a solution.  Rather than stepping back and scrutinizing my theory for flaws, I ran with it.

Some early media reports claimed the perpetrator had left a .223 rifle in his murdered mother’s car and shot 20 children, six adults and himself at Sandy Hook Elementary with two handguns.  It seemed to me the renewed call for an assault weapons ban was opportunistic, given Adam Lanza apparently hadn’t used the assault rifle he had available.  That description is now clearly inaccurate, but it affected my thought process when I originally formulated my theory.

I immediately thought back to Jeffrey Goldberg’s long piece The Case for More Guns (And More Gun Control) in the December 2012 edition of Atlantic Magazine, which naturally makes a case for more armed Americans as a possible useful reaction to the 280-300 million firearms in private hands.  I am hard to convince of this but some of Goldberg’s examples made me consider he has a strong case:

In 1997, a disturbed high-school student named Luke Woodham stabbed his mother and then shot and killed two people at Pearl High School in Pearl, Mississippi. He then began driving toward a nearby junior high to continue his shooting spree, but the assistant principal of the high school, Joel Myrick, aimed a pistol he kept in his truck at Woodham, causing him to veer off the road. Myrick then put his pistol to Woodham’s neck and disarmed him. On January 16, 2002, a disgruntled former student at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia, had killed three people, including the school’s dean, when two students, both off-duty law-enforcement officers, retrieved their weapons and pointed them at the shooter, who ended his killing spree and surrendered. In December 2007, a man armed with a semiautomatic rifle and two pistols entered the New Life Church in Colorado Springs and killed two teenage girls before a church member, Jeanne Assam—a former Minneapolis police officer and a volunteer church security guard—shot and wounded the gunman, who then killed himself.

My consideration turned toward a simple question–isn’t this too passive?  Shouldn’t a proper solution involve an active response, actually detecting an assailant before he or she opens fire?  I thought of airport magnetometers and bag scanners, and had what I thought was an Eureka! moment.

I was fully aware some high schools, especially in rough neighborhoods, already sport magnetometers.  I realized putting magnetometers and x-ray machines in every entrance in every American school building would be a massive undertaking that would require immense amounts of money and manpower both to set up and man security checkpoints and secure the perimeter of the school, to prevent Dan White incidents.  Securing the perimeter of the school should have sent up red flags in my head, but then I went off the cliff.

I had to remember the Capitol Hill incident.  On July 24, 1998 Russel Eugene Weston shot U.S. Capitol Police Detective John Gibson before the mortally wounded Gibson returned fire and wounded Weston who was arrested in the offices of Rep. Tom DeLay.  I recalled many, if not most, of Jeffrey Goldberg’s examples in his Atlantic piece were off-duty or former law enforcement, and felt the Weston vs. Gibson incident should have culminated Goldberg’s list.  The incident even involved a security checkpoint!

Wait, what security checkpoint?  I didn’t consider this from multiple perspectives, but I should have.  Weston first shot USCP Officer Jacob Chestnut in the back of the head when the police officer insisted Weston must pass through the magnetometer of the checkpoint he was manning.  All I considered was that this proves my point, if Weston had not been stopped at a security checkpoint he would have been able to open fire anywhere in the Capitol building without warning.  The key here is: a man died instantly to make that happen.  I never considered this but I must consider it now: what would have happened if this had occurred after September 11, 2001 and the security paranoia that continues to this day?

What would this country look like if there were security checkpoints at every school entrance?  Armed guards and police officers everywhere?  It was too easy to see screeners like the TSA  and forget they can and do go over the line.  That’s before considering the risks of placing armed individuals in schools.   Detective Gibson did not have trouble identifying and firing at just his assailant, but police officers shooting bystanders is not at all unheard of.  Nor can we guarantee that all school police officers are utmost professionals.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.  I don’t have a solution it turns out, but I do have a question.  Jeffrey Goldberg succinctly sums up that gun control has and will continue to fail for one reason: “It’s too late.”  America is saturated with firearms and, because Goldberg is on a roll,

Even the leading advocacy group for stricter gun laws, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, has given up the struggle to convince the courts, and the public, that the Constitution grants only members of a militia the right to bear arms. “I’m happy to consider the debate on the Second Amendment closed,” Dan Gross, the Brady Campaign’s president, told me recently. “Reopening that debate is not what we should be doing. We have to respect the fact that a lot of decent, law-abiding people believe in gun ownership.”

Which raises a question: When even anti-gun activists believe that the debate over private gun ownership is closed; when it is too late to reduce the number of guns in private hands—and since only the naive think that legislation will prevent more than a modest number of the criminally minded, and the mentally deranged, from acquiring a gun in a country absolutely inundated with weapons—could it be that an effective way to combat guns is with more guns?

This still raises my hackles a bit, as I don’t have the impression that this is settled in any way.  But I recognize the issues that arise from misplaced passion, and instead have to ask: is it too late?

I don’t know the answer to that question.  But the beginning of the answer starts with a question–why do acts of mass violence in schools seem to invariably end with the perpetrator committing suicide?  At Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and Columbine, the shooters shot themselves.  At the worst school massacre in U.S. history, in 1927 Bath Township, Michigan, the perpetrator blew himself up with dynamite.  One might be tempted to say good riddance, but this deserves greater scrutiny and study.  Finding commonality between school massacre perpetrators might lead to a means to ascertain who is prone to committing such acts before they take up arms.

Second, recognize the physical differences between pistol and rifle wounds.  Pistols cause relatively low lethality: 86% of handgun wound victims survive.  Rifles make up only a small fraction of firearms wounds in this country (~4%), but that doesn’t change the fact that rifle rounds, especially if they fragment, cause far more horrific wounds than pistols.  Every fatality at Sandy Hook suffered multiple rifle wounds–earlier reports that the .223 AR-15 was left outside in the perpetrator’s car were mistaken, to say the least.  The divide between those favoring gun restrictions and those that increasingly favor no gun restrictions at all sometimes get hung up on even what is and what isn’t an “assault rifle.”  Both sides should probably recognize that it is the rifle cartridge, not the assault moniker, that is the deadliest part of the weapon.  In this light, might it be prudent to focus foremost on preventing rifles and other weapons that produce much higher lethality from reaching the wrong hands?

Third, determine what, if anything, can be done about the fact that schools are amongst a group of locales notable for being chosen by perpetrators of mass violence.  I cannot help but think that some sort of active means of mitigating this risk would be advisable.  Again, I don’t know what that means is.  But I feel there must be more options than restricting access and other passive means that still leave schools vulnerable.

Fourth, can we please cool the passions?  I fell in that track at first, and I did not like where it led.  Wishing the Sandy Hook principal was armed with a M4?  Really?  One might wish FBI SWAT teams or better yet the HRT was training next door when the attack occurred, but would that be any more nonsensical and unhinged than the other little diatribe?  How about this consideration, Rep. Gohmert: have some respect for the dead, especially for a selfless principal that tried to intervene with a shooter armed with an assault rifle unarmed.  I mentioned before the worst school massacre in U.S. history occurred in 1927 Michigan.  I was sent a link to this rather remarkable observation:

In the end there were 38 children dead at the school, two teachers and four other adults.

I’m not talking about the horrific shooting in Connecticut today. I’m talking about the worst school murder in American history. It took place in Michigan, in 1927. A school board official, enraged at a tax increase to fund school construction, quietly planted explosives in Bath Township Elementary. Then, the day he was finally ready, he set off an inferno. When crowds rushed in to rescue the children, he drove up his shrapnel-filled car and detonated it, too, killing more people, including himself. And then, something we’d find very strange happened.


No cameras were placed at the front of schools. No school guards started making visitors show identification. No Zero Tolerance laws were passed, nor were background checks required of PTA volunteers—all precautions that many American schools instituted in the wake of the Columbine shootings, in 1999. Americans in 1928—and for the next several generations —continued to send their kids to school without any of these measures. They didn’t even drive them there. How did they maintain the kind of confidence my own knees and heart don’t feel as I write this?

They had a distance that has disappeared. A distance that helped them keep the rarity and unpredictability of the tragedy in perspective, granting them parental peace.

I don’t quite agree with this observation.  There was another distance in 1927–the perpetrator was 55, some the victims were young enough to be his grandchildren.  School attacks today typically are students shooting their fellow classmates and teachers.  I would also suspect that the Bath Township attack was also seen as an aberration–like it or not, clearly Sandy Hook is part of a familiar pattern.  But passions did not overcome the country as a result of those long ago deaths, and perhaps lack of passion can sometimes be a virtue.

In the whirlwind that has been thinking about this topic, I come back to a theme–ask questions, don’t propose until those questions are answered.  Some of those questions I’ve already asked, but I will close with three more.  Are school massacres no longer aberrations?  If so, why are school massacres no longer aberrations?  Why have school massacres transited from being perpetrated by adults predominately to students predominately?  In a lot of ways, this drives at the heart of the question, a question I am beginning to fear asking, is it too late?


2 thoughts on “Is it too late?

  1. Pingback: Clearly, it’s too late. « In The Corner, Mumbling and Drooling

  2. Pingback: The Question of Force | In The Corner, Mumbling and Drooling

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