Tag: columbine

Eighteen Years After Columbine, What Have We Learned About Spree Shootings?

Eighteen years ago today, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris walked into Columbine High School and murdered 12 students and a teacher, as well as injuring dozens more people. The mayhem ended when the two killers took their own lives as police closed in.

The massacre, perpetrated with guns and rudimentary explosives, created a political firestorm. Music, video games, and especially guns became lightning rods for outrage and demands for new legislation. The controversy re-energized gun control advocates and spawned Michael Moore’s award-winning anti-gun film Bowling for Columbine. Hundreds of new gun control bills were introduced, although few became law.

Subsequent school shootings, such as Virginia Tech in 2007 and Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, have generated similar cycles of gun control fervor followed by demands for new laws, but the fundamental debate remains the same: what can we do to effectively mitigate the risk of such tragedies?

In 2015 David Kopel attempted to answer this question by analyzing the efficacy of the types of gun control proposals that are so common after school shootings, including magazine bans, universal background checks, and assault weapons bans. He found little evidence that gun control legislation has been or could be effective at preventing spree shootings.

From the summary:

Although universal background checks may sound appealing, the private sale of guns between strangers is a small percentage of overall gun sales. Worse, the background check bills are written so broadly that they would turn most gun owners into criminals for innocent acts — such as letting one’s sister borrow a gun for an afternoon of target shooting.

Magazine bans are acts of futility because the extant supply is enormous. Today, magazines of up to 20 rounds for handguns, and 30 rounds for rifles, are factory standard, not high-capacity, for many of the most commonly owned firearms. These magazines are popular with law-abiding Americans for the same reason they are so popular with law enforcement: because they are often the best choice for lawful defense of one’s self and others.

Gun-control advocates have been pushing for a ban on assault weapons for more than 25 years. This proposal is essentially a political gimmick that confuses people. That is because the term is an arbitrarily defined epithet. A federal ban was in place between 1994 and 2004, but Congress declined to renew it after studies showed it had no crime-reducing impact.

What has occasionally proven effective at stopping spree shootings is the armed self-defense of would-be victims or bystanders.  Kopel notes, for instance, that shootings at Pearl High School in Mississippi and at Appalachian School of Law in Virginia were halted by armed bystanders.

Highly motivated killers who plan their attacks weeks or months in advance (as Klebold and Harris did) have an inherent advantage over their unarmed victims, and are unlikely to ever be deterred by criminal penalties. The best examples of these crimes being stopped in their tracks are examples of armed defense, not legislative preemption.

Notably, the Columbine tragedy did produce one effective policy change, but it wasn’t about guns. 

At the time of the shooting, standard police procedure for an active shooting situation was for the officer on the scene to cordon off the area and await the arrival of a SWAT team or other specialized unit to handle the crisis.

“If I Had ONLY a Gun”

ABC’s 20/20 did a hit piece on the Second Amendment and armed citizens on Friday night.  The show responded to the growing sentiment that “if I only had a gun,” maybe an armed citizen could make a difference in a spree shooting such as the incidents at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University.  In reality, it ought to be called “if I had ONLY a gun.”  Picking people without concealed carry permits to represent the armed citizen and rigging the scenario to ensure that they don’t defeat your narrative is propaganda, not journalism.

Several college students are selected to represent the “armed student” hypothetical, given some marksmanship training, and armed with training guns that shoot paint bullets. The firearms instructor who trained them plays spree shooter and storms the room.  All of the students are hit before they can effectively engage the mock spree shooter.

The show handicaps this scenario in favor of the attacker in several ways.  First, none of the students selected are actual concealed handgun permit holders who carry daily and practice regularly.  Those with more experience get it from shooting Airsoft guns or from a form of shooting that does not involve drawing from concealment.  The poor performance of the students in hitting the attacker is supposedly explained by the lack of law enforcement firearms training.

The simulation is too narrowly construed to show the full impact of an armed response.  First, the experiment is limited to one armed student in the first classroom that the spree shooter hits.  At Virginia Tech, the spree shooter entered several rooms, so a student in any room other than the first would be able to draw, find a position of cover and concealment, point the gun at the door, and wait for the assailant to enter.  Second, the experiment supposes that an intended victim pulling a gun and shooting back, even if not immediately effective, does nothing to stop the attack.

These results don’t reflect the reality of an armed citizen responding to a spree shooter.  Contrary to what the firearms instructor says, it is not “too much for a normal person” to deal with.  Often, the mere confrontation with an armed response takes them out of their revenge fantasy and derails the killing spree.

Some examples:

1997, Pearl, Mississippi: A 16-year old boy stabs his mother to death, then goes to the local high school to continue his rampage with a rifle.  An assistant principal hears the gunshots, retrieves a pistol from his truck, and confronts the assailant.  The boy surrenders.

1998, Edinboro, Pennsylvania: A 14-year old boy opens fire at a high school graduation dance being held at a local restaurant.  The restaurant owner confronts the boy with his shotgun, who surrenders.

2002, Appalachian Law School: Two law students with law enforcement and military backgrounds run to their cars, grab handguns, and stop an expelled law student on a rampage.

2005, Tyler, Texas: A distraught man ambushes his estranged wife and son as they are entering the courthouse for a child support hearing.  After killing his wife and wounding several deputies, armed citizen Mark Wilson intervenes with his handgun and shoots the spree shooter.  The shooter is wearing a flak jacket and kills Wilson with return fire.  Wilson’s actions broke up the attack and gave law enforcement officers time to organize a response that ended with the shooter’s death.  Wilson is later honored by the Texas legislature.

2005, Tacoma Mall: A spree shooter with a criminal record and five days’ worth of meth in his system opens fire at the Tacoma Mall.  Concealed carry permit holder Dan McKown intervenes, but gives a verbal warning instead of shooting.  McKown is shot and receives a spinal injury that leaves him paralyzed, but the shooter retreated into a store and took some hostages after being confronted.  After complaining about life’s travails to his hostages for several hours, he is taken into custody and sentenced to 163 years in prison.

2007, New Life Church, Colorado: Volunteer security guard Jeanne Assam shoots a spree shooter as he enters the foyer of a church.  The spree shooter’s blaze of glory is over, so he shoots and kills himself.

2008, Israel: A Palestinian man goes on a killing spree in the library of a seminary.  Police officers stop at the door and do not go in after him.  Student Yitzhak Dadon draws his gun and engages the shooter, wounding him.  Part-time student and Israeli Army officer David Shapira blows past the cops, demanding a hat to identify him as a police officer and not the assailant, before entering the building and killing the spree shooter.

2009, Houston, Texas: Distraught woman enters her father’s workplace and shoots one man with a bow and arrow.  She points a pellet gun at two employees, both concealed handgun permit holders, who shoot her.  Police show up and she points the pellet gun at them.  They shoot her again and take her into custody.

The scenario is also unrealistic in that the student is seated dead center in the front row, a bad move for someone trying to conceal a gun on their hip under a T-shirt; far better in the back of the room in a corner.  Plus, the spree shooter is expecting resistance and knows where the armed student will be, advantages that will not be replicated in the real world.  In one iteration of the scenario, a second assailant is placed a couple of seats away from the armed student.  When the armed student draws to shoot at the assailant, he is blindsided by the co-conspirator.  This isn’t a result of “tunnel vision,” as the program would tell you.  This is a rigging of the experiment.  A second assailant in placed practically next to the armed student, while our amateur is wearing a face mask that restricts vision?  No one, not even the firearms instructor playing spree shooter, would win in that situation.

There are no magical powers that accrue to a sworn officer, contrary to the anti-concealed carry propaganda this piece puts out.  A recent NYPD Firearms Discharge Report shows that hit percentages for a major metropolitan police department never rise above the 50% mark, even within two yards of the assailant.  Unsurprisingly, people who carry a gun and train with it consistently outperform those who do not.  The FBI’s report “Violent Encounters: A Study of Felonious Assaults on Our Nation’s Law Enforcement Officers” shows that criminals who beat cops in gunfights practiced regularly while their victims only averaged 14 hours of firearms training a year.

The only thing that stops a spree shooter is a bullet, either from their gun when they commit suicide or from someone else who intervenes to stop further loss of life.  Law enforcement responses that quarantine the shooter compound the problem, while aggressive “active shooter” protocols that push police officers into the scene in small teams or as individuals tend to reduce casualties.  The police response is moving toward being on the scene as fast as possible with a gun; we ought to follow their reasoning and allow people to have a fighting chance, not advise them to play dead and call the cops on their cell phone.  When seconds count, the police are only minutes away.

On the bright side, 60 minutes had a more balanced segment on the recent surge in firearm sales and prospects for a revival of gun control in Congress.