What could have prevented the
By Geoff Sjostrom
Different people see the question through different lenses, based on their political views and their differing beliefs in how people’s behavior may best be regulated. Some say that Newtown is a clear sign that stricter gun control is necessary to keep semiautomatic weapons with high magazine capacities out of the hands of the madmen who seek to murder us in large numbers. Others say that the mental health system should be used aggressively to identify those who are likely to commit mass murder and prevent them from acting on their impulses.
So, how can we prevent future tragedies like
To answer that question, we first need to understand the people that commit mass murder. Law enforcement calls them “spree killers”, an oddly festive name for these murderous monsters. The FBI defines a spree killing as “two or more murders committed by an offender or offenders, without a cooling-off period”.
So, will strict gun control laws keep weapons out of the hands of spree killers?
Take a look at the case of Anders Breivik. On July 22, 2011, Breivik set off a car bomb in
, killing eight people. Later that day he went to a youth camp on Oslo, Norway and, wearing a police uniform, killed 69 people with a semiautomatic pistol and a semiautomatic rifle. Utøya Island
Breivik says he planned his rampage for nine years. During that time he sought the weapons he needed both legally and illegally, ultimately acquiring his guns legally. He had to acquire the police uniform, of course. And he found the perfect site for killing as many people as possible: An island. His victims couldn’t get away.
What about outlawing the ownership of such guns completely? Some people would turn them in, but most guns would just be driven underground, like alcohol during Prohibition. Guns and high capacity magazines would become immeasurably more valuable to their owners.
Furthermore, guns are extremely durable. With sparing use and proper care, they can continue to operate for centuries. If we were to stop the manufacture and importation of semiautomatic rifles and pistols today, it would be fifty years before the number of those weapons in this country began to decline significantly.
So, let’s turn to another possibility: Stepping up the monitoring of the population so that the dangerous mentally ill can be identified before they commit their mass murders.
Anders Breivik is again an illustrative case. Although his political views were extreme, he was able to simulate sanity long enough to join a gun club (which allowed him to obtain the pistol) and obtain a hunting license (which allowed him to purchase the rifle).
In this country, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the
killers, are also illustrative. They lived at home with their parents in a prosperous suburban area in Columbine High School . Because they were minors, they were forced to acquire their weapons illegally. The boys had minor brushes with the law but nothing that would have indicated that they were planning an act of extreme violence. Klebold and Harris were able to plan the attacks over the period of a year without being detected. Colorado
Think back over the reporting on the
tragedy: In all the discussions, did you hear any reputable psychology professional claim that he could have predicted Adam Lanza’s rampage? You didn’t, because they can’t. Newtown
There is no shortage of frustrated young men ranting to their friends, in person and on the internet, about their violent plans. Sometimes those outbursts, however disturbing, are merely jokes. Other times the violent impulse is real. But only an infinitesimal number of them attempt to act out their murderous fantasies. And no one knows which tiny few are the ones who will act on their impulses.
What about quicker responses by the police?
The rampage of a spree killer may be carefully planned over a long period of time, but it is frequently over in minutes. Police may be able to interrupt a murder spree once it has started, but they cannot respond quickly enough to prevent a substantial loss of life.
So, what’s to be done? The supply of semiautomatic weapons in this country is already beyond control, and no one can identify spree killers before they act. What should we do to prevent spree killings at schools? Let’s analyze the pattern. The following is the number of spree killing events at schools in the
, from 1990 through 2012 (from Wikipedia, U.S.
Year Event Fatalities
1991 1 6
1992 2 6
1993 1 2
1995 2 4
1996 2 6
1997 3 7
1998 2 7
1999 1 15 (Columbine)
2000 1 2
2001 1 2
2002 2 7
2003 2 4
2005 1 8
2006 3 10
2007 2 35 (33 at Virginia Tech)
2008 3 11
2009 1 2
2010 2 5
2011 3 7
2012 3 37 (27 at
In many cases the offender committed suicide at the scene, and it’s not clear from the Wikipedia table whether the offenders are included among the fatalities. If they are, the actual number of spree shootings and fatalities from spree shootings may be considerably lower.
What does this tell us? Far from showing that school shooting sprees are common, the numbers show that these events are extremely rare. In the last 23 years there have never been more than three incidents in one year, and in 10 of those years there was either one incident, or none. And what about the rate of fatalities? In 18 out of 23 years the number of fatalities was eight or lower.
How does this compare to other risks in our lives?
According to the United States Weather Service, an average of 54 people are killed by lightning every year. How much time, effort, and money do parents devote to preventing their children from being struck by lightning? The fact is that an American is seven times more likely to be killed by lightning than to die in a school spree shooting.
So what more should we, as a society, do to prevent future school spree shootings? Nothing. These events are already so rare that there is no reason to believe that they can be substantially reduced in number by any action that would be tolerated by the American public.
And what should parents do to prevent their children from becoming the victim of a spree killer at school? Nothing. Yes, it may happen, just as your child may be killed by lightning on the way to or from school. But rather than worrying about mass murder, parents should concern themselves with the real risks to their children: Accidents of all kinds, which are by far and away the leading cause of death for children aged 5 to 14.
Unfortunately, none of this is any help to school and police administrators. The public will demand that they do something in response to the
tragedy. These officials cannot just tell the public not to worry because such events are rare and unpreventable. Newtown
So what can be done to deal with the public demand for action?
There can be merit in doing things that make people feel safer even if they don’t actually increase safety. How? Because if people believe they are safe, they will go about their lives productively, not worrying about unlikely dangers.
For instance, if a rich school district wants to spend money on target hardening and as a result parents worry less about sending their kids to school, the taxpayers will have gotten value for their money even though that money might have been spent more productively elsewhere.
In less affluent areas the police should consult with the schools on emergency plans and give training to staff and students. This has the merit of being relatively inexpensive, diverting few resources that would be better used elsewhere.
But above all, to parents: Relax. Send your children to school, and don’t frighten them with advice on how to avoid being killed in school by a madman. At least not until you’ve taught them about the dangers of lightning.
Geoff Sjostrom is a graduate of
Northwestern University and a retired sergeant from the , police department where he supervised the juvenile section for nine years. Oak Park, Illinois
© 2013 Geoff Sjostrom