Posts Tagged ‘Mass murders’

The Thinker

Arming teachers is crazy

I have long suspected there were more than a few screws loose in the leadership of the National Rifle Association. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”, spake Wayne LaPierre, an Executive Vice President for the NRA a few days after the deaths of 26 people, including 20 students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut last month by Adam Lanza. The NRA’s reflexive solution to the massacre is, of course, to put more guns in schools, this time to “protect” students from mass killers like Adam Lanza.

To start, they would like an armed guard at every school. There are around 132,000 public schools across the United States. Assuming one armed guard were placed at every school at the modest cost of $30,000 a year, that’s a cost of about $4 billion a year. Of course, most schools consist of more than a couple of classrooms. Here in Fairfax County, Virginia high schools like Westfield, where my daughter graduated, have 3,000 plus students. Assuming 25 in a classroom, that’s 120 classrooms. I’ve been to Westfield High School a number of times of course, and it’s immense. It’s got schools within the school. It’s a huge educational institution. It’s practically a college. It could take five minutes for an armed guard to get to a classroom on the other side of the campus. What do you think the odds are that the campus cop is going to be able to stop a shooter before he has inflicted a lot of mayhem? Okay, so maybe we need more than one guard at one of these larger schools. Let’s say on average we figure we need three armed guards at every school. Suddenly costs have ballooned to $12 billion. And we still have no assurance that a mass murderer can be stopped in a timely matter.

Ah but the NRA and others have another solution. Arm the teachers! Yes, put an easily accessible gun in every classroom in the nation! Put it in the hands of a teacher, a person trained to mentor students, not kill them. If I had a homicidal student, I suspect having a handy firearm would not be of much reassurance. Likely I would be his first target. I would be shot before I could get my gun out of its holster. Guns are like that, you know.

If you think about this for more than a nanosecond, you realize it’s a crazy, crazy thing to do, so crazy that anyone suggesting it is either delusional or simply can’t be bothered to think about it. It’s so crazy that I could scribble on for many pages and still not give you all the reasons why this is incredibly stupid. Here are some of them:

  • Teachers are people too, and they can have homicidal tendencies like anyone else. Do we really want to give a teacher a ready means of killing his own students?
  • If you dangle a carrot in front of a rabbit, it will probably bite into it. If you put students in a classroom with a gun in it that is accessible, even if it requires a code or keylock to gain entry, what do you think they will be thinking about when their mind wanders? How can I get access to that gun? I don’t have one of them at home. It’s like putting out Playboy magazines for your teenage son and expecting him not to look at the centerfold. Put a gun in every classroom and the likelihood that some student (or faculty member) will somehow use one of these guns increases exponentially.
  • It sends the signal that guns are not just okay (they are legal to own, for most adults anyhow) but something that is sanctioned by the school and public authorities in general. Gosh, I want a gun! My cool teacher gets to have one!
  • Even a trained police officer has only a 17% chance of hitting the criminal if he fires his pistol. A teacher is likely to have even a lower chance than that, and considering how panicked and nervous they are likely to be, it is likely they will miss the shooter and kill innocent people instead.

If you really want to minimize deaths by firearms in schools, perhaps the way to do so it not to put guns in our children’s faces multiple times a day, but keep them out of schools, inculcate the value that they should not normally be seen in polite societies, discourage parents from owning guns and if they do have laws requiring weapons to be kept under lock and key. An armed policeman at every school probably has at best a one in ten chance of stopping a shooter with a gun if they get entry to the school.

We could require students to have their person and things scanned prior to entering the school, as we do before boarding a plane. That is likely to be much more effective, but it will also be incredibly time consuming. At Westfield High School all 3,000 students generally arrive within fifteen minutes of each other. It would take a large number of scanners and agents to process this number of students in anything close to a timely manner.

So LaPierre’s suggestion is purely fanciful and speaks of an idealized world, not a practical world. In a practical world we would implement most of the proposals by the Obama Administration instead. It would not be foolproof, because no solution, particularly Lapierre’s suggestion, is foolproof. But it would be a practical and realistic set of steps to minimize these incidents. Law abiding citizens would still be able to keep their guns, just not the clips and ammunition that allow them to pump cop killer bullets into dozens of people within seconds.

If we have to spend $4 billion a year to put armed guards in our schools, I have a great way to finance it. Place a special tax on guns, both when purchased and annually. Place special taxes also on bullets. Use the revenue to hire the guards we need in our schools.

It sounds lawful to me. Considering how lethal guns can be why not also make gun owners liable for illegal use of their guns? I am liable for damages if someone else uses my car and causes an accident. Why should gun owners be exempt if someone uses their gun and commits a crime? Require gun owners to carry a special liability insurance for their firearms. It’s not much, but it is something that helps address the true cost of the mayhem inflicted by so many guns in our country.

One thing is clear to me: we won’t be making schools safer by arming teachers.

 
The Thinker

When you live by the gun, don’t be surprised if you die by the gun

I am trying to think what else I can add to the billions of words posted on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media about Friday’s tragic and senseless mass murder of twenty children and seven adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and in Newtown, Connecticut. It was, of course, horrific and the sort of event that gives even those of us with strong stomachs a persistently queasy feeling. I could write another blog post about my revulsion of guns, or why we need to do more help to help the mentally ill, but of course I have written many of these in response to other sad events like this one. This one is especially egregious not just for the number of fatalities but that our most young children were the primary victims.

So yes, this is more tragic evidence that we need to do more to control guns in our society, and need to make special efforts to keep them away from mentally disturbed people. There are currently no laws that would have kept Adam Lanza from getting the guns he used to kill so many people including him. In particular, there are no laws prohibiting people without criminal records from possessing semi-automatic weapons. But it appears that it didn’t matter in his case. The guns came courtesy of dear old mom, 52-year-old Nancy Lanza, who also turned out to be Adam Lanza’s first victim.

According to various press articles, Nancy Lanza was one of these citizens who liked to pack a lot of heat at home. If paranoid schizophrenia runs in the Lanza family, perhaps Nancy had it first, because her house was not only her castle but also apparently her armory as well. She is one of probably millions of Americans who truly believe that the government (in this case Obama in general, but also the United Nations) was out to take away her freedoms. Just in case, she was prepared. Josh Marshall on Talking Points Memo writes:

There’s been some level of mystery about just why Adam Lanza’s first victim, Nancy Lanza, had such a stock of weapons, particularly military style weapons like the .223 Bushmaster, the weapon we now know was actually used in the killings. She wasn’t just into guns. She was apparently stocked up for when the economy collapses and when everyone’s on their own with their guns.

It’s not hard to infer that Adam had some issues with his mother; otherwise presumably she would not be dead. Perhaps he was beyond typical mentally illnesses and was psychotic or on drugs or something. Perhaps after an extensive forensics investigation we will eventually understand the puzzle of Adam Lanza.

In some ways though it does not matter. If you want to commit mass murder, it’s obviously not too hard in America. But even if there were laws that were enforced to keep psychos like Adam Lanza away from lethal weapons, there are always trusty, law-abiding citizens like mom, paranoid about their own government and probably convinced via various right wing media that they needed to arm up now, with their lethal stash easily accessible that can be put to the wrong use.

I remarked before that the most likely person to kill you is someone you know personally, most likely someone you are related to through blood, marriage or a close relationship. Maybe keeping a handgun under your mattress will save your life, but chances are whoever is planning to kill you knows you have a gun, has a good idea where it is and plans to take you unaware. That’s most likely what happened to Nancy Lanza. All that lethal armature meant nothing because she was caught off guard. And that’s generally how these homicides happen. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, that’s where it would end. Nancy would be dead, Adam would hopefully be convicted, and the incident would have been buried near the back of Newtown’s newspaper. But Adam found some reason to keep murdering after killing mother. And thanks to mom, her .223 Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle and of course her large supply of ammunition he had the ready means to unleash mayhem.

The price of paranoia is ever more paranoia and it seems that little can be done to temper paranoid tendencies. When your mindset is survival, even when your life is not really in danger from vapid external forces, instead of living a normal life you live a life that is fear based. And it likely carries an emotional impact. It’s speculation of course, but if I grew up with parents that believed the government was close to imposing totalitarianism and kept closets of weapons and bullets handy, I’d likely pick that up as a value too, and carry it into adult life. Perhaps despite the fact that Adam clearly had issues with Mom, he picked up that value from her, much like so many of us chooses our parents’ religion in adult life.

I believe the murders of Nancy Lanza and twenty-six other people in Newtown, Connecticut is to some extent due to a culture of mistrust and paranoia that pervades so many Americans. This paranoia causes people to give money to the NRA, which petitions for ever-looser gun control laws and gives rare but sizable opportunities to the psychos of the world like Adam Lanza to conduct egregious and murderous rampages.

Those of us who are for gun control are not for it just because we think that guns are dangerous, which they are. We are for it because we realize we need to set values for our society that we can and should all live together peacefully, and that we can trust each other and our government. When you pack a lot of heat at home and keep your closet flush with ammunition, your values are saying that you don’t trust your government or your neighbors, at least not enough to give up your weapons and let the police department deter and prosecute crimes. You are spreading a toxic culture of paranoia that murders.

The tragic irony in this case is that the paranoia Nancy Lanza felt in her heart came back to kill her. Those who live by the gun should be prepared to die by the gun. I feel safer knowing that I am contributing to a safer society because there are no guns in my house, and never will be.

 
The Thinker

Most mass murders are preventable. For God’s sake, let’s prevent them.

Yesterday, another pointless mass slaughtering of innocents occurred. Six people were murdered this time, plus the gunman who was shot by police, at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The assassin (no point calling him alleged, as he is dead) is Michael Page, a forty-year-old Army veteran, a member of an Army psychological unit that was never deployed. Some news sources are suggesting that Page was a white supremacist. Most likely he wasn’t a very bright white supremacist for choosing Sikhs as victims. Most white supremacists are far more concerned about allegedly radical Muslims than Sikhs, who are a largely peaceful religion primarily from India that believes in one immortal being and the ten gurus. But they wear towels on their head, so that probably looked Muslim enough for Page. We’ll probably never know for sure why he targeted Sikhs, but their main crime seems to be they were not Caucasians like him.

About three weeks earlier, the white Caucasian pulling the trigger was allegedly James Eagan Holmes, 26, a recent dropout from the University of Colorado’s PhD neuroscience program. He killed twelve people and injured 58 others at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado with semiautomatic weapons and bullets purchased in part over the Internet. Shortly before he dropped out he was apparently receiving counseling from a psychiatrist at the university, who was so alarmed she brought his case to the attention of campus authorities. However, the campus lost interest as he had dropped out. Holmes acquired a huge lethal arsenal and over three thousand rounds of ammunition, all without a background investigation. He would have killed many more had not police discovered that he had booby-trapped his apartment.

And so it goes. On January 8, 2011 it was Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) who took a bullet to the brain at the hands of alleged assassin Jared Lee Loughner, 23, also a Caucasian white guy. Giffords was fortunate to survive, but her injury eventually meant resigning her seat in Congress and years of rehabilitation therapy that is still underway. Loughner shot 18 people, six of whom died at a Tucson Safeway. While he did not kill Giffords, he did manage to kill a federal judge. Like Holmes, Loughner had a traumatic incident in his personal life. He underwent a personality change after he was fired from a job at a local Quiznos. He was known to abuse alcohol and took hallucinogens. His firearm was purchased legally at a local Sportsman’s Warehouse in Tucson. Loughner is expected to plead guilty tomorrow to these shootings. He is considered mentally ill and is required to take an anti-psychotic medication.

Of course who could possibly forget the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, a shooting that killed 32 and injured 17 others? It stands as the worst mass murder by an individual in the United States. While the incident occurred in Blacksburg, Seung-Hui Cho grew up close to where I live in Northern Virginia. He attended Poplar Tree Elementary School down the street in Chantilly, and Westfield High School, also in Chantilly, where my daughter graduated the year of the incident. Cho had seen many mental health experts, had been on antidepressants and creeped out more than a few of his professors.

The United States is lucky to go a year without a mass murder episode. Some of them get little press. Four days before the Aurora shooting, twelve to 18 people were injured by gunman Nathan Van Wilkins, 44, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. If the incident made the paper, it was buried deep in the back somewhere. Maybe that no one actually died made it un-newsworthy. To pick a few recent mass shootings: 4 dead and 7 injured by Eduardo Sencion in Carson City, Nevada on September 6, 2011 and 13 killed and 4 injured in Binghamton, New York, my home town, by Jiverly Antares Wong on April 3, 2009. Wikipedia keeps a current list if you are curious. By my count the grisly total is: thirty murdered since 2010 and 82 from 2000-2009, and these are just the rampage killers. School massacres like Virginia Tech, workplace killings and hate crimes are not included.

Certain themes show up in these murderers. For the ones that tend to be most newsworthy, the perpetrators tends to be white, male, in their prime testosterone years and mentally ill. Mass murder though seems to be almost exclusively a guy thing, principally a white guy thing. Maybe women lack the crazy gene. Most of these mass murders probably were preventable. I will grant you that our loose, albeit almost nonexistent gun laws, make it difficult to impossible to keep these crazies from acquiring weapons. In the Aurora, Colorado shooting, had semi-automatic weapons been controlled, the death rate would have been markedly lower. Even I belatedly agreed that strict gun control is impossible in this country, but I would like to think that even the NRA would agree that people with severe mental illnesses should not be allowed to acquire weapons. Yes, perhaps they could get them from illicit sources, but we should not make it easy for them to get. These people should be in known databases. To alleviate the concern that regular citizens would be put in the database, perhaps getting added to the database would require the signatures of three psychiatrists.

But guns don’t kill people (unless they smash their heads in with a rifle’s butt), but bullets sure do. James Holmes acquired 300 rounds of ammunition and no one blinked an eye. More importantly, no one was tracking the fact that one dude in a short period of time acquired this much ammunition, or that there was something unusual about the semi-automatic weapons he acquired so quickly too. If all gun sales were in a database, it would be easy enough to search it for unusual cases, and if it were cross-indexed with a list of people with mental psychoses then the Holmes case should have stood out like a red flag. Exactly how are gun rights diminished if we were to enact laws like this? Are we really agreeing that every psychotic should have unlimited access to firearms and rounds of ammunition?

While guns and bullets allow these murders to occur easily, in most cases the catalyst is mental illness. Mental illness is at least required to be treated by health insurance plans but we still have fifty million people uninsured. There are fewer stigmas to treating mental illness these days, but we should press for even less of them. Even if you can be treated, as was true in Seung-Hui Cho’s case, mentally ill adults can refuse treatment. Cho’s case was truly extreme: red flags were everywhere. Particularly with cases this severe, it is reasonable for society to require these individuals stay in treatment, both for their own safety and for society’s safety as well, unless a board of psychiatrists clears the person.

Our world is growing more crowded and complex. Our highly industrialized, information-centric world does affect us in ways that are hard for us to understand. Denser communities raise the number of human interactions, making trouble more likely. The Internet, while it has lots of advantages, also allows mentally ill people license to feed their psychoses. Sociologists need to study the effects of Future Shock, well underway, and it needs to be come part of a public policy discussion. Ignoring these realities simply means that more of us will die needlessly from future and preventable acts of mass violence. It also means those with these mental illnesses are less likely to keep their conditions under control.

George Santayana said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It’s one thing to forget lessons from events that happened generations ago. It is another thing to forget events that happened last week or last month and not learn from them. It is the height of public policy stupidity.

 

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