The year after I graduated to high school, there was a shooting in San Diego. It changed my internal image of grammar school as a safe place. It's the incident that led to Bob Geldorf writing "I Don't Like Mondays" for the Boomtown Rats. Forever after I imagined someone shooting out of a window on Milford Point Road into the playground. Kay Ave. School is now West Shore Middle School and I've had seven of my eight kids go to school there, three years each. My youngest is in sixth grade there. It's made me feel like they were very vulnerable, and that it would be difficult to get them through childhood in one piece, and I've never been able to shake that sense that anything could happen to them. I tend to be thankful on Thanksgiving that we're all just here. I don't think this makes me a morbid person, but you could say my standards for peace and happiness are fairly low and have always been. I think that makes for greater happiness--all kids present and accounted for, and I'm good.
I looked up the details from the San Diego shooting yesterday, and here's what wikipedia has: 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer fired at children in a school playground at Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, California on 29 January 1979, killing two adults and injuring eight children and one police officer. Spencer showed no remorse for her crime and her full explanation for her actions was "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day".
I also looked up her weapon. Here's what it said: For Christmas in 1978, her father, Wallace Spence, gave her a Ruger 10/22 semi-automatic .22 caliber rifle with a telescopic sight and 500 rounds of ammunition. Before her parole board in 1999, she said: "I asked for a radio and he bought me a gun." To the question as to why he might have done that, she answered: "I felt like he wanted me to kill myself."
But how, I ask you, does one kill themselves with that gun and that much ammo? It doesn't make any sense, and that's the theme here. You're not going to ever have a satisfying answer to "Why?" And, the San Diego shooting was near the start of the damage crazed people began to do with higher fire-power.
Because the thing about semi-automatic weapons is that you can kill more people before you are stopped. It really has nothing to do with whether you will try to kill other people if that's what you have it in your mind to do. We have a mental health system that is designed to hospitalize and treat, even against their will, people who are assessed to be at risk for harming themselves or others. Homicidality, if assessed to be acute (i.e. you are thinking of doing something specific and soon) will get you hospitalized every time, and monitored carefully by staff and psychiatrists. The thing is--if it's a chronic fantasy of fame or vengeance, without a lot of specifics at the time you're assessed, then no one can hold you any longer. And you've learned not to talk so openly about your ideas.
Over the years there have been some indications of what warning signs to look for. The New York Times published an analysis in 2000 of what was known about 102 people who had committed 100 rampage killings at schools, job sites and public places like malls.
Most had left a road map of red flags, plotting their attacks and accumulating weapons. In the 100 rampage killings reviewed, 54 of the killers had talked explicitly of when and where they would act, and against whom. In 34 of the cases, worried friends or family members had desperately sought help in advance, only to be rebuffed by the police, school officials or mental health workers. If it's not a specific threat with a clear timeline, it's hard to do much about it. Thousands of kids are assessed every year by mental health professionals because they've made a threat to harm others at school. Many thousands of adults. It's a bit of a needle-in-a-haystack process determining which of this avalanche of troubled folks is going to do something violent.
Type used in Sandy Hook shootings
All four shootings, and all mass shootings in recent history, involve use of semi-automatic weapons because you can shoot up to 50 bullets a minute with one, depending on the size of the magazine that holds the bullets ready for the gun. The last mass shooting I remember that didn't involve a semi-automatic was at Dunblane Elementar, Scotland in 1996 that killed 16 kids (ages 5-6) and one adult. That man had two handguns (Smith & Wesson, capable of 6 shots without reloading) but also two semi-automatic Brownings (17 rounds per). If they don't legally posses the guns in their house, given the frequency that they're somewhere in the neighborhood, you can steal one like the Oregon kid did.
Shooters will sometimes plan for months, or years. The 2010 shootings in Norway, on the surface about politics but later found to be mental illness, involved a guns accumulated over the course of almost two years. The guy went to Prague because he heard it was easy to get semi-automatics there, but it wasn't, so he had to join a local gun club and practice target shooting for months before he would buy the Glock he wanted to go with the Ruger he got for shooting deer. He also started an agricultural company so he could get the fertilizer he wanted for the car bomb. He injured at least 319 people, of whom 77 died, mostly kids at summer camp.
There was security on the island for that summer camp. When the shooter arrived on the island, he presented himself as a police officer who had come over for a routine check following the bombing in Oslo. He had on a uniform and carried ID and the person at the gate let him in. He was met by Monica Bøsei, the camp leader and island hostess. Bøsei probably became suspicious and contacted Trond Berntsen, the security officer on the island, before the gunman killed them both. He then called the kids together to "inform" them of the bombing he'd set off 90 minutes prior in Oslo, and began shooting the kids when they complied.
Adam Lanza shot his way into the school, correcting earlier reports that he was buzzed in. It doesn't matter. School secretaries buzz just about everyone in at the schools my kids go to. How are they to know what a shooter looks like? Or, more specifically, a homicidal, mentally ill person hiding weapons and a plan to kill?
It would be good if there was an easy answer to stop all this. Getting rid of legal semi-automatics seems like a no-brainer to me. Michelle Bachman loves to use the AK-15 rifle (used in Aurora and Oregon) in target practice because it's so accurate but no matter--she can find another gun to play with like that. Better not to have those out there, with the capability of taking out a classroom or two of little kids in under five minutes, no? But our Supreme Court has knocking down city ordinances attempting such a thing for years now, and expanding gun rights to include individual when it was originally just thought to be militias in the 2nd amendment. Just because we had a full Brady law in place 1994-2004 doesn't mean it would be easy to now. But then again, we've had four mass murders in just over four months. Maybe something will change.
In the United Kingdom, after Dunblane, they went so far as to ban legal possession of all handguns, which are not semi-automatic, possibly because he used two of those. Private citizens do not legally own guns in any of the United Kingdom countries. They've still had incidents, the worst in Cumbria in 2010, but it wasn't a semi-automatic.
In Norway they banned violent video games, taking off the shelves all the shooter games like Call of Duty that indulge in gratuitous violence, and teach target practice. I think this is interesting, because there's no doubt in my mind that if you are of a homicidal bent, this will fuel it. Then again, for the 99% plus percent of people who just use it for fun? Hard again to imagine we're going to ban it from them. We're a freedom-centric country. We don't take away from all because of the risk to a few. And, the Norway ban was temporary. The games are back on the shelves.
Security at schools? Gosh, I don't know. The San Diego and Dunblane attacks occurred on the playground. Columbine was by students who attended the school. I like the idea, and it does make people think "why is this person here? do they have a legitimate reason?" every time they press the buzzer to let someone in and that's good. It also makes "locking down" a school possible when there's an imminent threat in the area. But I grew up in a school with open doors, and if every school in the country had open doors I'm not sure we'd have more school shootings. It may be one of those things that makes people feel better about living with their risks in their lives.
Metal detectors? For the kids and visitors? They make sense when you're trying to prevent kids from bringing in weapons to take each other out in petty feuds. When that risk is reasonably high, it's already happening. When the risk is low, and psychological harm to the kids high? I don't see it happening in grammar schools because--think about it--in Newtown, if the shooter set off the metal detector, he would have just shot the security guard too. That's what happened in Oslo. No one with homicide on their mind lifts their arms for a pat-down or a wand.
Our airports are safe, because you're not allowed to carry guns and TSA, despite their flaws, keeps weapons out of luggage, off of people and out of planes. All good. They also do it at relatively few sites, and at tremendous expenditure of time, effort and money. That's necessary to keep our air transportation running post-9/11, and it's good. But it's not practical to do that anywhere else. Who would go through an x-ray machine every time they went to the mall to walk some laps?
Because here's the gist--we live in a country already has more than 350 million guns in it. Where violent movies and video games and music is rampant. Where there's ways to buy guns from private sellers without any oversight (if you don't try to register it), and from the street without any serial numbers. In any country there's risks to growing up. In our society, those risks include a significant amount of gun violence.
Pediatricians now ask in their screenings about whether you have guns and how they're locked up. They should. When I was growing up my three "closest calls" were an attempted kidnapping (foiled by my brother and Vinny Ditchkus), a Vienna sausage incident (I was a hungry baby) and nearly being killed by a gun. When I was a baby we lived upstairs from a woman who worked overnight and left her 10-year-old son with a shotgun at night so he'd feel safe. One night he dropped it, so he says. It shot through his ceiling, our floor, and my crib, a few inches from my sleeping body.
As I staggered through yesterday, half-stunned and half-terrified by the deaths of so many children, I wondered again how any of us make it through childhood. How terrible a message that is for our kids to hear. And how impossible it seems to give them a sense of safety and security, at least since 9-11.
And then my daughter, at West Shore Middle, asked for pizza, and began to play with her State Quarters collection, and I thought about how violent our country has always been, and how kids become our refuge from it because of their innocence, so that when they too are attacked we lose our ability to cope with the violence in our society. That's what happened to me when I heard about Newtown. I was numb and anguished both, and I didn't know what to do with myself.
So I, like others, started thinking about the guns, and whether anyone ever assessed that kid for violence potential, and how to improve safety in schools, and all the things you're thinking. And this is what I came up with, the framework of it taken from the treatment of self-harm called DBT, which holds that two seemingly opposite things can both be true:
As a country we've tried hard to prevent homicidal, mentally ill individuals from being able to act on their impulses, to balance their right for individual freedom with the duty to protect society, and to balance the right be bear arms with the duty to keep them from harming other citizens.
And when this keeps happening it tells us the balance is off. Semis are too easy to procure and use. We need to get them out of the hands of people who will use them to harm others. Our kids see so much violence they're becoming numb, and now they see they're not safe at school. These are big legislative, law enforcement, cultural and social problems we need to face. And I know we can do better.