In response to the December 14, 2012 massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, in which 20 children and six adults were murdered, President Obama vowed to do everything in his power to prevent such an event happening again, “Because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine.” 1
Unfortunately, such events are far more random than they are routine. They are what the statistician Nassim Taleb calls Black Swan events, but in this context I shall refer to them as Sandy Hook Events—high profile, improbable, rare and unpredictable mass murders. We cannot and never will be able to predict Sandy Hook Events. We can postdict them, looking for factors common to the killers, but the most we can ever do is make statistical-based generalizations about the likelihood of a Sandy Hook event happening somewhere sometime in the future. But that does not mean we can do nothing.
The place to start is making a distinction between murder and mass murder. According to the FBI’s crime reports, between 2007 and 2011 the U.S. experienced an annual average of 13,700 homicides, with guns responsible for 67.8% of those. 2 That’s an average of 9,289 people shot dead by a gun, or 774 a month, 178 a week, 25 a day, or a little more than one per hour.
By contrast, according to James Alan Fox, Northeastern University Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy, between 1980 and 2010 there was an average of 20 mass murders per year (defined by the FBI as “a number of murders (four or more) occurring during the same incident, with no distinctive time period between the murders” 3 ) with an average annual death toll of about 100, or 5 per shooting. 4 This averages out to one mass murder every 2.6 weeks, which when clustered in time and covered in explosive media attention intuitively feels like a veritable plague of violence. But an average annual death rate of 100 constitutes a mere 0.01% of the average homicide total. If we want to save lives by preventing gun deaths, the larger problem of individual homicides, suicides, and accidents is the place to begin, not Sandy Hook Events.
Case in point: according to a 1998 study published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery on “every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.” 5 In other words, a gun is 22 times more likely to be used in a criminal assault, an accidental death or injury, a suicide attempt, or a homicide, than it is for self-defense. Ironically—and tragically—the fate of the mother of the Sandy Hook killer—Nancy Lanza—was that of most victims of a gun-homicide: killed by her own gun in her own home by someone she knew. If we cannot predict or prevent Sandy Hook events, what can we do? I suggest three evidence-based actions we can take right now that could save lives.
1. Run, Hide, or Fight. There is an excellent video on self-defense on YouTube called “Run. Hide. Fight. Surviving an Active Shooter Event.” 6 It is for people in offices, schools, or any public facility in which gun-fire is heard. After calling 9-11, the first thing to do is to run—escape from the building as quickly as possible, taking as many people with you as you can. If people hesitate, encourage them to join you but leave them behind if they do not move at once. You have seconds to act and cannot afford to delay. If there is no clear escape route, hide underneath a desk, behind a wall or door, or inside any container in which you can fit. If you are in a room, lock the door and barricade it with furniture. Remain as quite as possible and silent your cell phone. If these two actions do not work and you encounter the shooter, fight with anything and everything you’ve got—a chair, purse, fist, leg, anything you can throw, swing, or hit with. Do not hesitate and attack like your life depends on it because it does.
2. A National Mental Health Hotline. A joint effort between such governmental agencies as the National Institutes of Mental Health, the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science, the American Psychiatric Association, and the FBI could result in a national mental health hotline to call to alert authorities about people exhibiting (1) a set of symptoms of mental disturbance such as acute depression, Schizophrenia, extreme psychopathy, paranoid delusions, and (2) a clear sign of potential violence such as comments or letters or journal entries about killing people, and especially (3) the purchase of multiple weapons, ammunition, body armor, and other equipment. If all three criteria are met it could be cause for authorities to at least pay a visit to the residence of the person in question.
A case in point is James Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado killer, who showed clear signs of a mental breakdown during the May to July timeframe in which he amassed an arsenal of 6,295 rounds of ammunition, two handguns, a shotgun, an assault rifle, ballistic gear, laser sights and holsters, and tear gas canisters, all delivered to his doorstep. 7 Competent data analysts working with such a national database could easily ferret out potential candidates for mass murder. This would be something like a citizens watch program in which all of us should be paying attention to the people around us, most notably our immediate family, friends, and colleagues. On January 7, 2013, for example, ABC News reported that an eastern Alabama high school teacher turned over to the police a student journal she found that “contained several plans that looked like potential terrorist attacks, and attacks of violence and danger on the school,” including targeting six students and one teacher by name. That young man, a 17-year old named Derek Shrout, identified in the media as a white supremacist targeting five black students and one gay student, was promptly arrested on attempted assault charges after police searched his home and found numerous cans filled with pellets that, according to the sheriff, were just “a step or two away from being ready to explode,” adding that “the system worked and thank God it did. We avoided a very bad situation.” 8
3. Gun Control. This is the most talked about option for preventing Sandy Hook Events, but it’s complicated. First, the most common weapon of all homicides and mass murders is a handgun, and the United States Supreme Court ruled in 2008 (in District of Columbia v. Heller) 9 and again in 2010 (McDonald v. Chicago) 10 that the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right to “keep and bear arms” includes handguns. And once the Supreme Court has ruled on a case—twice in this instance—the chances of overturning such rulings are next to nil.
Nevertheless, a common element found among mass murderers is large capacity magazines, most notably at Fort Hood, Texas, on the Virginia Tech campus, and in Tucson at the Gabrielle Giffords shooting where the killer used a 33-round magazine. The prohibition of high-volume ammo clips seems like a rational response based on the fact that a number of mass murders were ended by bystanders and police when the killers stopped to reload. 11 The proposed legislation on the table, introduced after the 1993 Long Island Rail Road killing by Representative Carolyn McCarthy (whose husband was killed in the shooting), is called The High Capacity Ammunition Feeding Device Act, and it would prohibit magazines that hold more than 10 bullets (the maximum now is 100). 12 That seems reasonable to me, and hunters who claim otherwise can give their game a more sporting chance of escape—if you can’t nail them in 10 rounds they deserve to live.
As well, re-enacting the ban on assault rifles could result in a net gain in that many mass murderers included such weapons in their arsenal, and it seems to me to be no great threat to liberty if we lump them with the already-existing bans on private citizens owning and operating bazookas, tanks, drone aircraft, fighter jets, surface-to-air missiles, and nuclear weapons.
Bans on semi-automatic assault rifles and high-volume ammunition magazines will not stop Sandy Hook Events, but there is evidence that they could curtail the level of carnage, and that strikes me as a rational response that even freedom-loving libertarians can live with. I know because I am a lifelong gun-owning libertarian who grew up with shot-guns in our home that we used for hunting. It is altogether rational and reasonable to do something to reduce the carnage, even if we can’t prevent such tragedies from ever occurring again.
- Obama, Barack. Office of the Press Secretary. 2012. The White House. “Remarks by the President at Sandy Hook Interfaith Prayer Vigil.” December 16.
- Fox, James Alan. December 18, 2012. “Top Ten Myths About Mass Shootings.” The Chronicle of Higher Education.
- Kellrmann, Arthur L., 1998. “Injuries and Deaths Due to Firearms in the Home.” Journal of Trauma 45:2: 263–67
- CBS/AP. 2012. “James Holmes Built Up Aurora Arsenal of Bullets, Ballistic Gear Through Unregulated Online Market.” July 24.
See also: http://news.yahoo.com/ala-teen-accused-plotting-bomb-classmates-123935547.html
- Barnes, Robert. 2008. “Justices Reject D.C. Ban on Handgun Ownership.” Washington Post, June 27.
- Mears, Bill. 2010. “Court Rules for Gun Rights, Strikes Down Chicago Handgun Ban.” CNN, June 28.
- Lott, John, and William Landes. 1999. “Multiple Victim Public Shootings, Bombings, and Right-to-Carry Concealed Handgun Laws: Contrasting Private and Public Law Enforcement.” University of Chicago Law School, John M. Olin Law & Economics Working Paper No. 73.
- Cassese, Sid and Tom Brune. 2013. “Rep. Carolyn McCarthy Bill Would Ban High-Capacity Ammunition Clips.” Newsday, January 3.