The first seven articles in this series are:
When I originally wrote and posted this article in March of 2012, I had no idea the representative scenario I wrote would so closely follow the reality of the Newtown, Connecticut shooting. However, my relative accuracy was not due to clairvoyance, nor was it mere chance. The known motivations of school shooters and the physical realities of school buildings and police response made it very likely my fictional scenario would parallel reality, and so it does.
THE WORST CASE SCENARIO:
Regardless of how one feels about the foreign policy of a given presidential administration, America has been embroiled in a war with terrorists since at least the Carter administration, and nearly 800 Americans were killed around the world by terrorists prior to 9-11. It was only 9-11 that made some realize that it might be wise to act as though we were fighting a war against those who not only had long since publicly declared war on us, but had for many years been killing Americans when and wherever possible. Benghazi was only the most recent manifestation of that long war. We also know that our terrorist enemies desperately want to carry out attacks in America and in American schools. Recently gathered intelligence suggests this and they have elsewhere used this tactic–old hat for them but new to us–for decades. It is equally sobering to realize that our own domestic brand of terrorist, juvenile or adult, always has been present, a fact now very much in the forefront of the awareness of the residents of Newtown, Connecticut.
The arming of school staff is not a panacea. It cannot replace competent, practical identification and intervention programs–which include intelligent, aware teachers simply keeping their eyes and ears open–which might help to prevent–or interdict–some school shootings before they begin. It is, rather, a very low or no cost protective measure for worst-case scenarios that has the great benefit of providing credible deterrence if properly publicized. Arming staff is like providing fire extinguishers. Most teachers will complete an entire career without needing a fire extinguisher, but when they do need one, they need it immediately, badly, and nothing else will do. So it is with firearms.
I’m about to provide a scenario based on reality. Remember that I have been there and done that, in the classroom and in the responding police car. A law enforcement agency in which I served as a SWAT officer actually responded to a juvenile shooter in a large high school. In that case, the police again had no real effect. While the team was organizing and making plans (I happened to be out of town for that call-out) the absent-minded shooter became distracted and put down his shotgun in the classroom where he was holding fellow students hostage. A quick thinking youngster grabbed the shotgun, ending the affair. Miraculously, no one was injured, and as in virtually every school attack, the police had no role in ending the incident–other than delivering the pizza that eventually distracted he student/gunman–despite actually being on the premises.
Keep in mind that the following scenario posits a single, non-ideological, domestic shooter. The threat of multiple shooters, and multiple ideologically motivated shooters is very real and increasing every day. In a situation like that, having a single armed guard, or a principal with a single handgun locked up somewhere would be woefully inadequate in deterrent effect and in stopping an attack. An armed guard or single principal would be little more than a speed bump.
The scenario I propose allows generous response times for the police, and the actions of the killer are likewise based on real events and practical knowledge of the criminal/terrorist mind, of tactical reality, and of school design and procedures.
WARNING: This scenario is somewhat graphic and entirely realistic. The mere idea of anyone shooting helpless children in a school is horrendous and sickening to rational people, but considering such a scenario before the fact and drawing reasonable lessons from it is far better than doing so in the aftermath of an actual attack.
CONSIDER THIS SCENARIO wherein a single active shooter, an adult, armed only with a shotgun and a revolver, two common, non-military looking firearms, enters an elementary school in small to mid-sized town USA. Unhinged over imagined grievances, he is determined to kill as many students and teachers as possible and has several hundred rounds of ammunition stuffed in his pockets. He does not plan to survive the assault; he will kill himself or force the police to do it. Your eight year-old daughter is in the fourth classroom he will enter.
0830: Monday. School has been underway for only a half hour. The morning traffic crunch won’t begin to slacken for at least another 45 minutes. Small Town Elementary School is equipped with magnetic card reading locks, but the shooter bypasses a lock and enters the school by shooting out the glass in the door—it takes only seconds–and pressing the interior panic bar. He makes his way to the first classroom in the hallway to the left of the door. His choice of this hallway is entirely random; he simply decides to go left rather than right, a choice that in this case will spare the lives of the students and teachers in the hallways to the right of the door. He knows the school has no liaison officer that day and that no one in the school is armed. A phone call asking to speak to the liaison officer (the secretary politely told him that the liaison officer is only in the building on Tuesdays and Thursdays; he is shared with two other elementary schools) and prominently posted gun-free school zone signs have made him certain of those facts.
0832: The first gunshots ring out causing confusion, but not instant panic. Most classrooms can’t hear them. Those that do have to ask “what are those noises?” Is the sixth grade studying the Civil War again? Is someone watching a movie? Did someone drop something heavy? Are the custodians making noise repairing something again?
0835: A nearby teacher finally realizes what is happening, and horrified by a glimpse of the shooter and what he is doing in that first classroom, frantically tries to call 9-11 on her cell phone. All of the structural steel in the building and nearby wireless computer transmitters interfere with the signal and she is unable to make contact. Hysterically weeping and in a panic, she begins the 200 yard dash to the office.
0837: A call finally goes out from the school office to the police. They relay the room number and the name of the teacher occupying the room where the panicked teacher saw the shooter, but this information means nothing to the responding officers who have no idea how the school is laid out. None of them have ever been inside the building. Even if they had, it’s unlikely they’d remember anything about one of many schools in their community. It takes the dispatcher 15 precious seconds to clarify that the room is in the east side of the building. That has some meaning to the officers, but narrows it down only to four separate hallways, each containing at least eight classrooms–32 possibilities.
The shooter has reloaded and is entering the next classroom in line. The door is locked, but a kick makes short work of it, as with every randomly locked door he encounters. He spent five minutes in the first classroom. Twelve children and the teacher are dead. Seven more are wounded and two will die within the week. Miraculously, the shooter overlooked two children who happened to fall under the bodies of their not-so-fortunate classmates. His bloodlust is overpowering; any inhibitions he had against killing children have melted away. He is now faster and more efficient.
0838: The killer has been in the building only about seven minutes. The call goes out to officers patrolling the city. Only four are on duty. One is handling a life-threatening emergency and cannot get away. Of the remaining three, the nearest officer is three minutes from the school. Another is five minutes away, the third, at least six minutes away. Various administrative and investigative officers hastily get the word and rush to respond from their centrally located police headquarters, but they will take much longer to arrive, which is the case with the two available sheriff’s deputies and the single available highway patrolman who rush to the school from many miles away, fighting early morning traffic all the way.
0841: Only 11 minutes have elapsed since the killer broke that first pane of glass. The shooter has finished with the second classroom. This time he was more methodical and everyone in the classroom is dead or dying. He is reloading on his way to the next in line. The young female principal, shaking with fear, bravely approaches the domestic terrorist (DT) in the hallway and tries to reason with him. The first officer, alone, arrives and sprints toward the east side of the school. Spotting the broken window, he enters and pauses, listening. He hears nothing for several seconds until a single gunshot rings out, followed by several long seconds of silence. It echoes through the tiled halls and concrete block walls, making it hard to determine direction. Room numbers are on small signs above each classroom door, but he cannot see them unless he is actually in a given hallway and near each door. The hallways are long and empty, providing no cover or concealment. If the shooter sees him before he sees the shooter, he’s in real trouble. He tries to slow his racing heart and gasping breathing and desperately listens, hoping to orient himself as quickly as possible.
0842: The officer again hears gunfire as the shooter enters the third classroom. He draws his handgun and moves, quickly and carefully, in the general direction of continuous, muted gunfire, but is unfamiliar with the building and makes several wrong turns, losing precious seconds. He knows that he must act immediately, but he knows that if he blunders into the shooter unprepared, he will do no good at all and will probably end up getting shot. He has to know where the shooter is before he commits to action. He hears what sounds like shotgun and handgun fire; could there be more than one shooter? This makes him more cautious and slower, only a few seconds slower, but every second matters. He stops to radio the possibility of two rather than one shooters–and to ensure he is heard and understood (the structural steel of the building makes radio signals weak and intermittent)–before he continues.
0844: Two other officers arrive and radio the first officer who pauses to radio directions. They hurry toward him as he moves toward where he believes the shooter to be. The killer has finished shooting and reloads. Only the teacher and two first grade students, all wounded, will survive in the classroom he is about to leave. He steps into the hallway and seeing the officer, who is kneeling over the bloody body of the principal, trying to see if she has a pulse, takes several shots. The first buckshot round, hastily fired, misses, shattering a trophy display case in a deluge of glass, wood and plastic. The second strikes the officer’s bullet resistant vest, which stops most of the pellets, but several penetrate his shooting arm, numbing it and causing him to drop his handgun just as he is about to fire. In shock, feeling as though he is trying to move through molasses, he struggles to pick up his handgun with his left hand, but it is too late to engage the killer who enters the fourth classroom. He knows his time is running out. Less than three minutes have elapsed from the moment the first officer entered the building until his encounter with the killer.
0845: Fifteen minutes into the incident, four minutes past the arrival of the first officer. The two additional officers arrive and drag their wounded partner, still struggling to raise and fire his handgun, down the hallway, out of the line of fire, just in time to see the killer enter the fourth classroom where your daughter, like the other children, is trying to hide behind a frightened but courageous young female teacher who will be the first to be shot. She will live, but will have a single kidney for the rest of her shortened life. Many of her students will not be so fortunate.
The officers do not have time to fire a single round before they hear multiple rapid gunshots echo from the classroom down the hall. They hear what sound like five or six shotgun rounds, and suddenly, pistol shots. The shooter knows he has little time left, and emptying his shotgun, has dropped it and is now using his revolver. Leaving their wounded comrade, they leap over the body of the dead principal and rush toward the open door of the classroom, gunshots echoing in their ears…
What happened? Did the officers corner the killer in the classroom and prevent further deaths (other than those already littering the classroom floor)? Did the killer shoot himself, or was he shot by the officers? Did your daughter survive?
But it wouldn’t happen like that! The police would surely be there much more quickly and would know exactly what to do. Perhaps a single officer, in the finest martial arts hero style, would disarm the suspect without firing a shot, beating him mercilessly for daring to threaten children, for not heeding the good intentions of the gun free school zone message, preventing a single injury…
Unfortunately, the time frames I’ve suggested here for police response are generous; any honest police officer will confirm that. Remember that the first police officer responding to the Newtown attack did not enter the building until about 15 minutes after the radio call went out, and that radio call did not go out until about 5 minutes after the attack actually began. From the time the killer shot his way into the school until he shot himself, leaving 26 dead in his wake, the shooter took only five minutes. Someone died every 11.5 seconds. This does not reflect badly on the police, but is merely a reflection of the realities of time, distance, traffic and the fog of battle. The police did not enter the building at Columbine for many hours. If that time were reduced by 50% would it be fast enough, considering that the killer is on his way to your daughter’s classroom? Would a 70% reduction comfort you? In Pearl, Mississippi, at the Appalachian Law School, at Virginia Tech, at Newtown, the police had no active role in stopping the killers. This has been true for virtually all school attacks. Even if the killer fires only five rounds in each classroom, would you be satisfied? Would you consider the odds to be in your daughter’s favor?
Remember that in this case, there was a single, domestic killer–not a dedicated terrorist or terrorists–armed only with two common, unremarkable firearms, firearms our Federal masters might allow us—for now. Imagine the consequences if there were multiple killers, dedicated terrorists all, with more effective weapons, even explosives. Imagine that one or more were detailed to hold off the police as they arrive, giving their fellows more time to kill. Would the police response be more, or less effective under these circumstances? How much greater would be the death toll?
But doesn’t this scenario demonstrate the necessity of disarming everyone? Let’s assume that we can wave a magic wand and roll firearm technology back before the invention of gunpowder. Remember that during the Medieval period–and millennia before–thousands of people were often killed in a single day in various battles, killed with the kinds of weapons we would consider very crude indeed. Yet those same weapons are readily available even today, and even if they weren’t, are easy to make. Remember too that honest citizens are not now, nor have they ever been, the problem. They will obey the law; they have no desire to harm anyone. Disarming ourselves in the face of those who will not obey the law and who do wish to harm us and others is unspeakably foolish and dangerous. The problem, in 500 AD and now, is not tools but human nature. Evil existed then; evil exists now. We’ve seen its face in photographs of the Tucson shooter, the Colorado theater shooter and the Newtown shooter.
Would you want teachers, trained and prepared, to be armed and able to protect your daughter, to have the opportunity, then and there, to stop the attack, or would you be satisfied with the non-violent, peaceful, safe-feeling and comforting message delivered by a few small metal signs, and the protection provided by a locked, flimsy door and a 3/4” thick particle board desktop? The odds, thankfully, are probably in your favor, but some people always run afoul of the odds, and there is no reason that “some people” cannot include your children.
If you would honestly choose the message and the signs, then by all means, live your convictions and post a conspicuous “WE ARE COMPLETELY UNARMED” sign on your front lawn. If you honestly wouldn’t do that, perhaps it’s time to join the ranks of those who recognize that times have changed, and that a kind of danger unique in American history faces us. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that this danger can and must be addressed, and that there is one way, and only one way, to do it effectively when it truly matters.