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Aztec High School

We know quite a bit about the loser that killed two and wounded several others at Aztec High School in Aztec, NM on December 7, 2017. But a week later, the media has already moved on, after, of course, the usual suspects have used the attack to call for various gun control schemes.

The 21 year-old killer, who would surely like his name mentioned here, was a former student of the school. He “disguised himself” as a student to get inside, though media accounts have not mentioned what such a disguise might be. He was armed with a legally purchased 9mm Glock, model unknown, and carried “multiple magazines.”

The San Juan County Sheriff, Ken Christensen, via Fox News, commented:

Christesen called the shooting a cowardly act and said [the killer] was determined to create as much carnage as he could.

‘This was a planned event,’ he said, adding the gun used in the shooting was purchased legally. ‘This person is not only a coward, he’s evil.’

He added: ‘It’s important to understand how focused he was, how deranged he was, in his intent.”

What intent was that? The killer left a note for the day:

Work, packup, prep, walk, die.’

State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said [the killer’s] first victim was Francisco I. Fernandez, who had excused himself from class to go to the bathroom and was immediately shot.

Kassetas said [the killer] then walked into the hallway, encountered Casey J. Marquez and killed her. {the killer] then walked up and down the hallway, firing randomly and into classrooms.

Officials said they believe [the killer] eventually shot himself. They said the students killed were not targeted, but were at the ‘wrong place at the wrong time.”

Christesen said there were heroes at the school that helped save lives on Thursday. He said a substitute teacher heard the gunshots but didn’t have a key to lock the door to the computer lab. So instead she took students into an office or storage area and barricaded the door.

[the kiler], who was from Aztex and worked at a local gas station, went into the room and yelled that he knew they were in there and then fired multiple shots into the room. A custodian also heard the gunshots and yelled for classrooms to lock their doors.

‘Their swift action saved a whole lot of lives and a lot of devastation,’ Christesen said.

AZCentral.com notes police found a USB drive with a message from the killer, written at 6:51 the morning of the attack:

If things go according to plan, today would be when I die. I wait until the school buses are detected, then head out on foot disguised as a student. I go somewhere and gear up, then hold a class hostage and go apes–t, then blow my brains out. Work sucks, school sucks, life sucks. I just want out of this  s–t. F–k this state, it really it bad. Think I’m insane? I’m actually more rational, peaceful and less loony than a majority of the citizenry of this entire region.

Despite this FBI contact, the killer had no criminal record, not even a traffic violation. There is also no information suggesting anyone known to the killer had any indication of his intentions, even in retrospect. According to Fox, the killer was investigated by the FBI in March of 2016 for comments he made about buying a “cheap assault rifle” to use in a mass shooting:

The FBI says it investigated the New Mexico school shooter last year about online comments, though he said he had no plans for an attack at the time.

Terry Wade, FBI special agent in charge in Albuquerque, said Atchison made generic comments in a gaming forum and that he and his family were interviewed in March 2016.

‘It was determined no crime was committed,’ he said, adding the investigation was closed.

I have been unable to find any information about whether the FBI informed the local police about the killer’s intentions, or their investigation of him. I would suspect they did not, and would not be about to admit that now. A final word from AZ Central.com:

A vigil for the dead.

The silence was deep on Main Street as 10 p.m. approached on Thursday.

White Christmas lights wrapped around a tall tree. Multi-colored strands raced around the edges of a home down the street from the school and Mexican restaurant.

A hundred yards away, a single set of flashing red and blue lights illuminated the walls of Aztec High School.

An illuminated ‘Happy Holidays’ decoration was hanging over the street, but few were around to see it.

The only people milling around the downtown streets were law-enforcement officers near the A&W fast-food restaurant and the reporters in town.

Aztec’s main drag, like most Main Streets in small towns, shuts down about 8:30 p.m., locals said. It’s part of the charm. It’s why people live in places like this, where horrific acts of violence don’t happen.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen in places like Aztec, everyone kept saying.

Except when it does.

And that’s the point. School shootings remain rare. Individual kids have less chance of being shot in a school shooting than of being struck by lightning or a meteor. The odds are in their favor. But the odds always fall against someone, somewhere, and on December 7, the odds fell against Aztec High School, with a student body of 900, in a small town of about 6000, a place no one would have imagined an attack might take place. The residents of Newtown, CT doubtless never imagined an attack on an elementary school, also in December.

The elements of this attack were entirely predictable and common. The killer was a male loner who obtained his weapon legally. He planned his attack on his own timetable, and no one else was aware of his plans. The school had no effective security measures in place, and no armed school resource officer.

When he attacked, the only means his intended victims had of protecting themselves was to run, hide and try to barricade themselves in classrooms. The killer fired into some closed rooms, and by some miracle, no one was killed, nor did he press an attack in any particular room, something the Newtown killer did. If he had, he could have killed a great many.

As is virtually always the case, the police, though apparently responding very rapidly for this kind of attack, had no role in stopping the killer, who killed himself on his own timetable before the police arrived or could engage him.

The FBI’s involvement a year earlier is unusual, but that involvement had no influence on the killer, apart from possibly causing him to delay his attack for a time.

In writing about such incidents, I always feel I’m repeating myself, but some things bear repeating, as often as necessary until people take the steps necessary to deter and stop school attacks. Here are the lesson this attack teaches:

1) In this case, the FBI had prior warning of a possible attack—that’s rare–but had no idea of the target, and no evidence to proceed against the shooter. There is likewise no evidence the local police were informed, or that if they were, they could have done anything to stop the killer other than warning schools to keep an eye out for him, which his disguise might have foiled.

2) Attacks made by loners, unless they speak very specifically to responsible others about their intentions and plans, are impossible to intercept.

3) The police will never arrive in time to prevent the loss of life, will virtually never find the killer alive, and will virtually always find themselves coordinating medical care for any wounded, and collecting evidence.

4) We have been incredibly lucky thus far in not experiencing attacks by multiple killers, including Islamist terrorists, a probability I chronicled in this fictional article. 

However, we can be certain such an attack will occur, and it will spark copycat attacks.

5) Unarmed teachers and school staff, facing an armed killer, can only run, hide, or try to barricade themselves in classrooms not designed for security. Their lives will be saved only if the killer or killers decide not to breach their door, or decide not to shoot through walls.

6) The only policy that can deter and stop attacks is arming willing teachers and staff, and as many as possible in every school, with concealed handguns.

7) Only publicizing that teachers and staff of every school in a school district are armed and trained, but carefully keeping secret their numbers, is the only possible thing that will deter killers. Even if a given school has no one carrying a handgun, that school too will enjoy the benefits of deterrence.

8) School officials and school board members refusing to arm teachers and staff are betting no attack will occur, and if it does, they’re willing to accept some number of wounded and dead—of other people’s husbands, wives and children–to maintain their progressive purity.

In some states, this may be a bit unfair because armed teachers on school grounds are against the law. In that case, the deaths of children and teachers are on the heads of the legislators.

Every year I update a series on school attacks. The final part of the 2017 version of that series is available here. It contains links to the entire series. I ended that article:

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.

The residents of Aztec, NM may be ready to not only think, but act to protect their schools. Lightning usually doesn’t strike twice in exactly the same place, but it just might.