This is the second in the series of articles on school shootings and how to deal with them. The first is available here. Note that I do not presume to absolutely prevent them; that’s plainly impossible for reasons I’ll explain in the near future. However, effective deterrence is a reality, and once a school attack begins, attackers can be stopped dead, potentially before they can harm anyone.
This updated article focuses on the realities of the threat we face, not only from domestic killers–adult and juvenile–but Islamist terrorists who have decades of experience attacking schools around the world.
Terrorists attempting attacks on American soil have, in recent years, had a run of bad luck. A car bomber is thwarted by an alert citizen in Times Square; would-be bombers are stung by the FBI in Dallas and Baltimore, an Iranian plot to assassinate by explosives the Saudi ambassador in a Washington DC restaurant—also certainly killing many innocents, was intercepted, and on December 11, 2012, a shooter in an Oregon shopping mall killed two shoppers, but immediately after seeing an armed citizen who, fortunately, ignored the gun-free status of the mall pointing a handgun at him, shot and killed himself. And on May 3, 2015, in Garland, TX, two jihadists seeking to chill free speech through mass murder were intercepted and killed by a single police officer armed only with a handgun before they could harm anyone. No doubt, other plots have been thwarted in earlier stages of execution, plots about which most will never know, that the methods and sources of our police and intelligence agencies might be protected, unless The New York Times or similar media vermin get their blood-soaked paws on the information.
But such good fortune has not been universal. During the seven years of the Bush Administration following 9-11, there were no successful terrorist attacks on American soil. In the first four years of the Obama Administration alone, hope and change produced multiple successful attacks, including the Fort Hood attack, where 12 were killed and 31 injured. Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut), commenting on the report on that act of domestic terrorism, observed that it was not only preventable, but was the result of a climate of political correctness. The Obama Administration responded by issuing orders forbidding anyone to accurately identify our Islamist enemy. And on July 17, 2015, two military installations in Chattanooga, TN were attacked by a jihadist. Four U.S. Marines were killed.
NOTE: It’s little known in the civilian world that the only people allowed to carry firearms on continental US Military bases and installations such as recruiting offices are generally military police officers. All other military members and civilians working on those installations are unarmed unless their specific duties call for carrying weapons, thus making Ft. Hood, the Navy Yard, Chattanooga, and other attacks possible. Our own Continental US military installations–and many overseas–are essentially “gun free” zones.
While ISIS has been essentially eliminated as a credible military threat, Iran, the world’s premier state sponsor of terrorism, continues to spend the billions sent it by Barack Obama on anti-American terrorists around the globe. The wave of the future is likely to be terrorist attacks on American soil like the December 2, 2015 attack in San Bernardino, and the June 13, 2016 nightclub attack in Orlando. And on November 7, 2017, in New York City, a Muslim terrorist claiming to be acting for ISIS, injured 11 and killed 8–by running them down with a rented truck.
Due to misplaced, misinformed good intentions and political correctness run amok, America remains particularly vulnerable.
Many Americans give lip service to the idea that everything changed on September 11, 2001 when Islamic terrorists brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center. For our schools, however, that process of change began on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado. Unfortunately, far too many–particularly educators–have learned the wrong lessons or merely reinforced unthinking, ineffective prejudices.
School shootings and terrorist attacks on schools are notorious primarily because they are relatively rare. Students are, statistically, more likely to be killed in an automobile accident, struck by lightning or hit by a meteor than to be involved in a Columbine, Virginia Tech or Beslan-like attack. That is the good news.
The bad news is intelligence agencies have, for many years, been developing information that indicates terrorists intend to strike soft targets in America in the same ways that they have struck soft targets in other nations. And even if such intelligence did not exist, it wouldn’t take Nostradamus to forecast the likelihood of such attacks.
The FBI has admitted it is pursuing active terror investigations in every state.
Mass, coordinated attacks originating from abroad are always possible, but perhaps the greatest current danger comes from homegrown jihadists who do not have consistent, operational ties to foreign terror masters. Such neophyte jihadists have, to date, often made mistakes that have allowed law enforcement to intercept them, but as has already been noted, not every one of them has been so careless, and many will not be so careless in the future. The Boston Marathon bombing is a case in point.
It has been often and accurately noted that in the terror war, we not only have to be very, very good, we have to be lucky 100% of the time. Any given terrorist has to be lucky only once to do damage far beyond the localized destruction of their attack.
An allied danger are deranged Americans who, for whatever reason, decide to attack innocents and go out in a blaze of deranged glory, the Columbine killers, the Virginia Tech killer, the Newtown, Connecticut killer, the Umpqua Community College killer, the Parkland killer and the Santa Fe, Texas killer, all of who would certainly have liked me to mention their names, are obvious examples.
Unlike plots involving substantial tactical knowledge and planning, and large amounts of explosives or other military ordinance, school attacks require nothing more than a few pockets-full of ammunition and commonly available, non-military firearms. The Santa Fe attacker used a 12 gauge pump action shotgun and a .38 caliber revolver; the Virginia Tech shooter a 9mm and a .22LR caliber handgun, yet both were somehow as deadly as others using common weapons touted by the media as virtual weapons of mass destruction. Such plots involving only one or two killers are virtually impossible to intercept or prevent.
Due to an unfortunate mix of outdated social, academic and legal factors, schools are uniquely vulnerable to attack. The feel-good trend of the 80s and 90s to declare school zones “gun free,” to “make a statement,” may have impressed those who believe statement-making terribly virtuous, and would doubtless have unjustifiably raised their self-esteem to stratospheric heights because they “felt safe,” and assured their communities they too could feel safe. However such high-minded but feckless expressions of feelings have not provoked good will in sociopaths and terrorists, nor will it cause killers seeking a soft target, to engage in enlightened soul-searching.
For schools that have considered the possibility of such attacks (many have not), response to an armed attack primarily amounts to running and hiding, locking classroom doors, and reminiscent of early Cold War duck-and-cover drills, overturning and hiding behind desks, relying on 3/4” particle board desktops for protection from bullets and bombs. Doors and desks don’t provide protection from either. Only coldly sober, rational tactical thinking, planning and action can deter or thwart attacks. Running the occasional “run and hide” drill deters no one. And when a killer is not deterred and attacks, hiding, particularly hiding poorly, provides no real protection, buying mere seconds or minutes of life until the killer finds those cowering unfortunates.
Sadly, tactical thinking remains off the radar of most politicians and educators, and only recently has any tactical thinking gone into the design and construction of school facilities. The very nature of fire codes—to say nothing of the architectural necessities and conventions of American schools—serve to defeat even the most earnest efforts to create more secure schools.
Some schools have begun to install door locks that open only by means of coded identification cards, but place the readers next to acres of common plate glass, easily broken by hammer, rock or rifle butt, to say nothing of simply shooting out the glass, as the Newtown killer did. And even if this were not so, fire codes universally require exterior school doors—and not a few interior doors—to have panic bars in case of fire, so kids can’t be accidently locked in a school. This is a happy circumstance for school shooters who merely have to break a pane of glass, reach in and press a panic bar to enter. Breaking a bit of glass is not likely to give someone planning the mass murder of children pause. Even if a school spends an enormous amount of money for reinforced doors and bullet resistant glass or advanced polymer windows, a killer can defeat them within seconds with nothing more technologically advanced than a crowbar or simply by driving a vehicle through them.
Attacks by “active shooters,” whether Islamist terrorists or non-ideological, domestic juveniles or adults, have many elements in common. All have missions in mind, and for most, survival is secondary. Most expect to die, either through suicide or via suicide by cop–forcing the police to shoot them. Most school shooters to date have committed suicide after doing substantial damage, but long before being engaged by the police. Both types have no interest in negotiation, and on the rare occasions when they speak to the police at all, it is merely a means of obtaining greater publicity or playing for more time to rape, torture and kill helpless victims. Both care about police intervention only because the police might interfere with their plans. Because they must behave in legally proscribed, predictable ways, the police do not and cannot deter such people.
Unlike common criminals, they have no reluctance in killing police officers. They plan their attacks with the goal of causing the maximum damage–usually in loss of innocent lives– in the shortest time, which tends to produce the most and most lasting publicity, and/or the greatest glory in whatever hellish afterlife they covet.
At the Virginia Tech attack in April of 2007, the killer, pausing after two initial murders, prepared and mailed a package of video, writings and photographs to NBC, which copied everything before bothering to call the police to turn over the originals, and blitzed the airwaves for days with the killer’s lunatic pronouncements. In short, the media gave him exactly what he wanted. In arrogantly and mindlessly defending their actions, NBC made clear to any and all future killers that their insane manifestos would receive a similarly warm welcome from the media. This has not been lost on those considering similar atrocities.
LESSONS: All active shooter threats, regardless of ideology or motivation, are deadly dangerous. School attackers will not behave as common criminals, won’t play by the rules of the criminal justice system, do not intend to survive and will kill as many innocents as possible as quickly as possible. Negotiation has proved to be futile; most won’t bother to answer–if they’re not dead by their own hands before the police arrive. The press will be on the side of domestic shooters and Islamist terrorists in their publicity seeking desires.
The Columbine killers tried to kill as many teachers and students (15) as possible before they were stopped. Considering the many hours afforded them by the police, it is amazing that hundreds weren’t killed. The police were ineffective because they relied on an outdated response model that assumed attackers were common criminals, wanted to negotiate, and that time was on the side of the police. A school liaison officer did trade a few rounds of gunfire with the shooters early in the attack, but quickly withdrew, doing as he had been taught: contain and control, let the professionals–Special Weapons and Tactics–handle it.
By the time a SWAT team assembled, organized and entered the building, the murderers had already killed their classmates and themselves, and a wounded teacher who might have been saved slowly bled to death over the course of hours. The Columbine killers brought a crude propane tank bomb, hoping to set off an explosion that would kill scores, but were not able to detonate it.
The killers at Columbine were not trained, fanatic, religiously motivated terrorists with military weapons, but two sociopathic teenagers employing common, unremarkable weapons. They lacked the ideology, technical knowledge and tactical skill to be truly effective, yet still managed to cause substantial damage.
The Newtown killer was also not a trained fanatic, nor was he a religiously or politically motivated terrorist. He employed commonly available, unremarkable weapons, but because no one was able to oppose him, and because he chose to kill elementary aged children and female teachers, he was able to cause horrific damage in a short time –only ten minutes from shooting his way into the school until he killed himself. No mass rush at the killer was possible, and there is no evidence that any school personnel were able to effectively oppose the killer, though some may have tried to shield their students with their bodies. It took the first responding officer nine minutes from the beginning of the attack to arrive, but no officer entered the school for nearly 15 minutes. By then, the killer had been dead for about five minutes. In the history of school shootings, this is a relatively rapid response.
Imagine how long that 15 minutes must have seemed to the children and teachers hiding in Sandy Hook Elementary School, waiting for their turn to be murdered.
The Virginia Tech killer, who chained shut doors to keep victims in and the police out, also had more than enough time to kill 32 innocents before killing himself. He was armed only with two common handguns, including one of only .22LR caliber like the Chardon, OH killer. The response of the police at Virginia Tech was many times faster than the Columbine response, yet like the police at Columbine they had no role in stopping the murderer, and their faster response mattered not at all to the victims or their families. In fact, the numbers of cases where the police have had any actual role in stopping an active shooter are vanishingly small.
LESSON: In order to save lives, attackers must be immediately engaged and neutralized. Time is not on the side of the authorities and is absolutely not on the side of the victims. By the time a SWAT team–even if one is available–can be mobilized, arrive and formulate a plan, their only useful task will almost certainly be in helping to remove the dead and dying.
The 9-11 terrorists had no short-term goals save killing as many Americans as possible. There were no demands, no negotiations, nothing to contain or control. It was the passengers of Flight 93, the airliner the terrorists intended to crash into the White House or Congress, alerted by cell phone to the terrorist’s intentions, who changed the response model independently of the authorities. Crying “let’s roll,” they overwhelmed the terrorists, forcing the plane to crash in a Pennsylvania field, far short of the terrorist’s target. Terrorists now know American airline passengers will not meekly wait for the authorities to save them. As positive as this development is, it tends to focus terrorists on softer targets.
Few are as soft as schools, as the world learned at Beslan, North Ossetia-Alainia, Russia during several days that began on September 01, 2004 when Islamic terrorists blew up a school, killing more than three hundred and wounding hundreds more during three days of rape, torture and murder. This tactic should not have been a surprise, and would not have been a surprise had the mainstream media honestly done its job in the past. Israel has suffered the threat and reality of terrorist attacks on schools for decades. These attacks have been, at best, underreported in the American media, but one particular aspect of these attacks, and the most effective response to them–in Israel and potentially in America–has been ignored, even suppressed by the MSM: the use of firearms by school staff to deter and stop school attacks.
LESSON: Terrorists have been attacking schools and students, throughout the world, for decades. Domestic active shooters have been doing the same in America for decades. The threat is real and is already present. What is new is the potential for an escalation in the number of attacks and in their deadliness.
Living with terrorism in a way that is, for the moment, relatively foreign to Americans, the Israelis have adopted practical responses to terror. For decades, Israeli teachers have been armed, even with true assault rifles (there is no such thing as an “assault weapon,” which is an anti-gun/MSM invention) and submachine guns, changing soft targets to hard targets, deterring attacks and preventing or minimizing the loss of life when attacks occur. As a result, school attacks are rare.
A January 25, 2008 attack on an Israeli High School by two armed terrorists ended with several injured students and only slight wounds to the two school counselors who used their handguns to quickly kill the terrorists. Two armed school counselors protected their own lives and the lives of their students. They were not police officers, commandos or action heroes, but school counselors. This story received scant attention in the American press, which continues to downplay or ignore Israeli, and many similar American, success stories, and routinely ignores the one to two million (or more) times each year honest citizens use firearms to stop criminal assault, usually without firing a shot.
The anti-gun Clinton Administration embarked on a study in 1997, attempting to debunk the millions of uses of firearms in self-defense each year. They planned to use what they assumed they would find in support of even more stringent gun control measures, but were forced to admit Americans use firearms for self-defense as often as 1.5 million times a year. With the help of a compliant media, they tried–unsuccessfully–to bury the results as quickly as possible.
In Pearl, Mississippi on October 01, 1997, a crazed adolescent armed with a rifle shot nine students, killing two and wounding seven. Who has heard of Assistant Principal Joel Myrick who stopped the rampage, saving untold lives? Virtually no one, because he used a gun to stop the shooter. Myrick ran a quarter of a mile to his car, which was parked off school property to comply with the federal law then in force (but since substantially overturned) prohibiting firearms within 1000 feet of a school. Retrieving his handgun, he ran back to the school and confronted the shooter, disarming him and holding him for police. Media accounts, when they mentioned Myrick, virtually all failed to mention the presence and role of his handgun.
On January 16, 2002 at the Appalachian Law School in Grundy, Virginia, a crazed student went on a shooting rampage, killing three and wounding three. He was stopped by two fellow students, Mikael Gross and Tracy Bridges, who ran to their cars to retrieve their handguns. At gunpoint, they ended his killing and held him for police.
Dr. John Lott, in his book The Bias Against Guns, recounts how he conducted a Lexis/Nexus search (a specialized search engine service that retrieves stories from media sources) of the news stories surrounding this event. Of 208 news stories throughout the nation in the week following the attack, only four mentioned the attack was stopped with the use of firearms. Only two reported that Gross and Bridges actually pointed their guns at the shooter.
In his book, Arrogance, former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg, upon reading Lott’s research into the incident, wrote of his surprise that the MSM would leave out such a noteworthy and essential detail. Conducting his own research, he discovered Lott was correct. Goldberg wrote:
Only a tiny handful of reporters in the entire country were willing to report an essential part of the story: that it wasn’t just the killer who used a gun on campus that day, but two of the rescuers too.
Considering media treatment of the issue, it is hardly surprising that so many Americans buy into the false and deadly promise of safety of the “gun-free school zone.” It is equally unsurprising that many Americans do not recognize the very real threat of school attacks by terrorists, foreign and domestic. In the most deadly American school attacks of the modern era–-Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, Parkland-–the police had no role in ending the killing, another fact, which has gone unmentioned by the media. For school attacks, this is the rule, not the exception.
LESSON: If the goal is saving lives–-and where school children are involved, what more important goal exists?–-force must be met, immediately,with equal or greater counter-force. The police virtually never arrive in time to make a difference.
I am not denigrating the police. Police work was my first career. That is why I understand the reality of police response. The police love to catch dangerous criminals in the act. It’s what they live for, but in the real world, unlike television, catching bad guys in the act or preventing their crimes is uncommon precisely because most bad guys take pains to avoid being caught and because there are, relative to the size of any community, few police officers. The chance of a police officer being close enough to a school to prevent the injury or death of students or staff when a school shooting occurs is remote.
There is some potentially good news. American attitudes about guns have been undergoing a rapid and dramatic transformation. For the first time in recent history, more and more Americans are coming to understand that “gun free” school zones are actually “victim disarmament” zones that attract rather than deter killers. It may be possible, and hopefully without too many more deaths, to change state, and perhaps even federal laws. The first two years of the Trump Administration have seen positive moves in this direction.
In the remaining installments of this series, I’ll elaborate on the difficulties the police face in responding to active shooters, and on the realities of time and distance that frustrate their response. I’ll also propose a means to harden schools, and address the arguments for and against that proposal.
I hope to see you, gentle readers, next Tuesday.