He stopped when confronted with force…
What played out on Friday night in Santa Barbara was a deranged 22 year old carried out his plans for mass murder. He legally purchased three pistols and used one or more of them to kill three apparently randomly selected people and wound thirteen others. Prior to that, he also used a legally purchased knife to kill his three roommates. What ultimately stopped him was a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
As the national spotlight swings back to mass murder, we will bring up guns, drugs, psychosis, background checks, social engagement and the usual fare. We can look at each of these in detail and come up with some options that may in some ways improve our ability to prevent or mitigate (reduce) the effectiveness of a potential attack. Typically preventative measures catch most of the national spotlight in phrases like “Never Again”, “Stop the Violence” or “Save our Kids”.
Preventing Mass Murder
Prevention by definition means the attack never occurs. In order to do that, we have to stop the potential attacker from becoming a violent criminal. We can look at the mental health aspect, prescription drug use and on the surface, it would seem there may be some hope there. A majority of mass murderers seem to have been prescribed anti-psychotic drugs at points in their life, but this is a far cry from causation. Could it be that people in need of anti-psychotic medications are more likely than the general population to engage in these types of behavior?
Blaming anti-psychotic medication is akin to the left blindly blaming the gun for the act, and it gets us nowhere. Taking a legislative approach to mental health is even worse. The eventuality of this line of thought is it would put health care providers at odds with their patients and stop people who need treatment from seeking it out. Even if that were not the case, the concept that somehow our mental health professionals have the data and experience to determine who is a risk and who is not is flawed. Identifying criminals before they act has proven to be well beyond the capabilities of the existing system. Are we to therefore treat all mentally ill people as if they are a mass murderer waiting to emerge? There are no effective or good solutions in a mental health legislation approach to preventing violence.
Another popular axis of prevention is social intervention. Friends, parents, teachers and coworkers all educated on the signs and symptoms and willing and able to step in. We have seen a number of attacks thwarted in exactly this manner; however, we have seen a number of attacks succeed in spite of growing social awareness. This same approach can reduce crime in all forms, but it will not prevent determined attackers from carrying out a plan. Social intervention is a tool that should be used and pushed out as much as feasible, and while it deters, it does not consistently prevent.
Gun restrictions are typically proposed as a preventative solution. In this case, if there were no guns involved, there would very likely to have been less deaths and less severe injuries. That said it would not prevent attack. Gun control is a mitigation tactic, and not a preventative tool. We have some additional barriers to this mechanism of prevention as well. First is that pesky second amendment, which would require effectively rewriting a contentious and hotly debated portion of our constitution. The second is that this line of argument assumes that the potential criminals access to firearms can be legislated away. This seems fairly unlikely in a country with more firearms than automobiles. Ultimately, this attack shows exactly how effective California’s gun laws (nearly the most restrictive in the country) were at prevention. They were not effective in the least.
Mitigating the Effectiveness of Mass Murderers
With a lack of effective preventative options on the table, we are left with mitigation tactics that reduce the effectiveness of the attack. In the vast majority of these attacks, the attack ended when the attacker was shot, either by someone else or by himself. From a pragmatic perspective, the sooner this occurs, the less victims there are. The longer an active shooter is shooting, the more victims we can expect. Physically stopping an active shooter, usually with a bullet has proven to be the most effective means we have available to us, bar none.
There are a number of structural mitigation techniques from bullet proof glass to hardened structures and entry control points that can reduce the effectiveness of attacks and provide deterrents. As we continue to expand the use of these items in schools, public buildings and private spaces, we can in some cases substantially limit the violence a criminal can inflict. Ultimately, these protective measures can be an effective means of limiting damage, and in some cases reducing access to other victims.
The most readily available and effective means of mitigating the effect of an active shooter is stopping the attacker, which typically results in the death or severe wounding of the attacker. Law enforcement are the best suited to respond in mass and end an attack, but law enforcement and dedicated security have typically not been on scene when these incidents occur. The cost of a tactical response unit on every street corner is grossly impractical and furthermore, none of us really want to live in a police state.
The dedication of private security is an equally expensive mitigation option, that is being used in a variety of locations. We have yet to see the effectiveness on a large scale, however, it is plausible and even likely that we will see some type of deterrent effect. Additionally, we have seen armed private citizens end violent incidents in a number of cases. Nick Meli in Oregon last year is probably the best textbook example but there are several others. That said, we don’t know how many private citizens stop what would have been a large-scale attack, when they defend themselves from what starts as a single attack.
The question quickly becomes one of training. How many private citizens are actually capable of making an accurate shot under extreme pressure, and the reality of that answer is very few. The qualification standards across the country for concealed carry are outright laughable. If that is the extent of the abilities of the average gun owner in this country, the public would be safer if they chose not to bring their weapons to the attack. In this country we rely on the individual to understand the requirements and train themselves to a reasonable level of proficiency. In many cases, that personally determined level of proficiency for firearms ownership has proven to be grossly inadequate.
This quickly puts us back to that pesky second amendment again and what the term shall not be infringed means. That is beyond the scope of this article, but the short version is it already has been, repeatedly since 1934, and we ignore the clear language in every state and federal piece of legislation on guns. These laws are clearly unconstitutional, but for what society considers the greater good, we ignore that reality. The social question we are struggling with is what is a “reasonable” level of infringement. Unfortunately, that has no reasonable answer depending on your background, experience and political leanings.
The Reality of Stopping the Elliot Rodgers of our World
While we may not be able to agree on what a reasonable level of infringement is, what we know is an armed and properly trained person in the vicinity of an active shooter is the best chance we have of mitigating the effectiveness of an attack. From a statistical perspective, the more armed and properly trained people in the crowd, the better our chances of one or more of them ending the assault. Conversely, untrained or poorly trained armed personnel in the vicinity who choose to use their firearms are likely to add to the death toll.
The problem of unbalanced people taking out their frustrations with their own inadequacies on the general public is unlikely to be prevented. A large body of competent, armed citizens is the best means of mitigating the risk that active shooters pose. Regardless of the legal wrangling around the second amendment, each of us has a personal role to play in our own safety and security. We don’t have to choose to be a helpless victim in this country. In choosing not to be a victim, you may well be the person that saves others lives in the process of saving your own.
It is unfortunate that there was not one armed and competently trained person in proximity to the attack to bring an end to Elliot Rodger sooner. Six people are dead, thirteen wounded and we are no closer to a solution. Despite the dysfunction in Washington, each of you can make your community safer by doing your part to reduce the victims in your community by one. Learn what to look for, what to do and how to respond to an active shooter in your community. Take the next step and learn how to protect your person and your family. If you choose to bring a weapon in to that equation, then you also have an added responsibility of being proficient with it.
Psychiatrists, dedicated security and material solutions all play a part, but it’s the community that will stop the violence, or choose to perpetuate it with poor decisions. Get involved and figure out what you can do to improve your contribution to the safety of the community you live in. If your choice is to completely abdicate that responsibility to police or dedicated security, you are a part of the problem. I sincerely hope each of you are willing to put forth at least some level of effort to be part of the solution!
~ Patrick Henry