The recent mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., has triggered yet another vigorous debate in the media — and in the halls of government — about gun control. While this type of non-politically motivated attack on civilians by a single individual is relatively rare, the event drives a powerfully heartbreaking, gut-wrenching sense of terror through the community and nation where it occurs.
And rightfully so. While government and law enforcement agencies can plan and prepare to counter or curtail military invasions, terrorist attacks and the activities of organized crime, the lone gunman — in this case, the accused is a former neuroscience student named James Eagan Holmes — on a mission of destruction is nearly impossible to detect or to deter.
As we look back over similar events in the last 10 years, the disturbing behavior patterns of these criminals prior to the shootings become apparent. But it’s not an understanding that brings much comfort. Instead, it verifies how difficult it is to prevent this kind of crime.
On April 16, 2007, in two separate attacks, Seung-Hui Cho shot 49 people on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va., killing 32 and wounding 17 before committing suicide. Although it’s impossible to know what was going through this young man’s mind, a review of his past showed how Cho became mentally and emotionally disconnected from society. His history of mental illness, social problems and disturbing classroom behavior all come together to show how he became a threat, but only in hindsight. With the limited amount of information we currently have on Holmes’ background, it seems he followed the same path of social disconnection, but possibly in a much more rapid descent.
Perpetrators of mass shootings tend to be meticulous planners, spending months or even years preparing to make their strike. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the masterminds behind the April 20, 1999, massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., are an example of long-term planning and concealment. Early in 1997, Harris was posting online about his anger towards society. On January 30, 1998, Harris and Klebold were arrested for stealing tools from a parked van that may have been intended to help them prepare for their assault. In the 16 months after this arrest, the boys carefully documented their activities leading up to this tragedy in videos and journals. This included illegally obtaining and altering firearms, laying out their strategy in detail and constructing over 90 explosive devices. Unfortunately, all of this evidence came to light after the fact because these young men were careful to keep it hidden. Preliminary evidence in the Aurora case shows that the accused shooter may have spent six months planning the shooting.
The most disturbing aspect of these terrible shootings is the selection of “soft” targets. Much like terrorists do, these criminals look to inflict maximum damage as efficiently as possible by selecting easily accessible and crowded areas. On March 13, 1996, in the Scottish town of Dunblane, 43-year-old Thomas Hamilton entered Dunblane Primary School armed with four handguns. He then shot and killed 16 children and one adult before committing suicide. It remains one of the worst criminal acts using handguns in the United Kingdom’s history.
In much the same way as Hamilton chose to kill people he knew could not fight back, Holmes allegedly chose a dark, noisy movie theater filled with fans who were oblivious to the coming assault. Evidence points to his use of homemade smoke devices that caused skin, throat and eye irritation. He also fortified himself with body armor and possibly painkillers in order to stay on his feet as long as possible in case someone shot back.
All these attacks, no matter how we analyze them, are monstrous. But how exactly are we supposed to respond to them? What do we do with people whose mental state and horrific choices lead them to plan and carry out mass murder? The solutions that some policy makers would like to implement would require us to convert our free country into a kind of police state in which our movements, purchases, and mental state are constantly tracked and monitored.
Since this Big Brother approach will not be tolerated by Americans — and would not necessarily solve the problem anyway — liberal busybodies move on to the next debatable point: Ban the guns. Everything from motions to repeal the Second Amendment to bans on high-capacity magazines are fielded and debated. The U.K. used the Dunblane massacre as leverage in passing draconian gun restrictions, including the Firearms (Amendment) Act and the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act in 1997. These bans have greatly reduced the numbers of guns in the hands of the citizens of the U.K., but they certainly have not reduced violent crime. Rather, crime levels have climbed.
This desire to ban guns shows a fundamental flaw of logic, which is to blame the tools a criminal uses instead the criminal himself. For example, how does society react when an unlicensed, mentally unfit or substance-impaired individual chooses to get behind the wheel of a powerful motor vehicle and inflict death and destruction? This happens far more frequently than mass shootings, but what has been done about it? Where is the debate? Where is the hue and cry for change? Why not increase the legal driving age to 35-years of age? All heavy, powerful SUVs could be banned in favor of lightweight, and less lethal, Smart cars. All speed limits could be dropped to 20 mph to reduce the number of fatal collisions. If fact, why not collectively sue the automotive industry for providing people with easy-to-operate machines that are, by their design, inherently dangerous to operate?
Americans, quite logically, are not ready to sacrifice the freedoms that a diverse supply of automobiles provides because of the bad behavior of a minority of motorists. Instead of sliding down the slippery slope of blaming vehicle-inflicted harm on the company that built the car, the dealership that sold the car or the gas station that put fuel in its tank, we rightfully prosecute the person who was driving it.
So what should we do in the face of past and future mass shootings? First and foremost, we need to grieve this meaningless loss of innocent life. Let’s do what we can to lend support to those who are suffering so much at this time.
Secondly, let’s tell the members of our government to place the blame for mass shootings where it belongs: the instigator of the crime. Since criminals will always rise up to do harm no matter what legislation we have in place, let’s work to ensure the government will be vigilant and vigorous in enforcing the strict laws we already have in place. In the case of accused murderer James Holmes, he has been officially charged with 24 counts of first-degree murder for the shooting. Each count comes with a possible death sentence, which is already the natural limit of what the law can do to punish anyone.
Finally, for those who have decided that now is the time to purchase a defensive firearm, please do so with proper foresight and planning. Research your purchase so that you know the gun of your choosing is one you can safely operate and practice with regularly. Make sure to meet federal and state requirements necessary to legally purchase and carry a firearm. Follow up your purchase with the appropriate gun safety and self defense training.
Remember, a gun is just one tool that can be added to a personal protection plan. It’s the information lodged between your ears that ultimately provides the means to stay safe. Although individuals exercising their rights to be responsibly armed cannot provide a solution in every single personal protection situation, citizen-owned firearms do provide important defensive options that cannot be applied in any other way.