17 Dec 2012

Mass School Shootings In America; Lessons To Be Learned

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The tragic shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School, is the latest in a long line of tragic mass school shootings in America which show no signs of abating. Such events shock and horrify us as individuals, as well as society as a whole. Feelings of helplessness, fear, outrage and grief for the families galvanize efforts to do something, anything, to stop these horrific events from ever happening again. Unfortunately, strong emotions and politics often distract and impede making progress in developing a better understanding or more effective responses to these inexplicable events.

Mass School Shootings in America

Common elements of mass shootings

Whether an attack is motivated by that final straw in a deteriorating life, terroristic agendas or rarely, other motives, there are common threads that link these events. Targets are chosen specifically because they are vulnerable, unlikely to be capable of effectively defending themselves and easy to access. Large numbers of potential victims gathered together, engaged in normal day to day life far removed from thoughts of being victimized present an irresistible focal point to plan a mass casualty event. These victims are chosen in part for the intense psychological impact; whether it’s a statement from a crazed mind or a terrorist’s desire to inflict maximum psychological devastation. Security is usually minimal and often complacent or lax in execution.

As security measures, such as armed security guards, metal detectors and locked doors are added, attackers plan for and adapt to these changes. Laws prohibiting entrance with guns or other weapons do not deter these attackers and often encourage targeting schools, malls and other public venues because the attackers presume they will not face effective defenders. Even when faced with armed security personnel, attackers often utilize multiple weapons with greater reach and capacity, as well as body armor. In the event of stricter gun regulations and outright gun bans, attackers readily adapt by utilizing knives, suicide vests or even improvising other more widely lethal means. Regardless of the underlying motive, the end goal is to wreak as much destruction as possible before making their escape, either through death or fleeing the scene.

Elements of the Problem

The greatest difficulty in preventing these events is that they are unpredictable. By that, I mean that it is difficult to predict whether a person going through hard times or dealing with mental illness will cross the line into violence at a particular point. When trying to prevent terroristic attacks, intelligence services, Homeland Security and other agencies must rely on human judgment, timely, accurate and relevant information to thwart attacks before implementation occurs. It is also difficult to predict which particular location will be targeted or when.

It is the unpredictability and comparative rarity of these events that leads to another element of the problem dealing with mass casualty events, that of “it won’t happen to me” or “it won’t happen here”. Denial and its partner, complacency is at the forefront of mass casualty events successfully unfolding. Family members, co-workers, security personnel, policy makers and all citizens share in the responsibility and capability to detect, deter and defeat mass casualty events. In almost all mass casualty events, fantasizing, planning, gathering equipment and travelling to the attack itself all provide opportunities to disrupt an attack, even after it has begun.

What is an effective answer to mass shootings?

There is no single answer to this devastating problem, nor are there easy answers. Unfortunately, too often, government officials in an attempt to seem like they are doing something, anything to help, pass knee jerk legislation such as gun bans that to many sound and look good but do not solve the problem. There are some that think everyone should be armed, which doesn’t take into account that there are some people psychologically or physically incapable of operating a firearm, nor does the mere presence of a firearm always guarantee that a mass shooting event won’t take place. Carrying a gun does not guarantee safety and presents legal issues that should be well understood before taking on such responsibility.

Dealing with this issue must be carried out at all levels of society. Just as in building security to prevent burglaries, mass shootings must be dealt with in a multi-pronged, multi-layered approach. Effective government policies should start with reviewing and revising mental health protocols, reviewing and updating training for educators, both administrative and classroom personnel and reviewing juvenile justice policies and procedures to address youth violence and mental illness. Security personnel, law enforcement and school officials must increase efforts to co-ordinate and co-operate in developing effective security measures for the facilities they’re responsible for. This includes regularly updating them and maintaining diligence and vigilance in following them. Detection prior to attack, denial of access and disruption or defeat of the attack must be the focus of these endeavors.

The most important component involves every individual citizen. Parents must engage their children, both to prepare them to act to help themselves and to monitor their children for danger signs of imminent violence. They must also engage school officials to find out the measures that are being taken to prevent, disrupt and defeat attackers. Parents must be proactive in dealing with their children’s wellbeing. When there is a problem, whether with a troubled child or an unresponsive school official, say something and be persistent. Individual citizens, if they are mentally and physically able, can arm themselves and seek training to effectively respond to mass shooting events.

Armed, well trained citizens provide a valuable complement to security and law enforcement professionals, in that they are there when an attack unfolds. Those who can’t or won’t arm themselves can still contribute by maintaining situational awareness, saying something when they see something amiss and even improvising items at hand to use as weapons to disrupt or disable an attacker.

Although these attacks strike fear and feelings of helplessness, we as individuals and as a society are not helpless in the face of these events. The most important lesson to be learned through these mass school shootings in America is that it can happen anywhere to anyone and understanding that while there is no such thing as truly being secured; we can each take steps to reduce the risk of a successful attack. More people being vigilant and paying attention to their surroundings, being proactive in looking out for the most vulnerable will be far more effective at stopping these horrific attacks than any government action could hope to achieve. A great example is on this same morning, December 14, 2012 where 20 children and 6 adults killed in Connecticut, 22 children were slashed by a knife wielding attacker in China. In 2011, four people were killed by an attacker wielding an axe. Even a repressive, controlling government that has disarmed its citizens cannot protect against a mass casualty attack. Our safety begins and ends with our own vigilance, for ourselves, our families and our communities. An excellent resource for citizens, school officials and security personnel is “The Bulletproof Mind” DVD series by Lt. Col. David Grossman. It goes through the psychology and physiology of preparing for and dealing with violent events like mass shootings.

What are your thoughts on preventing mass shootings? Are gun bans or well-trained armed citizens more effective in preventing or stopping mass shootings? I welcome your thoughts and comments below.

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