Monday, December 10, 2007

Work Together: Addressing Mass Killings

Last week in Omaha, a troubled 19-year-old took an AK-47 to a shopping mall and killed eight people before killing himself. His suicide note indicated he wanted to go out in a blaze of glory -- or perhaps the right word is infamy.

Whenever I hear about horrible events like that, my first thought is "What could I have done if I'd been there?" Could I have stopped him? Could I have kept myself from getting shot?

In this case -- as in the case of the Virginia Tech massacre -- my answer to those questions as an individual is "No." Sometimes you're just in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is also the case with terrorist attacks.

Oh, maybe if I'd happened to be near him when he pulled out his gun, I could have done something. The pro-gun lobby would suggest that if someone near him had been armed, they could have shot him. I note that Omaha permits concealed carrying of weapons, so it's possible that some people in the mall were armed. If so, they apparently weren't able to respond quickly enough.

The truth is, most of us don't have the skill it takes to handle an armed person determined to kill, especially one who is basically intent on suicide. That's why I don't think concealed carry laws provide any real protection to people.

So what can we do? We can work together to develop laws and a culture that minimize the chances of such mass shootings.

For example: An AK-47 is a military weapon, not suitable for hunting or for home protection. Yet it is legal to purchase them in Nebraska. While the killer in this case had a felony conviction and therefore could not -- I hope -- have bought any kind of gun, he apparently stole it from his stepfather, who I assume purchased it legally.

We should certainly be discussing whether such weapons should be legal for anyone outside the military. This is a separate question from whether people should be allowed to own guns at all. After all, military assault weapons are a different category from hunting rifles and even handguns. I realize the Second Amendment purists will fight this idea tooth and nail, but I suspect many responsible gun owners would be willing to discuss what weapons are appropriate for individuals.

But there's another issue here, and it is probably more important to our collective safety than the gun issue: The killer in this case was a troubled young man and, as the Kansas City Star notes, he apparently wasn't receiving the kind of treatment he needed.

In this particular case -- unlike in the case of the Virginia Tech shooter -- it seems as if there was some effort to help this young man, but it wasn't enough.

Now I know it's difficult to assess mental illness -- there are many troubled people who are not dangerous to others. But we clearly need to pay more attention to the issue. There are rarely enough resources devoted to treating those with mental illness. Even families with good health insurance often don't get coverage for mental health treatment. The rules for getting government coverage often require families to cut their ties to the ill person. Many state and local governments don't have all the resources they need to take care of people.

We usually think of taking care of the troubled and vulnerable among us as a humanitarian issue -- something we do because we're good people. That makes it the sort of program that gets cut quick in a budget crisis.

Perhaps if we start to think of it as a public safety issue, we'll get better results.


Ct1Catfish said...

Nancy, I have just found your blog and find some interesting self defense comments at your site.

But I think you need more information before posting on the Omaha Mall shooting. Yes, Nebraska does have concealed carry permits, but it is new with very few licensed. There was and individual there trained in defensive gun use but he was not armed, part of the reason is this was a defenseless victims zone, Nebraska allows businesses to post guns as of limits and it is a crime to violate these postings.

Next I need to point out the weapon (AK-47) in this crime is not a military weapon, in fact it is not truly an AK-47. A true AK-47 is a military weapon capable of automatic fire, that’s what the A (Автомат) in AK stands for.

The weapon I question was an auto loading carbine that shares some external parts with the AK-47, this keeps production costs down. The internal workings are entirely different from the AK-47 and are similar to many hunting and self defense carbines. But due to the exterior similarities in appearance this weapon when imported into the United States is referred to incorrectly as the Military AK-47, before commenting on the appropriateness of a firearm for hunting or defense please learn about what you are commenting on.

For further more informed information on The Omaha Mall shooting please refer to

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I note your point about the carry permit -- it may be that there weren't armed citizens in the mall. However, I still question whether most people have the training and skill it takes to handle someone like this shooter.

The recent incident in Colorado emphasizes this point. There, the mass killer was shot by an armed volunteer security guard with police training. That is, she knew what she was doing.

I worry a lot about guns of all kinds in the hands of people without adequate training. Too many people tend to confuse owning a gun with being able to protect themselves. So many tragedies involving guns happen because people really don't understand them.

I also doubt most people want to walk around armed. (You might, and I know other people who do, but I think that's a small group.) For that reason, I think it's important for us as a society to consider improved mental health care and to debate what weapons should be generally available.

Regardless of whether the AK-47 as sold in the US is the same model as the military weapon of the same name, it is still a weapon whose primary purpose is shooting at people. I don't see it as having much value in hunting, for example (perhaps it would be useful if you were being attacked by a quantity of grizzly bears). Banning these weapons wouldn't affect hunters or even home protection.

Of course, many people think the Second Amendment means we all have the right to own weapons. (I'm personally pretty neutral on the Second Amendment.) But it seems to me that even if they are successful in making that argument (the Supreme Court is about to weigh in), we can still have a debate about what constitutes "arms" for the purpose of that Amendment. Can we all own stinger missiles? How about bombs, which I think are pretty much illegal everywhere? Where do we draw the line on arms?

I also think we need to figure out reasonable restrictions. Personally, I advocate licenses for gun owners that are equivalent to drivers' licenses; that is, they would require a written and practical exam and a criminal and mental health background check. I doubt outright prohibition works any better with guns than it does with drugs, and a licensing program would allow us to develop comprehensive training programs.

ct1catfish said...

Nancy, I hope you understand I am not trying to argue the Second Ammendment with you, this is not the place for that. I am just trying to discuss the possiblity that firearms can be used for defensive purposes.

I agree not all people have the training and mindset to handle any self defense situation, I am sure you have encountered that in your self defense training. Some people do look at a gun as a magic talisman that will protect them from all harm this is as true as having a black belt giving you the ability to defend yourself from any attacker. But you would not tell a woman about to be raped not to fight back even if she had no specific training in fighting arts.

The volunteer armed security guard (Jeanne Assam) had previously been a police officer, and had police training. But she currently is not a police office, and anyone can receive that same training, from the same trainers, and many do. In fact FBI studies show criminals train with firearms more that twice the amount that police do and armed civilians train more than that, at 3 - 4 times what police do. Perhaps that is why police shoot innocent bystanders 11% of the time when they use there firearms and for armed civilians it is only half that.
Any death or serious injury is a tragedy for those involved, yet accidental injury or death from a firearm is rare, less than swimming pool accidents, falls, and medical malpractice as well as many other ways people accidently are injured or killed, yet I hear very little concern for these types of accidents. Firearms’ training has been recommended by every pro firearms individual or organization I have ever heard of, and this is perhaps part of the reason that accidental firearm injuries have been dropping.

I will disagree with you on the primary purpose of the weapon used being to shoot at people. The primary purpose to any weapon is to kill. But this rifle like most firearms was designed to kill animals (hunting), very similar to many other hunting rifles and shotguns. If you tried to use this rifle in a fight with a grizzly bear you would loose, it is way underpowered for that fight (a bear is to large it would not penetrate deep enough to damage major organs and not powerful (speed x mass, much like a martial arts strike) enough to give any knockdown on a target that size. But this model rifle has been used to hunt deer, antelope, and several other types of game. Since it shares basic size and handling functions with the assault weapon known as the AK-47 it is easy to handle and use for self defense situations where a fast acting easy to maneuver weapon is necessary.

Even with the hunting and self defense uses of this individual firearm you are correct it would probably not be missed if it was banned, then what should we ban next the Ruger 10/22 it operates similarly has high capacity magazines available, even though it is a standard beginner’s rifle just as it has been for decades. Where does the line get drawn and why, this gun operates with the same function as many other hunting firearms and even uses a bullet that is at the less powerful end of hunting rounds, why should it be banned (stinger missiles and high explosives/bombs would not be considered arms just as our framers did not consider cannon or mortar to be arms.)? The only reason I can come up with is it looks scary to people that do not understand guns, is that a good reason. Should we ban some books because the subject matter is scary or disliked by some individuals?

The basic questions asked, should people have the ability to fight back when they are attacked? What tools should be available to them should they choose to use them? For me the answers are yes fight back with anything and everything available until you have stopped your attacker, a firearm is only a tool that can help balance the power between an attacker and his intended victim, nothing more.

Some people hate the idea of individual responsibility, because someone might call on them to act responsibly.

As I would advise anyone interested in self defense, choosing how and when we will defend ourselves is important. But the most important tool we have for our self defense is between our ears, and it is necessary to train with this for the eventuality that we may have need of it.