Few tragedies make their victims feel more helpless than multiple-victim shootings.
Imagine the terror: Unable to escape, simply waiting for the killer.
With school starting, the April 16 attack at Virginia Tech that left 32 dead is still on many people’s minds. Some are looking for guarantees that such an attack won’t happen again.
But Virginia Tech’s just released report on how to stop future tragedies was pretty disappointing, and this coming week’s Virginia Governor’s task force report isn’t likely to be any better. The university proposes more counseling for mentally troubled students, internet based billboards to alert students of emergencies, putting both the police and fire departments into the same building to allow better coordination, more surveillance cameras, and locks that make it easier for students to get out of buildings.
Well, more cameras might help get campus police to the scene faster, but let’s hope that the next attacker doesn’t commit the attack where there are no cameras or that he doesn’t disable them first. Assuming that the doors to buildings are merely locked as they normally would be--and that the assailant has not blocked them or tied them shut with a chain-- easy to open locks could help.
If a current student is planning the next attack, gets identified as having mental problems and has treatment, and that the treatment is successful, more mental health resources could be helpful.
But one glaring omission remains: The report failed to ask whether there were any common features or similarities among the different multiple-victim public shooting tragedies. And what happens if these policies fail? Should there be some ultimate protection upon which the university can rely?
Of course, these horrors are hardly unique to the United States. In 1996, Martin Bryant killed 35 people at Port Arthur in Tasmania, Australia. In the last half-dozen years, European countries-- including France, Germany and Switzerland-- have experienced multiple-victim shootings.
The worst, in Germany, resulted in 17 deaths; in Switzerland, one attack claimed the lives of 14 regional legislators. Of course, since 1997 there have been multiple attacks in the U.S., with the 13 dead at Columbine.
Prior to Virginia Tech, the two previous most deadly shootings in the U.S. were the 1991 Luby's Cafeteria massacre in Texas, which left 23 people dead, and the shooting at a California McDonald's in 1984, in which 21 people were killed.
All these attacks shared something in common: citizens were already banned from having guns in those areas. Indeed, every multiple-victim public shooting of any significant size in the United States has occurred in one of these gun-free zones.
The problem with gun-control laws is not that there isn't enough regulation, rather that it is primarily the law-abiding, not the criminals, who obey these laws.
Virginia Tech has rigorously enforced its gun-free zone policy and suspended students with concealed handgun permits who have tried to bring handguns onto school property, and it will continue to do so. Imagine what this means for a faculty member fired for bringing even a permitted concealed handgun on campus. It would be impossible for them to get another academic job at any other university. Similarly, a student who gets expelled for a firearms violation will find it virtually impossible to get admitted to another school.
But whether it is the suspensions and expulsions at universities, or even the three-year prison terms that can await those who take guns onto property of K-12 schools in most states, these penalties are completely meaningless for someone intent on killing and facing multiple life sentences or death penalties.
But citizens and police who pack heat do help, because they can stop a shooting while it is happening. Amazingly, opposition to guns on campuses is so extreme that some even oppose police being able to carry guns.
When, in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting, campus police at Brandeis University asked that they be armed to prevent similar tragedies, the president of the Brandeis Student Union even argued that, “the sense of community and the sense of safety would be disturbed very much by having guns on campus.”
The administration is now considering arming its officers but has not taken action. By Sept. 10, the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa will also decide whether to end an almost 30-year ban and allow campus police to again carry handguns.
Police with guns are certainly helpful, but there simply aren’t enough police to ensure that an officer will be at the scene when shooting starts. For example, this past spring at Virginia Tech, each officer on duty had to cover well over 250 acres.
Up until the early 1970s, Israel had to deal with the cold reality of terrorists who would take machine guns into shopping malls, schools, and Synagogues and open fire. That type of attack doesn’t occur any more. Why? Israelis realized that armed citizens could stop such an attacker before he did much damage.
About 15 percent of Israelis are now licensed to carry weapons, and determined terrorists have to resort to less effective, secretive routes of attack such as bombing.
Increasing the probability that someone will be able to protect himself or herself increases deterrence. Even when any single person might have a small probability of having a concealed handgun, the probability that at least someone in the crowd will have a gun is very high.
While right-to-carry laws-- now operating in 40 states -- do reduce violent crime generally, the effect is much larger for multiple-victim shootings. Normally about 2 to 6 percent of adults in any state have permits, and for most crimes that means some deterrence. But for a shooting in a public place where there might be dozens or hundreds of people, it will almost ensure that at least someone -- someone who is unknown to the attacker -- will be able to defend themselves and others.
People won't have to wait helplessly for the killer to get them.
Police are extremely important in deterring crime but, as this latest attack showed again, they almost always arrive after the crime has been committed. Annual surveys of crime victims in America by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics continually show that, when confronted by a criminal, people are safest if they have a gun.
Just as the threat of arrest and prison can deter criminals from committing a crime, so does the fact that victims can defend themselves.
Other countries wonder how millions of Americans can be allowed to legally carry concealed handguns. We must be crazy. Won't blood flow in the streets?
Many Americans also initially shared the same fears, but not any longer. The permit holders have proven to be extremely law-abiding. There is a reason no state that has allowed citizens to carry guns has reversed course.
Most people understand that guns deter criminals. Suppose you or your family are being stalked by a criminal who intends to harm you. Would you feel safer putting a sign in front of your home saying "This home is a gun-free zone"? Would it frighten criminals away?
Good intentions don't necessarily make good laws. What counts is whether the laws ultimately save lives. Unfortunately, too many gun laws primarily disarm law-abiding citizens, not criminals.
John Lott is the author of Freedomnomics and a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland. Two of his sons are attending public universities in Virginia. Maxim Lott is a college student in Virginia at the College of William & Mary.