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A rational response to Sandy Hook

Op-Ed

Defensive survival steps, 'citizens watch' systems and bans on large-capacity magazines and semiautomatic assault weapons are reasonable measures.

January 15, 2013|By Michael Shermer
  • According to James Alan Fox, Northeastern University criminologist, between 1980 and 2010 there were, on average, 20 mass murders a year (defined by the FBI as four or more killings in the same incident) with an average annual death toll of about 100. Above: A trash bin full of handguns collected during the LAPD Gun Buyback Program event on Dec. 26.
According to James Alan Fox, Northeastern University criminologist,… (Joe Klamar / AFP / Getty Images…)

President Obama has vowed to do everything in his power to prevent another Sandy Hook. "Because what choice do we have?" he asked. "We can't accept events like this as routine."

Unfortunately, such events are far more random than they are routine. They are what the statistician Nassim Taleb calls "Black Swan events": improbable, rare and unpredictable. We will never be able to prevent them. But that does not mean we can do nothing in response.

We should start by understanding the distinction between murder and mass murder. According to FBI crime reports, between 2007 and 2011 the United States experienced an annual average of 13,700 homicides, with guns responsible for 67.8% of those. That's an average of 9,289 people shot dead a year, 25 a day, a little more than one an hour.

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By contrast, according to James Alan Fox, Northeastern University criminologist, between 1980 and 2010 there were, on average, 20 mass murders a year (defined by the FBI as four or more killings in the same incident) with an average annual death toll of about 100. That's a mere 0.01% of the average homicide total.

If we want to save lives by preventing gun deaths, the larger problem of individual homicides, suicides and accidents is the place to begin, not events such as Sandy Hook.

Here's another sobering statistic. According to a 1998 study published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, for "every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides." In other words, a gun is 22 times more likely to be used in a criminal assault, an accidental death or injury, a suicide attempt or a homicide than it is for self-defense.

So if arming yourself isn't an answer, and if Sandy Hook events cannot be prevented, what can we do? Here are three evidence-based actions we can take right now that could save lives.

Prepare to survive. Watch "Run. Hide. Fight. Surviving an Active Shooter Event" on YouTube. If you're in an office, school or any such facility and you hear gunfire, call 911, then run, escape from the building. If others hesitate, encourage them to join you but leave them behind if they do not move quickly.

You have seconds to act and cannot afford to delay.

If there is no clear escape route, hide beneath a desk, behind a wall or door, anywhere you fit. If you are in a room, lock the door and barricade it with furniture. Remain as quiet as possible; silence your cellphone.

If you encounter the shooter, fight like your life depends on it — because it does.

During the Virginia Tech massacre, the student shooter Seung-Hui Cho moved from classroom to classroom, killing 32 and wounding 17. But the body count would have been much higher had it not been for professor Liviu Librescu, who barricaded his classroom door and had his students escape through the windows, before he was shot dead through the door. At Columbine, a number of students hiding under desks and tables survived, and a blocked classroom door saved 30 students within.

Create "citizens watch" systems to help identify individuals who show signs of potential violence. States already must report to the FBI those who have been judged mentally ill, and that information is used to prevent them from purchasing weapons. But there are a lot of ways the process can fail, as we've seen in Arizona, Virginia and Colorado. While we look for ways to improve it, we can respond locally with law enforcement hotlines.

Just as you're admonished by Transportation Security Administration agents, Homeland Security leaders and Metro posters to "say something if you see something," we should become aware of warning signs and respond to them.

For example, on Jan. 7, ABC News reported that an Alabama teacher turned over to the police a student journal that "contained several plans that looked like ... attacks of violence and danger on the school." An investigation resulted in the arrest of a 17-year-old on attempted assault charges after police searched his home and found numerous cans filled with pellets that, according to the sheriff, were just "a step or two away from being ready to explode."

Gun control. This is complicated. The Supreme Court has twice ruled that the 2nd Amendment's guarantee includes handguns, the most common weapon in homicides and mass murders. Nevertheless, regulation isn't impossible.

A common element in mass murders is large-capacity magazines. The Aurora, Colo., shooting suspect, James Holmes, opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle with a 100-round drum magazine. In Tucson, Jared Lee Loughner used a semiautomatic pistol with a 33-round magazine.

Prohibiting large-capacity magazines makes sense, not least because we know some mass murders were ended by bystanders and police when the shooters had to stop to reload.

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