Shotgun News, December 1, 2006
This has been a rough few weeks for defenders of the right to keep and bear arms. The news media are again banging the drum for tighter gun control laws. While I have not seen any public opinion surveys on the subject, I would be surprised if public sentiment has not turned in that direction again.
Two weeks after the shootings at Dawson College in Montreal on September 13, a man named Duane Morrison, who had been living out of his car, wrote a suicide note to his siblings, and drove to the high school in Bailey, Colorado. In a chilling parallel to Marc Lepine's actions in 1989 at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, Morrison sent the boys out of the classroom that he took over, then sexually assaulted at least two of the girls. He gave the police a deadline—in the literal sense of killing at a particular time—but made no demands of the police for his hostages. When the police tried to end the hostage standoff, Morrison killed one of the girls, then himself.
Morrison had a semiauto pistol and a revolver with him for his rampage. Morrison had a minor criminal history—an arrest for larceny and marijuana possession in 1973, and an arrest for obstructing a police officer a few weeks before this rampage. His only conviction was for harassment in 2004. He “left a profanity-laced phone message with Rocky Mountain Harley-Davidson after he received a promotional catalog in the mail, according to a tape of the call obtained from the Littleton Police Department.” In that message, he suggested that “a visit with an assault rifle” might be the only way to get them to stop sending him catalogs. From listening to the audio of that message, it sounds like Morrison was trying to be funny or cute in his attempts to get removed from the store's mailing list, but the humor seems to have been lost on the store owner, and the police.
What caused Morrison to engage in kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder? His suicide note, sent to an older brother, blamed emotional and physical abuse by his father: “he was never able to function normally, and it was time to end his pain....” Morrison claimed that he alone among his siblings was picked out for abuse.
What gun control laws, realistically, could have prevented Morrison's actions? Nothing in his history would have prevented him from legally buying those two handguns, except if he lived somewhere like New York State, where police have broad discretion as to whether to issue a permit to own a handgun. Most gun control advocates have shyed away from supporting such abusive laws in the rest of the country, and neither of these handguns was an “assault weapon.”
Similarly, Morrison was not the typical murderer who uses a gun. He had no felony convictions. He had no history of mental illness that had brought him to the attention of the authorities. He was not a minor. The gun control laws that our side promotes to improve public safety would have done no good—with one possible exception, to be discussed in a few paragraphs.
On October 2, a very similar—but even more disturbing crime took place in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Charles Carl Roberts IV, a milk truck driver, went into a Amish elementary school, carrying a 9mm pistol, a 12 gauge shotgun, and a .30-06 bolt action rifle—and a very disturbing assortment of materials that I will not list here. Again, he sent away all the boys and adults, keeping only ten little girls. From the stuff that he brought with him (besides the three guns and lots of ammunition), it is clear that he intended to barricade himself inside the school, and then rape them. Police responded quickly enough that Roberts was apparently unable to carry out his sexual fantasies before he shot all ten of the girls, killing five, then himself.
As is often the pattern with a person who is depressed, there was a dramatic change in mood a few days before Roberts' murderous rampage: “Normally outgoing and friendly, Roberts became introverted and tense in recent weeks, co-workers told police.
“The dark mood changed late last week as Roberts turned jovial, Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Jeffrey B. Miller said Monday.” The reason is simple enough; Roberts' suicide note explained that he was angry at God about the death of his own daughter, shortly after birth some years ago, angry at himself about molesting two cousins twenty years before—and he was having dreams of doing it again. (The cousins he identified, however, have no memory of being molested.)
If you have read some of my published scholarly work on the problem of mass murders, you are probably thinking, “Copycat.” I found myself wondering that also—did the coverage of Duane Morrison's sexual assault and murder of high school girls encourage Roberts' planned rape and murder of elementary school girls? Apparently not. Roberts started to buy the supplies he brought with him the day before Duane Morrison's attack.
Gun control groups again tried to use this horrifying incident to push for more gun control laws, but again, it is hard to see what laws would have made a difference. Roberts was as squeaky clean as a person can be—which is quite unusual for a mass murderer. I can find no evidence that he had ever drawn any attention from the police. More importantly, unlike Duane Morrison, who was clearly unhealthy, and headed for some sort of a fall, Roberts had a completely ordinary and by all accounts, morally upstanding life—until the day he decided to take revenge on little girls for his sexual perversion. No licensing scheme, short of a nearly complete ban on gun ownership, would have prevented Roberts from owning guns.
None of Roberts' guns was particularly unusual. The only gun that gun control advocates would admit that they want to ban was the 9mm pistol—and even then, most gun control advocates know better to call for a complete ban on handguns. To the credit of Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell (who is clearly not the friend of gun owners), he told a French wire service reporter writing about the curious lack of interest in gun control after this tragedy, that no gun control law would have helped this situation, because Roberts had no police record, and no history of mental problems.
"I believe with all my heart that Pennsylvania needs stronger gun control legislation. But, I think we should all understand, no proposed law that I would think of or none that I've seen could have ruled out this situation," Governor Ed Rendell said.
What can we do to prevent such tragedies in the future? These mass shootings in schools get enormous coverage, because they are dramatic, and they stab at the hearts of parents, who think about the safety of their own kids. Mass school shootings, as disturbing as they are, are quite rare. They get a lot of press, but setting public policy based on them makes about as much sense as requiring every home in America to have medications for treating bubonic plague.
There were people on our side who responded to these two tragedies by proposing arming of teachers. Other countries have done so, in response to terrorist attacks on schools, notably Israel and Thailand. I cringe at this, not because it is a bad idea, but because it is a reminder of how far into decline that we as a culture have fallen, that we feel the need to do this. When I was in high school, the phrase “mass school shooting” would have been incomprehensible. What? The notion that a family man would methodically plan to rape elementary school girls before taking his own life? What? Unfortunately, what used to be unthinkable, is fast becoming accepted. The day of this horrible crime in the Amish school house, federal prosecutors filed charges against a woman named Karen Fletcher, for running a website “that published graphic fictional tales about the torture and sexual abuse of children....”
(I almost used the word “decadence” instead of “into decline”--but “decadence,” which refers to the moral decay of a society, is increasingly used in television commercials to refer to a tasty meal. That in itself is a pretty sorry indication of our culture's increasing decadence.)
A number of states have laws that prohibited concealed weapon permit holders from having a gun on school grounds, sometimes with an exception for a gun in a car while dropping off or picking up one's kids. If there is a law that makes sense to change in response to the school shootings, this might be it. If there is a reluctance to allow any permit holder to carry on school grounds, perhaps these laws could be changed to allow only teachers and administrators with permits to carry concealed at school. In a few of these tragic incidents over the years, this might have ended the shooting at the start.
Still, let's be realistic. Even if state legislatures changed their laws to allow this, I suspect that relatively few teachers would take advantage of it, and for the same reason that the roof of my house is not reinforced to deal with meteor collisions. Still, in the aftermath of these tragedies, Utah firearms instructor Clark Aposhian offered his concealed weapons license class for free to Utah public school employees—and found more than a dozen students who took the class during a weekend meeting of the Utah Education Association (the teachers' union). While the Utah Education Association was not at all happy about the idea, Utah law appears to allow teachers with concealed weapon permits to carry at work.
Perhaps a more useful solution is that taken by the Burleson School District, a suburb of Fort Worth. They hired Response Options to train their students in how to respond to such an incident. Response Options suggests that sitting quietly and waiting for rescue by the police isn't going to be very successful. Instead, they recommend immediately attacking such an attacker with chairs, pencils, books—anything and everything—in the hopes that the sheer numbers of students will overwhelm a gunman. It is a desperate response, no question—but as the passengers of United Airlines flight 93 demonstrated, sometimes there is no alternative. These two most recent tragedies are reminders that it may not be possible for the police to negotiate a peaceful end to a hostage situation at a school. Once we start to experience Islamofascist terrorist attacks on schools, such as Russia and Thailand have suffered, and which I think are inevitable in the United States, talking will be a waste of time.
Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer and historian. His last book was Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform (Praeger Press, 1999). His web site is http://www.claytoncramer.com.
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