I go back farther than Mr. Robison. I remember Charles Whitman, who killed 17 people with a high-powered Remington 700 bolt-action rifle from the University of Texas Tower in 1966. The shots could be heard from my grandmother’s house. One of Whitman’s victims was killed at about 500 yards.
Back in 1927, it was Andrew Kehoe, a farmer angry at his community. He killed 38 children between the ages of 8 and 14 when he used dynamite and surplus World War I incendiaries to blow up one wing of the schoolhouse in Bath, Michigan. That’s still the highest death toll from a single school-related incident. Kehoe also killed two teachers, the school superintendent, the town’s postmaster, another farmer and his own wife. 58 more people were injured. The body count would have been higher had the explosives in the other wing detonated.
Kehoe did have a Winchester bolt-action rifle, but the only time it was used was to set off explosives in Kehoe’s truck. It was this explosion that killed all of the adults other than the two teachers. Kehoe also died in the blast.
School shootings didn’t start with Columbine. By the time Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold embarked on their spree there had already been eight other school shootings, including two the previous year. But nobody lionized Tyrone Mitchell, Patrick Purdy or Kip Kinkel. Most people don’t even remember their names or even their crimes. Nobody ever made a movie about them.
Nobody remembers that Harris and Klebold hadn’t planned on shooting up the school. They spent a year learning about and building bombs, specifically propane bombs. These bombs were to be used to collapse the roof over the cafeteria at lunchtime which would have driven the casualty count much higher. The guns they had acquired were to be used to shoot people trying to escape.
Before the Columbine killers entered the school, they had already committed a laundry list of federal and state crimes. These included multiple violations of the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Gun Control Act of 1968. Only one person was ever prosecuted for a criminal offense in connection with the Columbine killings and that was the man who sold the duo the automatic pistol they used. He spent two years in prison for selling a firearm to a minor.
Finally, there was an outcry; the whole nation was in an uproar. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were immortalized. Columbine became the benchmark that we know for a fact influenced others, including a young man in Connecticut named Adam Lanza.
Bullying and ostracization have been part of the human experience probably since hominids began to form groups. Jean Shepherd’s well-known A Christmas Story tells of dealing with bullying in the 1930s.
There is also rejection by a love interest. Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were school shootings but most of them were teachers being killed by jilted suitors. This was the motivation behind the incident at Great Mills High School.
Job terminations and perceived slights in the workplace are also well-established in human life as is racism.
What is different now is that a vanishingly small percentage of people decide that murder is an acceptable response to these challenges. It really doesn’t matter whether the venue is a school, a workplace, a shopping mall or a concert. Unfortunately, we have no way to know what the factor that permits that decision is or how to identify it. Of mass shootings in which the source of the firearms was reported, 76% of the killers passed one or more background checks. Some of these killers had previously identified mental-health issues but millions of Americans with similar challenges live their entire lives without exploding into a murderous rampage.
In the 2017–2018 school year and estimated 50.7 million students were enrolled in more than 98,000 public K-12 schools in the United States. During the year, 27 students at five different high schools lost their lives in school shootings. In addition, there were hundreds, if not thousands of arrests of wannabee killers when police were informed of their behavior.
Yet we have created a culture of fear even though real-world experience has shown that schools are one of the safest places a person can be. But nobody, including Mr. Robison, is saying that.
By the government’s own data, a person in the 5–18 age group is 46 times more likely to be murdered with a gun just about anywhere else. Statistically, children are more likely to be killed by their parents at home than they are to die in a school shooting.
Yet we persist in beating the same old tired drum. Waving the bodies of dead children, we insist on promoting measures that wouldn’t have saved a single one of them. We constantly stoke the fires powering the hysteria to keep the tragedies fresh and frighten ourselves and worse, to instill fear in our children.
It is quite possible that what we are doing will help inspire the next shooter. It’s also quite possible, perhaps even likely, that our focus on the AR-style rifle has helped it become the gun of choice (even though the last two mass shootings in Santa Fe, Texas and Annapolis, Maryland were carried out with pump shotguns and the majority of mass shootings have involved handguns).
It doesn’t seem to be widely known, but Nikolas Cruz not only had the Smith & Wesson M&P-15 rifle, he also had a copy of the AK-47, which is either as lethal or more lethal than the AR-style rifle. Yet, when he went to Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, he selected the S&W rifle. Was he inspired by other mass killers like Adam Lanza or Stephen Paddock? Or was it the slavish media frenzy that has turned a version of a so-so combat rifle into a myth?
Maybe it’s time we learned something from the past other than just replaying it endlessly. The lessons have been tragic but we haven’t really taken them to heart. We still look for easy, politically palatable solutions to meet a challenge that is neither simple nor amenable to legislation— especially the snake-oil remedies that are paraded as the cure-all.
How about we pay attention this time?