School Killings: Why Have We Learned Nothing in 85 Years?

On May 18, 1927, my 8-year old great-uncle Arnold Victor Bauerle was murdered in the most deadly school killing in United States history. It left 44 people dead, 38 of them children ages seven through 14. As I study in horror and grief the recent events in Newtown, Aurora and beyond, some striking and tragic similarities appear. What disturbs me is how little we've seemed to learn in 85 years.

The terrorist in the "Bath School Disaster" that killed my great-uncle was 55-year-old school board treasurer Andrew Kehoe, disgruntled after losing the previous year's township clerk election, and convinced that the increase in his taxes to build the school was to blame for the foreclosure of his farm mortgage. Kehoe first killed his wife in her bed with a blunt object, then blew up his farm with dynamite and pyrotol. He had packed the school building with explosives during the prior months, and set a timed detonator for that morning. After the school was destroyed in the blast, Kehoe drove to the scene in a pickup truck he had filled with explosives and shrapnel. He then detonated it, killing himself and four others, including a child, the school superintendent, the postmaster, and a rescuer.

Onlookers, rescuers and the news media swarmed to the scene. The media stayed only about three days, unlike the months-long circuses inflicted upon the grieving today. No children were interviewed by the media in the aftermath, unlike Newtown. Such a thing would have been unthinkably exploitative and crass in those days. How has this happened to Journalism, once a noble and respected profession? Personally, I would be searching the Internet for a recipe on how to properly mix tar and feathers for best adhesion to any reporter so inclined to interview children after such an incident.

There was no public outcry for "dynamite control" following the Bath School Disaster, no impassioned congressional hearings on explosives took place, and no posturing politicians used the tragedy to further their own political agendas or increase PAC donations to their campaigns. Dynamite and pyrotol were common items on Bath Township farmsteads, and could be purchased at hardware and sporting goods stores. How could a farmer remove stumps and rocks from his fields without dynamite, and how would he burn his ditches and debris without pyrotol? Permits, fees, police background checks, registration numbers, ID cards? Not even considered. Do the citizens of Clinton County, Michigan want to eat, or just push paperwork around?

In the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, the murderers also used a common farmstead item to build their bomb: fertilizer. It took a political circus lasting 12 years to enact restrictions on the sale and transportation of ammonium nitrate fertilizer after Oklahoma City, and the Department of Homeland Security is still debating on how to implement the program. It requires registration numbers, fees, permits, ID cards and police background checks for anyone purchasing more than 25 pounds of fertilizer, all of this a huge burden on farmers. Does America want to eat? So what's to stop someone from buying one bag at 10 different stores? Nothing. How powerful would a device made from one bag of fertilizer be? Powerful enough. So, does "fertilizer control" make you feel safer now? Not me.

And of course now in the aftermath of Sandy Hook and the Aurora theater shootings, the political circus has already turned to gun control. Large-capacity magazines will almost certainly be the first target, and with some very darned good reasons. But interestingly enough, when I took the required class to obtain my Colorado Concealed Weapon permit a few years back, one of the skills I was required to demonstrate to the instructor on the shooting range was how to change to a new magazine and re-commence firing in under two seconds. Nobody failed; it only takes a few minutes of practice to learn how. Such a ban would not make me feel safer -- if even a klutz like me can figure that out, any dexterous deviant can figure it out faster.

Next the debate will inevitably change to deciding which weapons to ban, with the definitions at least as labyrinthine as the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, a completely ineffective mish-mash of regulations, not even fully understood by legitimate gun dealers, that confused rifle features and furniture that simply "looked mean" with items that yes, probably would take the weapon out of the "sporting" or "farm and ranch" or "home protection" category squarely into the "uh, why exactly do you need this?" realm.

I can only hope that the new influx of Gulf, Iraq and Afghan war veterans we have finally elected into public office will attempt to inject some of their own hard-earned private reality into this public gun control circus. They did, after all, carry and use similar (but still vastly different and more powerful) weapons as a requirement of their daily jobs. Perhaps at least these new folks in Congress can instruct the self-elected media and PAC operatives as to what all these new words (such as "semi-automatic assault weapon," a nonsensical verbal invention) actually mean. Maybe, someday, these newly-elected officials can make me feel a bit safer.

At least they know from harsh and grueling personal experience which of those little bits of a common sport target rifle really might make a difference to the rest of us, if wielded by a civilian fiend who just wants to kill everything, compared to someone who just likes sport target shooting. I hate even more to hear in the media the words "High-Powered Assault Rifle." By definition, assault weapons are low-powered. So they don't hurt your shoulder so much as you do your job or shoot your competition targets. I just wish the media would figure out what words mean what, like they have with reality TV shows.

In the rural area where I choose to live and work, guns are just plain farmstead equipment. I think you would be a fool not to own a gun up here in my neighborhood if you have any sort of livestock, and that includes dogs and cats. Bears will walk right into your house here and raid the fridge, and pumas will pick off your pets right off your porch. Yet I hear on the news heartbreaking stories of inner-city youths and their families who consider guns -- any kind of guns -- a scourge that has been killing off their families. Teenagers have guns there. They do here, too, but most rural teens take the guns to the shooting range with their Mom and Dad to learn how to use them safely and hit the bullseye most of the time. That's a huge disconnect for me; I have never experienced such a reality. Perhaps the reality is urban versus rural. I don't know.

I have wondered for decades why the incident in which my great-uncle was murdered is simply called a "disaster" in the popular media, while more recent events are called "massacres," "mass killings," "killing sprees," "mass murders," "rampage killings" and such. But maybe that's the key to the entire problem. To me the term "disaster" implies the entire chain of events leading to a tragedy, while all those other more lurid terms pinpoint only the killer's action, ignoring what led to the motivation underlying it, and ignoring the victims entirely.

People who have decided to kill can't be stopped by government regulations on anything. Their wrath will show them new and devious ways to get around whatever barriers are put in their way in assembling their implements of destruction. But they are humans, too, and they have mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, cousins, nephews, nieces...

Perhaps, someday, our government and our society can examine the root of the problem -- disturbed people who feel so hopeless they mentally snap -- instead of troweling on a facade of after-the-fact "controls" over the tools the killers used. So, I implore to anyone reading my rant here: We are all human. We are all different. And speaking a kind word to anyone, even a stranger, can be a powerful thing. It could save lives, though of course you'll never know.

The man who murdered my great-uncle posted a sign on his fence that said "Criminals are made, not born." So, please, reach out. Connect. Be nice. Stop this carnage before guns, bombs or bullets even enter the equation. Armed guards in every school? That's absurd. How about compassionate humans in every school, armed with kind words and hugs? And maybe a teacher in every gun store.

The problem isn't guns or bombs. It's humans. Learn to be a real human. Please.