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School Rampage Shootings: How to Reduce the Carnage

In the aftermath of the massacre on the campus of Umpqua Community College, Americans are again debating the effectiveness of crime-fighting measures such as improved background checks and gun control laws.
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In the aftermath of the massacre on the campus of Umpqua Community College, Americans are again debating the effectiveness of crime-fighting measures such as improved background checks and gun control laws. In reality, for the sake of reducing mass shootings, background checks will hardly make a difference. Some school rampage shooters secure guns from their parents who have passed background checks. And school killers including the 26-year-old gunman in Roseburg Oregon typically lack a criminal record or a formal psychiatric history that would prevent them from legally obtaining a firearm.

Actually, it is doubtful that we will significantly reduce the prevalence of school rampage incidents, however we choose to respond. Americans love their personal freedom as much as they aim to protect their second amendment access to firearms. They are not likely to make all of our schools into armed camps. It is improbable that they will pass gun control legislation that would effectively stop school massacres. If it didn't happen following the massacre of 20 first-graders and six faculty members at Sandy Hook, then it has little chance of happening anytime soon.

Let's try being realistic. Rather than focus on reducing incidents of school shootings, we might instead seek to limit their death toll. Following the Columbine High School rampage shooting in April 1999, police departments around the country began modifying their procedures for responding to an "active shooter" who targets a school building. Rather than delay deployment as in a hostage situation that might end peacefully, the police are now being trained to give a much faster and better organized response. The active shooter seeks to maximize his body count as quickly as possible; in response, ending the onslaught must be a top police priority.

Still, law enforcement alone cannot possibly eliminate all rampage victims. In addition, we must limit the shooter's access to large amounts of ammunition. High capacity magazines holding as many as 100 rounds have been employed in almost every mass shooting in recent history. The killers were disarmed only when forced to reload. Adam Lanza, the rampage shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School, reportedly fired some 154 rounds, switching his 30-round clips several times in order to kill his 26 victims in five minutes. In the absence of high capacity magazines, Lanza would likely have taken far fewer lives.

Reducing the size of semi-automatic magazines so that they hold no more than 10 rounds would make some difference in the carnage associated with mass shootings. In eight states and the District of Columbia, large-capacity magazines have already been banned. A federal law would reduce the likelihood of a potential rampage shooter being able to secure a weapon of mass destruction. He might still take a life or two, but not multiple lives.

One problem is that school shooters often bring several semi-automatic rifles and handguns to the crime scene, reducing the time interval necessary to reload. As a result, it is important to have an armed resource officer or team of security officers on campus.

Most of the approximately 17,000 resource officers employed in public schools nationwide carry a firearm. They would probably not be able to stop the first several shots being fired by a dedicated rampage killer, but they are likely to arrive in time to limit the slaughter, especially when the shooter moves from place to place.

Prior to the tragic mass shooting, Umpqua Community College had rejected the idea of placing an armed security guard on campus. None was on-site when the killer went on a shooting rampage. By contrast, armed resource officers were able to stop an angry 9th grader who opened fire in June 2014 at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Oregon. The killer had come to school carrying an AR-15 assault rifle along with nine magazines capable of firing several hundred rounds. He shot down one student, then had a gun fight with resource officers before committing suicide.

It is truly a shame that school districts must spend their limited educational resources to secure the safety of their students and faculty. In a statistical sense, the school hours remain the safest hours of the day for our children. But incidents of rampage murders, although very rare, do help to create an exaggerated and widespread climate of fear and anxiety among students, teachers, and parents.

Moreover, to the extent that a killer receives national if not international coverage, one large-scale rampage massacre can inspire another. The Oregon shooter recognized this all too well when he posted online that the "more people you kill, the more you're in the limelight." If we do not have the will to end such incidents, we can at least aim to limit the carnage that assures the killer's infamy as well as his influence on future rampage shooters.


Jack Levin is co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University and co-author of Extreme Killing.