It’s been a week since the shooting in Aurora and I thought it was about time to comment. Based on the phone calls I was receiving that day, it seems my commentary sometimes applies outside the world of aviation security. I’m not going to compare myself to Brian Jenkins, or any of the real experts out there on terrorism but I have been studying the topic for about 20 years, so for what it’s worth, here’s my take.
It’s unfortunate that these shootings are happening more frequently. I was a public relations officer for Jefferson County Airport when the Columbine High School happened (which is in Jefferson County, Colorado) and so the next day I was on scene providing very small assistance to help answer phone calls from journalists all over the world. I remember the longest distance one I took was from Germany. I was soon the airport manager at Jeffco and worked directly for the Jefferson County Attorney, so I had some insights into the aftermath and the investigations, but I claim no special knowledge that hasn’t already been published, just a closeness to the event. In 1999, it was huge news – now, unfortunately, the body count has to get up there before it makes national news. Maybe we haven’t come that far at all.
The gun enthusiasts and gun control groups now take sides and argue their positions. We will hear plenty from them in the coming days, weeks and months and I’m sure some legislation is coming our way. Let me address some points along these lines: the first is the argument that “if one person would have had a concealed weapon,” they could have ended the incident or lessened the impact, just like what occurred at the church in Colorado Springs when a private security guard ended a mass shooting before it really got going. The other argument is that we shouldn’t have guns, or ammo, or high capacity magazines, but we’ve always had guns and ammo but mass shootings are a fairly new event with one or two notable exceptions.
There have been other similar shootings stopped by the legally armed citizenry. With Colorado’s liberal concealed weapons laws, I’m surprised that there wasn’t someone in the theater with a lawful firearm (or even unlawful). It has been reported that at least one of the victims had firearms, but in their car. Who knows. Maybe someone did have a gun in the theater, but for a variety of reasons, wasn’t able to return fire. Maybe they were incapacitated by tear gas, or didn’t have a clear shot, or were afraid of hitting bystanders, or were just afraid period. Maybe their mind entered a state of disbelief, or for a second, they doubted what they were seeing was real and they feared shooting an innocent person who was part of they thought was a staged event.
Author Dave Grossman has written extensively on this topic in his book, “On Killing,” and the follow up book, “On Combat.” He talks about how even members of the U.S. military will sometimes not shoot, for a variety of psychological reasons. In fact, so few soldiers were actually using their rifles in combat in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, the military changed its training model to focus more on operant conditioning – or, simply put, automatic response. To see operant conditioning in use, watch an ER doctor, paramedic, firefighter, police officer or Navy SEAL respond to an incident – they respond like we drive a car – without conscious thought, they know what needs to happen and they just do it. Ever drive to work and forgot how you got there or didn’t remember the journey? That’s because you’ve done it so many times, it’s automatic. It’s why first responders and the military train so much – more training means things become automatic, which is what you want in your first responders. The point is, we can’t always rely on someone having a concealed weapon and responding for us – they may have the gun, or YOU may have the gun, but if you’ve never sent rounds downrange and had them coming back at you, or had to make a decision about whether to shoot, or whether you were in the right, involves too many variables to rely just on concealed weapons as our solution.
So maybe security is the answer. I read the other day where a former theater worker encouraged airport style screening at all movie theaters. I certainly hope not! Where does that end? We may as well extend that to sports stadiums and arenas, shopping malls, and any open air gathering of individuals. Granted, in Israel, there are frequently security guards standing at the entrances to shopping malls, and they are wielding hand held metal detectors. Also, remember that Israel is surrounded by people that aren’t real happy with them and periodically they attack – think about what it would be like if Mexico and Canada didn’t like the U.S. and attacked us now and again. We’d have a different perspective.
We don’t live in Israel and we’re not in their situation (yet). Hopefully, we never will be so for now, probably not a good comparison – and no, we shouldn’t make the theater look like the airport. One TSA is enough. But, maybe we should look at some basic security measures, such as CCTV (and we can finally boot the moron texting his way through the film as a side benefit), and theater personnel taking more than a casual interest in what’s happening inside the theater. Some training and basic security measures couldn’t hurt, but let’s not take it too far.
There has been some speculation that we should all do a better job of watching for pre-incident indicators and turning people into the authorities. In general I agree and frequently promote those measures. The downside is that many people don’t want to put themselves in jeopardy – try calling the cops sometime on suspicious people in your neighborhood or a road raging manic and you’ll be asked for your contact information, which has a good chance of ending up the hands of the offender should an arrest be made. Now YOU’RE the target. Most anyone in school who has been bullied know how this game gets played – report the bully and you’re his or her new project – a fact which many anti-bullying programs ignore. I agree that spotting unusual activity and reporting it is essential to security and living a more safe and secure life, but we can’t rely just on that. We need some additional layers – maybe we even look at things differently, the way Aurora police did that morning.
In the aftermath of Columbine, the response agencies were all criticized for their lack of, well, response. However, their lack of action in many cases, wasn’t entirely their fault. Prior to Columbine, the “traditional” response to an incident like Columbine (or Aurora) was to treat it like a barricade/hostage situation. During Columbine, police made up new response measures under fire, and after Columbine, police throughout the world developed an active shooter response, which is typically a diamond formation of four officers (or as many as you can muster) that moves immediately to neutralize the shooter, not stopping for possible bombs or injured individuals along the way. Even that strategy has its critics in law enforcement, with some saying it’s still not a rapid enough response.
The Aurora police didn’t apparently wait for enough responders to form the recommended response pattern – they just went inside the theater. Thank God!
I know that police must be focused on making sure they are still alive at the end of their shift. However, regardless of whether they followed protocols or policy, I’m glad the Aurora officers did what any parent, child, or sibling would want them to do if their loved ones were inside being used for target practice – get your ass in their with your gun and stop it – now!
I’ll let the law enforcement community continue to debate whether they did the right thing, but in the eyes of many of us, they did – bravely and boldly – in my eyes, there was one Batman on the screen, while the real “Batman’s,” rushed into the gunfire, not away from it. The Aurora police thought differently and responded differently and saved lives.
Back to motive and solutions – maybe thinking differently has its benefits: I’ve
heard that the Aurora shooter was addicted to role-playing first person shooter videogames. Great, let’s dredge up that debate again. I remember when playing Dungeons and Dragons in the 80s and listening to Twisted Sister, and then the first person shooter games in the 90s was creating this culture of violence and causing kids to go nuts. Statistics really don’t bear this out – millions have played and continue to play video games, role playing games and so on, but only a few commit mass murder. I don’t like some of the games that are out there today so I don’t allow my kids to play them, but I don’t think they are the downfall of modern man.
It seems maybe that instead of gun laws, or more guns or less guns, or banning violent video games, violent movies, or using body imaging technology and TSA screeners at your local AMC Theater (hmm, maybe we can create another government agency, the ESA – Entertainment Security Administration). Maybe, rather than the traditional “solutions,” we could look at this from a mental health perspective. There are too many people with mental health challenges not getting the help they need. Clearly, from the recent shootings in Aurora, to Virginia Tech, to Columbine, these were all people with some challenges. Arming up and gunning down the peaceful citizenry is not a natural act. So, what can we do socially, culturally and educationally, to better identify and take care of those that weren’t born with all the mental faculties to handle life? Maybe that’s the debate? I don’t have a solution yet – but the beginning of a solution begins with asking good questions.
Or will we once again pass some laws that make us feel better but don’t actually solve the problem, and hit the political snooze button, until the next time.