woody zimmerman 118 2007This week saw another horrible shooting incident at Fort Hood, Texas – the same military base where in November 2009 an army psychiatrist, Major Nidal Hasan, shot and killed twelve people and wounded thirty-one. In the latest incident, Ivan Lopez, a 34-year-old Specialist and veteran of the Iraq War, attached to the 13th Sustainment Command, killed three people and wounded sixteen others before killing himself. Lopez was said to be of Puerto-Rican extraction. He was the married father of four. His weapon was a Smith & Wesson .45 semi-automatic pistol which he had purchased at a nearby gun-shop.

Early accounts indicated that Lopez’s shooting rampage was stopped when he was confronted by a female Military Police officer, who had aimed her sidearm at the assailant, but did not fire. She couldn’t prevent Lopez from turning his weapon on himself and taking his own life. (The officer’s name has not been disclosed, pending investigation.) Military officials say Lopez was distraught over the deaths of his mother and grandfather, which had occurred during a two-month period, some five months earlier. Those same reports indicate that Lopez was undergoing psychiatric treatment for depression and anxiety.

The 2009 shooting disclosed that Major Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, was a convert to Islamic terrorism. Although his superiors knew of his Muslim faith, they claimed to have been unaware of any violent proclivities. However, both colleagues and superiors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where Hasan served the six years of his internship and residency, say they were deeply concerned about his behavior and comments. Unmarried at the time, Hasan was described as socially isolated, stressed by his work with soldiers, and upset about their accounts of warfare. After the shooting, an FBI investigation determined that Hasan’s contacts with known terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki were strictly connected to his authorized professional research and that he was not a threat. Consequently, the Department of Defense referred to his crime as “workplace violence.” But the Senate issued a report calling Hasan’s shootings “the worst terrorist attack on U. S. soil since September 11, 2001.”

Are we learning anything here? You tell me. Leaving aside the obvious butt-covering over Major Hasan, this latest mass shooting reopens the debate over how situations should be treated involving individuals who are undergoing psychiatric treatment for mental or emotional problems that might make them a risk for violent behavior. Treatment-advocates argue, on one hand, that such information must be kept confidential to protect the individuals being treated. Otherwise, patients might forego treatment in order to avoid the public stigma which inevitably results from disclosure that an individual is a “mental patient.”

On the other hand, public-safety advocates insist that protecting the public must come first – meaning that the identity of people with the kinds of problems both Ivan Lopez and Nidal Hasan evidently had must be disclosed to keep them from obtaining weapons or gaining access to military bases or businesses where they might harm large numbers of people. Observers of contemporary American attitudes in such matters note that the public can currently know only the identities of child-molesters or other sex-offenders in their midst. Identities of other potential risks to public safety are protected, either by law or by consensus. For what it’s worth, I predict that it will not be long before even those laws which allow public knowledge of sex-offenders are challenged in court by the “sex lobby” on grounds of discrimination.

Regardless of how all that might turn out, we are clearly not of one mind about how to handle people who might pose a risk to public safety due to mental or emotional instability. Health-care officials who know of such situations generally feel that their hands are tied by the threat of legal action, should they disclose confidential medical information out of concern for the public.

Judicial officials and doctors knew that Seung-Hui Cho, a 23-year-old student at Virginia Tech, was dangerous and a possible risk to himself and others, well before he killed 32 people, as well as himself, on the campus in April 2007. Students and faculty feared him, and said so to university officials. Yet nothing was done, save a judicial ruling issued in December 2005 ordering that Cho undergo outpatient care at Carilion-St. Alban's mental health facility, after he made suicidal remarks to a roommate. But nothing about his mental/emotional condition prevented him from attending classes at VT and purchasing two different firearms in February and March 2007. Outside of the university and the courts, the general public knew nothing about Cho’s dangerous instability. Further, the university’s “no-guns” policy endured that no one was prepared to stop him as he opened fire, killing and wounding scores of people inside a campus building that he had deliberately chained shut.

In earlier articles published in this column-space I have discussed some of the differences between today and the 1940s and ‘50s, when I was growing up. In that earlier era, shootings like those at Ft. Hood, Newtown, and Virginia Tech were very rare, despite the fact that guns were familiar in American culture and quite plentiful. Most men of my father’s age were WWII vets, and many older men had served in WWI. The American public was comfortable with firearms. I recalled how a high-school classmate often brought his rifle to school, storing it in his locker so he would have it for touring his trap-line after school. No one thought a thing about it, and no “incident” ever resulted. Today, of course, he would be arrested, as all schools are strict “gun-free zones.” I also mentioned how shooting galleries at amusement parks actually used real rifles and ammunition. I never heard of a situation where those weapons were misused. Naturally, no one today would dream of letting people handle firearms in that casual way.

These observations do not mean that I think we should return to those practices. We cannot, because we are different, today, from the Americans of 65 years ago. We are far less comfortable with guns, and in many cases we hold uninformed or mistaken ideas about them. Earlier, I listed the exact make and size of the weapon used by Ft. Hood shooter Ivan Lopez because that info was furnished in news reports that I saw. Why was it important to the media reporting the story? Because certain politicians have emphasized that certain kinds of weapons represent a particular danger to society for being favored by mass killers. These guns are called “assault weapons.” There has been a strong push to ban them. Reporters evidently thought it important to show that such a weapon was not used at Ft. Hood.

In reality, there is no “assault rifle” category. Despite scary-looking appearances in movies, rifles popularly so-called by the media are neither extra-dangerous nor preferred by mass murderers. Indeed, a .45 cal. pistol like that used by Lopez at Ft.Hood is an awesome weapon that delivers a nearly ½”-diameter projectile with fearsomely destructive force – especially at close range. Its ball frequently flattens and expands upon striking the victim. Even a .22 cal. pistol that looks like a child’s toy can kill a lot of people in a closed situation. All guns are lethal weapons, and so many different kinds are available that banning one type or another will accomplish nothing to lessen the frequency or lethality of mass shootings. Efforts to ban them amounts only to political posturing.

What, then, can be done to stop these killers and their horrible events? Wild-eyed radicals can call for total bans on private ownership of guns until they’re blue, but that won’t happen with the Second Amendment firmly in place. An ambitious (and lawless) president might try to do it via Executive Order, but too many citizens are armed and ready to resist such a move. Even if a ban were legally enacted, enforcement would be impossible. There’s no way, Jose.

I pretend no special expertise here, but I think I do bring some conversance with history and some reasonable common sense to the table. I see three things we can do to lessen the incidence and severity of mass shootings. I’ll discuss them briefly.

  1. Regain common sense about “disturbed” people. One of the reasons that we had fewer incidents like Ft. Hood and VA Tech during my formative years was that we put “disturbed” people away where they couldn’t hurt themselves or others. Today, they’re wandering the streets with shopping carts full of rubbish, living under bridges, and defecating in the stairwells of parking garages. Or, more scarily, they’re living in your neighborhood, shopping at K-Mart, and working in the cubicle next to yours. You know the street people are cracked, but you might have no clue about Bert – working two cubes away – until he shows up one morning and starts blasting away at his goodly colleagues. How do we find the dangerous people? I couldn’t begin to say. I’m not a mental-health professional. But we do have plenty of such pros who ought to be able to work it out. First, of course, we could start with people we know are disturbed. Of course, any effort to identify disturbed people could be abused, with penalties imposed on those who try to finger their bothersome neighbors as possible nut-cases. But once we knew how to find people who needed to be detained. We should be able to do it again. At the very least, we ought to find it possible to furnish legal immunity to health-care people who finger individuals who appear dangerous. We have to stop dancing around this issue. Too many innocent people have died already.
  2. Rearm and warn. Years ago I read an article written by someone who lived in Kenya during the Mau Mau movement of the 1950s. The Mau Mau uprising had various aims, but one aspect was black terrorism against whites; no one knew who the terrorists were, as their identity was secret. They could be your houseboy, grocery-deliveryman or other ordinary person. One night they would sneak into your house and murder you and your family; or they might gun you down in your driveway. It seemed unstoppable. Finally, the Kenyan government decreed that every white adult – male and female – must be armed at all times. With the policy in full operation, the Mau Mau terrorism faded away, as it became too dangerous for the terrorists to continue.

    The lesson for us from this historical event seems obvious. Indeed, we know what it teaches from our own cities and states: i.e., when citizens are known to be armed, the incidence of crime decreases. In the case of military bases – where most residents are soldiers who are already familiar with weapons – the solution of generally arming the population could hardly be clearer.

    Within schools and businesses, as many workers as possible should be armed and trained in how to respond to armed threats, although that couldn’t be universal. However, an alarm system should also be installed in every building. Each room would be equipped with a button, a buzzer and an indicator-panel. A teacher (or other worker) would push the button if danger arose. This would sound a buzzer in every other room, and cause an indicator to pop up showing which room had issued the warning. Armed workers would drop everything and converge on the endangered room with all deliberate speed to help deal with the threat. Students and unarmed workers would be trained to take cover and stay clear of the threat. The buzzer-alarm would also notify the police. Obviously, all this would be a departure from normalcy, and would require training. But there’s no value in pining for the past. This is where we are now. We have to deal with it.

  3. Stop the fame-game. This action is not on the same level as #1 and #2 above, but it is no less important. It refers to the media’s award of instant fame to mass killers. I believe it is destructive and must be stopped. Numerous killers who survived their criminal acts have testified that at least part of their motivation was the fame and attention they were sure would come their way. In many cases, that expectation is fully realized, as reporters swarm round the accused to extract every possible detail about his childhood, parents, schooling, love-life, work, disappointments, plan for world peace, etc. All this is done in the name of “the public’s right to know.”

Does such a “right” exist? Surely not to the detriment of more innocent people who might be needlessly killed by other witless fools thirsting for the spotlight. It would be far better for news media to agree to suppress the names of any mass killers, from now on. Let media focus on ways to stop this plague on our society. And let the vile killers rot in the anonymity they deserve – “unwept, unhonored, and unsung…”