The Active Shooter Problem
by Jack Rumbaugh
Suarez International Director of Training
It has been a little more than two weeks since the December 14, 2012 school shooting in Newtown Connecticut and I am still trying to wrap my head around the events of the day. One way to help us understand what happened is to look back on history to understand the psychopathology of the active shooter. We will examine six cases from 1949 to the present.
One of the earliest incidents to be considered an active shooter event was in 1949 in Camden, New Jersey. On September 6th, Howard Barton Unruh killed 13 people and wounded three more. Prior to his trial he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and found to be insane, and therefore immune from prosecution. He was committed to the New Jersey Hospital for the insane. His last public words were “I’d have killed a thousand if I had enough bullets”. He died in 1988, never having left the mental hospital.
On August 1, 1966, Charles Joseph Whitman climbed to the 20th floor of the University of Texas at Austin administrative building and proceeded to shoot 48 people. Whitman killed 16 people including his wife and mother, and injured 32 more. Even though Whitman was shot and killed by police, he left several notes giving us clues to his mindset. After he killed his wife he left a note stating “I imagine it appears that I have brutally killed both of my loved ones. I was only trying to do a quick thorough job. If my Life Insurance policy is valid please pay off my debts. Donate the rest anonymously to a mental health foundation. Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type.” Clearly, Whitman knew something was wrong. After his death, an autopsy discovered a glioblastoma, a highly aggressive brain tumor. Whitman would have been dead before Christmas of 1966. Shortly after the shootings, Texas Governor John Connally commissioned a task force of professionals to examine the autopsy findings and materials related to Whitman’s actions. They found that the tumor most likely had an effect on his behavior and conceivably could be responsible for his actions.
The Columbine High School massacre occurred on April 20, 1999 in Columbine, Colorado. Two seniors, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, shot and killed a total of 13 people and injured an additional 21. The Columbine massacre was not a spur of the moment decision. It was the culmination of over a year of planning, firearms acquisition, and bomb building. Several theories exist as to why Harris and Klebold plotted and carried out the massacre. Both boys were considered on the fringes of school society. They were part of the Goth culture and were avid gamers. They were also the victims of bullying while at school. It was also found that Eric Harris was diagnosed as a clinical psychopath and Dylan Klebold suffered from depression. Forensic psychiatrists believed that Harris was the mastermind having a messianic level superiority complex and hoped to demonstrate his superiority to the world. Eric Harris had been prescribed Zoloft and had been switched to Luvox just prior to the massacre.
On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in two separate attacks on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg Virginia. Cho had a history of mental issues and was diagnosed with severe anxiety disorder as a young teenager. In 2005, Cho had been accused of stalking two female students. After an investigation, Cho was declared mentally ill and ordered to attend treatment. It was also reported by his professors that his classroom behavior was disturbing as were some of his writing assignments. Cho also left a number of videos and an 1,800 word manifesto that spoke to his mental status.
On July 20, 2012 James Holmes killed 12 people and injured 58 others at the Century movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. As this is an ongoing case, a great deal of information regarding his mental state has not been released. It is claimed he was a psychiatric patient and there is evidence that he met with at least three mental health professionals prior to the shooting. Some of his acquaintances suspected that he suffered from mental illness and could be dangerous. Two weeks before the shooting he had sent a text message to a fellow graduate student asking if they had heard of the psychiatric disorder dysphoric mania. At the time of the shooting, Holmes was apparently under the influence of the prescription painkiller Vicodin. It is speculated that he had ingested up to 100 mgs of hydrocodone just hours prior to the shooting.
This brings us to December 14th of this year. Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adult staff members and wounded two more at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Again this is an ongoing investigation, so more information may be available at a later date. It is believed that Lanza suffers from a personality disorder and has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. It is not known at this time if Lanza was on any antipsychotic or psychoactive medication. I am sure more details will be forthcoming as the investigation continues.
I want to make some conclusions based on the information above but before I do that, I need to explain my frame of reference. Like Bill Nye, I am a science guy. I have a background in chemistry and physics. I worked as a chemist for a number of years. I currently have a career in information security. I take the data, examine it, and come to a conclusion based on the data. I do not “feel”, I think. Cause-and-effect, one plus one equals two, gravity works… You get the idea.
Based on the information above, we cannot ignore two facts: the perpetrators were diagnosed with or were troubled by undiagnosed mental issues prior to the shootings and there were drugs involved in most cases. In the case of Charles Whitman, his altered mental status was due to a brain tumor. In all cases, the perpetrators would not have been described as "normal" prior to or at the time of the shootings.
The fact that firearms were used in all six cases is not relevant. If the firearms had been unavailable, it is my opinion that some other method would have been used. There are historical precedents to show that the use of homemade explosives or an accelerant such as gasoline could easily be used instead of a firearm. In 1927, Andrew Kehoe set up a major explosion in the Bath Consolidated School, killing 38 elementary school students and six adults. In 1990, Julio Gonzales doused the Happy Land nightclub with gasoline, set it on fire, and ultimately killed 87 people. Harris and Klebold were planning on using homemade explosives at Columbine. In this day and age, we are all too familiar with the terms homicide bomber and improvised explosive device, both extremely effective at killing large numbers of people. In fact, one of the largest losses of life was ultimately caused not by guns or explosives, but by box cutters. I am, of course, referring to the events of September 11, 2001.
Another factor is many of the recent active shooter events occurred in gun free zones. Without the threat of armed resistance the perpetrators were able to go about their evil business without the threat of armed resistance. In the case of the 1966 University of Texas shooting, non-law enforcement personnel, just regular people, retrieved their rifles and helped keep Whitman occupied while the police made their way to the observation deck. Just two days after the Sandy Hook shootings, an off-duty police officer working security at a movie theater in San Antonio, Texas, shot Jesus Garcia multiple times, avoiding another active shooter event. Time and time again we have seen that immediate action from an armed individual stops active shooter events very early on. Many times when active shooter encounters armed resistance, they stop what they are doing and take their own lives. This played out recently in the Clackamas Town Center shooting on December 11th 2012. Jacob Roberts opened fire the mall killing two and seriously injuring another. Nick Meli confronted Roberts as Roberts was attempting to clear a malfunction with his rifle. Meli drew his Glock 22 and covered Roberts. Roberts spotted Meli and immediately took his own life.
The bottom line is this. Evil exists in the world. Even if all the guns on the planet were magically transported to the moon, these events would still occur. Disturbed individuals would still find a way to accomplish their evil deeds. Restricting the ability of law-abiding citizens to legally carry anywhere they desire creates areas where criminals can ply their trade with impunity. It is my assertion that had there been an armed individual at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, or Sandy Hook, the outcomes in all four cases would be very different. It would be my hope that just the thought of meeting armed resistance would have stopped the perpetrators from ever carrying out their plans. Considering their mental status, that might not be very likely. But I do know that the expeditious delivery of a full magazine of Cor-Bon DPX would have radically altered the outcome in every case.