While waiting for the taping of "Arkansas Week" to begin Friday morning on the AETN set at Conway, I checked my iPhone just prior to turning it off and received an Associated Press bulletin about a school shooting in Connecticut. There were no details, but the phrase "school shooting" is always chilling.
I told fellow panelist Hoyt Purvis, professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas, about the bulletin. Originally from Jonesboro, Hoyt also he feels the same emotions. Neither of us lived there in 1998 when two teenagers gunned down 15 students and teachers, killing five of them, at the Westside Middle School, but we all still feel some pain when a new tragedy reminds us.
After the taping I checked my phone again and learned how deadly the toll had been at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Days later, we don’t know why 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot his way into the school and killed 20 children and six adults, and we probably never will. Earlier, he had murdered the one person who might have been able to explain, his mother, and he ended his own life as first responders closed in on him and stopped his rampage.
Worse, we have no idea how to stop such massacres, which are happening much too frequently.
Since 1997 we’ve had 13 shooting incidents in U.S. schools and colleges resulting in two or more deaths. Morbidly, we rate them by how many people were killed, and the latest one jumps to No. 2.
These murderous outbursts are not limited to schools; we’ve seen similar murders recently at a political rally, in a movie theater and only a few days earlier at a shopping mall. They are not limited to the United States, but a world map shows that we have the worst problem.
That’s, no doubt, because we are a free nation. Our Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms so we’ve always had guns, and we always will.
We’ve always had school shootings, too. The earliest recorded was in 1764 when four Indians killed a schoolmaster and several children in Pennsylvania. But the death tolls have grown with the technology for killing. Most of the shootings prior to the 1990s involved two people who had a personal dispute.
With every massacre come new calls for stricter gun controls. Lanza used a .223-caliber Bushmaster assault rifle, designed for military and law enforcement use, to kill his victims, according to news reports. Using 30-round magazines, he fired as many as 11 shots into each victim, leaving little chance of survival. This is no cheap gun, costing around $1,000 new, and he had plenty of ammunition left.
He also had two powerful handguns, each capable of firing five bullets a second. Those weapons, as well as a couple of others, were owned by his mother, and she apparently had a right to own them.
She surely never dreamed that her son, despite his personality disorders, would turn them against her and others.
The Bushmaster, also used in the 2002 District of Columbia sniper killings, has a dark history, and the manufacturer settled a lawsuit filed in the wake of those murders. It’s not clear, though, that it would have been illegal to own one under the federal assault weapon ban that Congress allowed to expire in 2004. Police said the 30-round magazines would have been banned.
We should have a federal ban on assault weapons and other mass killing devices such as the mega-round magazines. The Second Amendment guarantees our right to bear arms, but it doesn’t define "arms." Does that include a bazooka? A cannon? A bomb? We’ve already drawn some lines. It’s reasonable to ban assault rifles for many reasons, but that won’t stop school shootings.
Lanza could have killed as many with the two handguns he had. Seung-Hui Cho used semiautomatic handguns and 10-round magazines to kill 32 people at Virginia Tech University in 2007.
And no matter what you ban, you can’t eliminate the guns already out there. Nor can you guarantee they won’t be stolen. The Westside shooters stole guns owned by a family member who kept them locked in a gun cabinet.
Connecticut already had some of the most stringent gun-control laws in the country, including one that allows police to confiscate weapons that might be used to harm someone. Lanza had apparently never shown any sign of harming someone else until he did, and that’s common among school shooters.
If gun laws won’t help, we’re left with other measures that also restrict freedom. Already many school buildings have become more like forts. Sandy Hook’s doors were locked, but Lanza shot his way in.
Some urge that every school building have an armed guard. If that were financially possible, would an armed guard have been enough against an attacker with an arsenal of semiautomatic weapons? Others suggest that teachers and staff members should arm themselves, somehow "deputizing" them in case of attack.
If that’s the answer, we could still have problems — a teacher shooting it out with a student in a classroom, or a crazed staff member going on the attack.
Somehow we must find answers, or we will again see 6-year-olds being interviewed on national TV about what they saw during a massacre.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.