This article was first published in the Daily Friend on 31 May 2022.
Mass casualty events where the actions of one or more violent actors result in the death and maiming of innocent people will always shock and horrify us. Especially so when the victims are innocent children. Whether the incident is a terrorist in a truck ploughing through Bastille Day celebrations in Nice – an attack that left 84 innocent people dead and injured 458 others – or an active shooter at an American school, the result elicits the same emotional reaction from us.
And the latest tragedy at a Texas elementary school in Uvalde is no different.
Salvador Ramos approached the Robb Elementary School, but encountered a school district security officer before he could gain access. There are conflicting reports regarding whether or not the two exchanged gunfire. Either way, Ramos then entered the school via a back entrance. He then fired on two Uvalde police officers outside the school building, injuring them. It was at this point that he began shooting students and teachers.
It took between 40 minutes to over an hour from when Ramos started his attack until he was finally shot and killed by a Border Patrol tactical team. Shockingly, there are reports of the Uvalde police ordering the tactical team to hold back and not intervene for nearly an hour after they arrived on scene. If this is true, it represents a criminal failure on the part of the police.
The attack left 19 children and two adults dead, and injured 17 others. And it is nothing short of a horrendous atrocity. It is difficult to imagine the shock of the survivors and the anguish of those who lost their children. Merely stating these statistics removes the human significance of the loss. Behind every number is a dead loved one. And behind every dead loved one is a grieving and devastated family.
Active Shooter Incidents are Fortunately Very Rare
It is some consolation to note that school shootings are incredibly rare. And there are far fewer school shootings now than there were in the 1990s. In the 23 years since the Columbine High School massacre on 20 April 1999, a total of 185 children and adults have been killed in school shootings. To put this into perspective, an estimated 900 children and adolescents drown in the United States annually. This means 112 times more children die from drownings every year than are killed in school shootings.
The above does not detract from the fact that every mass shooting is an atrocity. But equally, we must be careful not to lose perspective. Mass shootings are statistical outliers and not remotely commonplace – despite what certain media publications and politicians suggest.
Even the Economist is guilty of grossly misrepresenting reality in this regard. The publication claims that “guns are the things most likely to kill young people in America”. And make specific reference to the age group of 1 to 24 when comparing deaths by motor vehicles with deaths by firearms. What they omit, is that only 13% of gang members are estimated to be over the age of 24. The remaining 87% are 24 and younger, with 16% being below the age of 15.
Increasing gang violence has significantly driven up homicide rates across several major US cities over the past year. Just why the Economist chose to omit this when it is a direct explanatory variable in their equation is frankly puzzling.
But it does, unfortunately, correlate with the immediate and visceral politicisation of these incidents. Which has become a regrettable hallmark of mass shootings. The mainstream discussion focuses on the bipartisan issue of gun control in the main and unfortunately ignores vitally important concerns underlying the problem.
The Gun Control Argument
It is somewhat understandable that some advocate for stricter and more severe gun control legislation in the wake of these events. Surely if an 18-year-old boy couldn’t walk into a gun store and buy a rifle, these events wouldn’t happen?
The fact is that there is simply no evidence to suggest as much. In places already implementing the most commonly-proposed gun control measures, they have proven ineffective at preventing mass shootings. In fact, the suggested measures may exacerbate the problem.
But what about outright banning so-called “assault weapons”?
What the proponents of stricter gun control and firearm bans don’t admit, is that the Columbine massacre (as well as every single mass shooting between 1994 and 2004) occurred during a Federal Assault Weapons Ban. Additionally, an average of only 2.16% of all homicides are committed by the use of rifles of all types (including AR-15s). This is less than half the proportion of people murdered by use of hands and feet annually, which stands at approximately 4.6%.
It should therefore not come as a surprise to learn that there is an incredibly weak correlation between firearm ownership and homicide rates. The US homicide rate halved between 1993 and 2013 while new gun ownership soared. This trend continued into 2019, with the US murder rate at its lowest since the early 1960s.
Stricter gun control measures will not address the causal factors of the issue or even act as an effective preventative measure. Considering that Americans successfully use their personal firearms defensively between 500 000 to 3 million times annually, there is a clear and legitimate need for civilian firearm ownership. It would be patently irrational and criminally irresponsible to propose leaving citizens defenceless. Especially when the answer to the problem lies elsewhere.
Much More Can Be Done to Prevent Mass Shootings
Contrary to what we would like to believe, active shooter incidents are a global phenomenon and are not going to disappear. There are diverse threat actors, each with different motives and resources, and the danger will be with us for the foreseeable future. We need to accept this reality and adapt to it. And this means putting actionable solutions in place.
Active shooter attacks generally unfold over several stages: the pre-incident “incubation” period, the actual attack, and the response. The pre-incident stage consists of triggers and cognitive opening, planning, preparation, and approach phases. During any of these pre-attack phases, citizens or the authorities can prevent the attack or intercept the active shooter. And in many cases, they succeed in preventing harm or significantly limiting it.
There are numerous resources and frameworks to assist individuals and institutions in preventing active shooter incidents. These resources give guidance regarding pre-empting active shooters by recognising behavioural indicators and monitoring social media postings. They also assist in hardening facilities’ security postures, which has demonstrated significant success in deterring active shooters.
The main weakness of the abovementioned solutions is that it requires people to know what to look for, be alert, and take action. As often as these measures succeed, there are always failures. And what happened in Uvalde was certainly a multi-tier failure.
So What Went Wrong in Uvalde?
By numerous accounts, Ramos’ childhood and adolescence were far from happy. Salvador was raised by his mother, who reportedly is a habitual drug abuser, in a single-parent household. They had frequent and loud verbal fights, and neighbours recall seeing the police at the house on at least one occasion. A few months before the shooting, Salvador moved out of his mother’s house and went to live with his grandmother.
His school life was equally miserable. Ramos was chronically bullied since elementary school to such a degree that he committed acts of self-mutilation. He became involved in fistfights at school and increasingly withdrew himself from others until finally dropping out. At some point, he and a friend would drive around at night and shoot at random people with a BB gun, as well as commit acts of vandalism. Finally, he began openly expressing violent urges to kill and maim others on social media.
On the day of the incident Ramos attacked and shot his grandmother (who fortunately survived) and stole her car. He used her vehicle to drive to the school but crashed it on the way there.
It is obvious that there were multiple and escalating warning signs that Salvador Ramos was distressed, needed help, and was becoming dangerously violent. Yet on the surface there appears to have been no meaningful intervention to stop it. Not from people close to him, not from the school, and not from the authorities. If just one person took action based upon what they observed, even if only to report it, things may have ended very differently.
And that I suppose is the bitter lesson in this tragic narrative – apathy kills. But reaching out to a clearly troubled individual may end up not only saving their life, but also the lives of others.
Written by Gideon Joubert.
He is the owner and editor of Paratus.