The Massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary: Reducing the Threat of Active Shooters

By Nadav Morag, Ph.D.

CTU Homeland Security Degree - US ConstitutionThe horrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut that left twenty-six adults and children dead has reignited the debate over gun control. Under particular scrutiny is the advisability and legality of allowing citizens to purchase assault rifles. 

The gunman, Adam Lanza, was equipped with a Bushmaster AR-15 .223 –caliber rifle and two handguns.  The rifle, which is the civilian version of the U.S. military’s M-16 assault rifle, is semi-automatic. That means, that unless it is illegally modified, it cannot fire multiple rounds with a single squeeze of the trigger. This distinction is important since pulling the trigger to fire off one round means fewer rounds are fired per minute, which may certainly translate into fewer lives lost. 

However, assault rifles such as the AR-15 are often sold with large magazines. In this case, Lanza used large-capacity magazines, giving him the ability to fire 30 rounds before needing to reload, which naturally takes time. Time that, in the case of the November 30, 2010 Jared Lee Loughner shooting spree in Tucson, AZ, enables a gunman to be stopped.

Ban guns, improve mental health, or increase security?

Many believe banning assault rifles will prevent massacres like Sandy Hook. But, shooters can still kill large numbers of people with other weapons, like hunting rifles or handguns. Consequently a ban on assault rifles is not likely to significantly reduce the threat. Banning firearms across the board, which would also mean confiscating the millions of firearms presently owned by Americans, would likely prevent such attacks. Unlike hardened criminals who can usually get access to illegal firearms, an introverted middle-class lad from the suburbs would not have normally come into possession of such weapons if our firearms laws were similar, say, to those of the British.

Regardless of personal opinion, the right to bear arms is firmly sanctioned by the Constitution and firearms are an integral part of large swaths of American culture. The idea that Americans will accept European-style firearms restrictions is, for better or worse, quite unrealistic. 

Given this, we must assume that there will be other psychologically unbalanced individuals, like Adam Lanza, with access to firearms and the desire to kill. While improving mental health services in the hopes of early detection of destructive behavior that might lead to such tragedies are worthy objectives, it is fair to say that this alone will not solve the problem. There are simply too many troubled people with access to weapons.

Others may argue that increasing police patrols near schools and greater engagement between school principals and police chiefs or sheriffs is necessary. This too, is a worthy objective that should be pursued. However, in most cases, law enforcement personnel cannot be positioned in every school around the clock. Even in the event that they are able to arrive at a school within ten minutes of a shooting, the shooter may have potentially killed several innocent people before officers have an opportunity to intervene.

Effectively reducing the threat

There are two ways to effectively address and reduce the threat of guns. I emphasize reduce because no security solution is ever 100 percent effective. Nevertheless, these potential solutions can undoubtedly enhance security and may prevent many such attacks in the future.

The first approach, which is used by Israel to secure schools from possible terrorist attacks, is to build sturdy fences around schools. Some American schools have these, but many do not. The fences can be armed with private security guards controlling access onto school grounds. This, of course, is an expensive solution. Yet it makes schools a harder target to attack and may lead a potential gunman to stand down. Of course, there are American schools with private security or with their own school district police forces; however, these entities are usually focused on policing the school children rather than preventing active shooter attacks from outside the school.

A second, and much less costly approach, would be for the school district to designate a team of teachers and/or administrators trained, deputized, and armed by the local police or sheriff’s department to act as a rapid response team in the event of an active shooter attack on the school. The size of this team would depend on the size of the school and student body. These individuals would engage in regular training and exercises and have clear legal authority to respond to an attack and engage the shooter. 

Some people may find the idea of armed teachers and administrators in schools troubling, but those people should consider the fact that we live in a world with maniacal individuals with access to firearms. No matter how strong our law enforcement agencies are, they are almost certainly not going to be present when such an individual decides that it’s time to cut short the lives of some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Image credit: Flickr/KJD