As a nation, or even as a society, we seem to miss certainly one of the many lessons of 9/11 and that is when we think of threats to public safety we truly need to think outside the box. Why is our reaction to these horrific events always some level of shack & awe?Yes.. we can’t turn our lives into obsessive fear of walking outside but there are some bad things that will occur on our society, gun laws or not, so it behooves us to trying to at least minimize potential vulnerabilities on our society. Why are we surprised when some nutcase shoots up a movie theater, a school, or a shopping mall? Why are we surprised when some disgruntled taxpayer decides to fly his plane into a building with IRS offices? As we are mourning over our own tragedy at Sandy Hook, China has experienced yet another attack on one of their schools, the third in two years… without firearms (a knife was used)… in this case 22 kids were injured. So this is not just a “gun” problem.
No.. we can’t turn our society into one big Fort Knox of fear. But we can certainly try and meet some of our vulnerabilities. From my perspective these are the facts…
1) We have enough guns in this country to arm 50% of all Americans and that’s protected by the Constitution… whether we like it or not. That’s not going to change overnight, politically (it takes years to even consider a change to an amendment) or in reality (let’s say all guns become illegal… how are we going to collect them all?). Guns are here to stay for the foreseeable future regardless of the amount of gun control legislation that results from all of this.
2) Mental health is such a broad psychological discipline with many facets.. from being organic, hereditary, the result of real life abuse, traumas… and trying to address mental health issues with broad strokes of laws will be challenged in the courts as violations of personal freedoms and rights for years.
Now, while it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt a change in those areas through normal channels of public law and application of democracy, we have to understand it’s not going to happen overnight. So what do we do in the meantime?
I am reminded from my own experience following the events of Columbine. My three kids were students in elementary school in Maine Township School District 62… the Des Plaines, Illinois school district. I was deeply involved in district activities as a result of other planning strategies. I recall being involved in brainstorming committee activities and we were being facilitated to conjure up ideas on meeting potential future threats from two perspectives… one being what we called the pie-in-the-sky ideas.. which were typically ideas that would result in large increases to the financial budget, like physical building structural changes (we had a district with a lot of school buildings) to the addition of staff for just security reasons. The second perspective, which became the focus, was for ideas to enhance school security based on what assets are currently available. There was talk of part time guards, security cameras (you would not believe the opposition to that one, even after Columbine, from parents mumbling about privacy violations; those were different times as cameras in our lives are more accepted these days), and metal detectors. There was talk of restricting school access (up until that point anyone could enter a school at any time without being challenged; rather unbelievable by today’s standards). In the end, as I recall, the short term “solution” ended up being new rules for restricted school access, the application of certain evacuation drills that emphasize response to security threats along with regular fire drills, and some effort for enhancing communication with parents. All marginally effective as being at least something… but not effective at all in preventing access by a lone gunman with an assault rifle and psychological problems. My point? Well here we are again trying to deal with security issues in schools and we have seemed to have learned little from Columbine when it comes to security in our schools.
Here’s an example. One young Sandy Hook witness account was that his teacher had all the kids go to the back of the classroom, presumably away from the door as the shots rang out. The gunman burst into the classroom, shot the teacher, and the panicked kids had to run toward and past the gunman to exit the classroom. My immediate thought was… with all the talk of so called “panic rooms” and “safe rooms” in recent years (even Hollywood, TV, etc.) why isn’t your basic school room designed to be a panic room? Would it really be that expensive to have a bullet proof (or “resistant”) door, door window, with electric button access controlled by the teacher, installed at each classroom? Each teacher, principal, fire department, would have key entry override (a single key opening any classroom door in the school). All classroom doors are mandatory closed when rooms are occupied. That simple solution might have given the students and the teacher in this Sandy Hook classroom a chance to live. Oh sure.. you might suggest that a gunman could presumably grab a key from a faculty member and just enter a room anyway.. true.. to a gunman with the presence of mind to think that far. But gunmen like this are concentrating on targets of opportunity as a result of their rage.. like this guy at Sandy Hook. He would have been frustrated and confused and would have just moved on to the next room. In the meantime, time is passing until the police arrive. The point being.. the time delay caused by using a simple barrier between the kids and the gunman could have made a difference in this case.
Look, everyone will have an opinion on this and there will be the inevitable finger pointing. The reality is that more gun laws are not likely to solve anything and our society is not focused on working with any sort of public mental health policy, much less a policy that might reduce or eliminate random acts of public violence. Quit looking toward the government to provide some panacea of social protection. Government, even in the best of times, is not quick to respond. So what do we do? Well, as simple as it seems, public protection starts with each one of us personally. You go into a public place check out where the exits are… not only for yourself but in the event you might play a part in helping someone else to safety. We are all in this together so it’s not about just trying to save your own ass; understand your own limitations, physical or otherwise. You go visit a mall then notice the exits… places you might be able to go to conceal yourself… or more important, simply watch other people. You see something strange (not just poor fashion sense) then talk to a mall guard. Vigilance begins with each of us. It’s not going to be an absolute deterrent but it’s a very valid start.
Your best defense against being a victim of random public violence is to recognize that it can and will occur anywhere and at any time; the workplace, filling up your car with gas, at the grocery, at the mall, in the doctor’s office… anywhere. If you think that such a thing could never happen in your community or at the places you visit in your normal day… then you may as well think of yourself as the next possible victim. Learn what gunshots sound like so when you hear that popping sound you are less likely to dismiss it all as firecrackers, building construction, or a car backfire. Use common sense. Your eyes and brain are the first line of defense in surviving or even preventing random acts of violence.
My recommendation… there needs to be far more grass roots public awareness initiated by local governments on what the average person can do to be more aware of threat elements to watch for as we do our daily routines. Maybe this might include a special police 3 digit hotline, similar to 911, for people to call in just plain old suspicious behavior or activity (you’d want a separate number given these calls would not typically be life & death; no sense clogging up 911 lines).
Also at the grass roots level… concerning school security, work with your local school district and get involved. A lot can be done short of spending additional millions of education money to turn schools into hardened security facilities. That money is better served to improve education.
Regarding public safety in public places over and above what we can do for ourselves… that comes from local municipal government in the way of building codes and ordinances. Again, get involved in your local government.. contact your council representatives. But remember, what any city council mandates to protect buildings and malls, will likely cost money to businesses and be passed on to consumers like ourselves.
In the meantime… don’t expect the government to make any overnight changes. Start with yourself.