The right of the people to keep and bear arms: Part III


Being prepared for gun violence and the weaponization of statistics

Photo by Mark Brennan

April 11, 2018 — “You have to come in the middle,” Florence Police Commander John Pitcher said. “If both sides don’t back off from anything they want, nothing is going to change, and kids are still going to die in school.”

Pitcher, who has more than 30 years of service with the Florence Police Department, doesn’t have a side in the gun debate.

“We are not pro or con, we’re always going to go where the law goes to,” he said.

But the seemingly irrevocable standstill on the gun debate has Pitcher worried.

“I think it’s great that there’s a conversation happening out there — because there are kids dying in schools and other people getting killed,” Pitcher said. “But I think it’s terrible that the pros and the cons are attacking each other because they don’t like opinions. You just can’t say, ‘This is my position and I won’t budge,’ and then attack the other side.

“We won’t find any solutions if we do that.”

Pitcher talked at length about the gun debate in America, from problems with funding background check programs to how gun laws may or may not affect mass shootings.

He even spoke of an incident in Florence that could have escalated into school violence but was ultimately prevented.

Over the final articles in this special series, Siuslaw News will be looking at the experiences Pitcher provided in an effort to offer a non-partisan perspective on the gun debate.

“Let’s just get in the middle and discuss it and find out what the options are,” Pitcher said. “I’m not talking about taking anybody’s guns away or banning anything. We just need to find a way for kids not to die when they’re in school.”

But to do that requires sifting through information for the true facts — because even the facts themselves are often up for debate.

 

“Weaponized statistics”

“I know when the Florida shooting happened, some website tracked firearms on campuses throughout the country and they threw those numbers out,” Pitcher said. “But those numbers got attacked because nobody got killed or injured. It’s sad that we have to get into that.”

Pitcher was referring to numbers provided by the gun reform advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. In early February, the group reported there had already been 18 school shootings since Jan. 1, 2018.

Generally, when one thinks of “school shootings,” they think of incidents like Columbine or Parkland. But, as the Washington Post pointed out in a Feb. 14 article, that wasn’t the case here.

One incident included in Everytown’s statistics was a man shooting a gun in the air on the campus of Wake Forest University at 8 p.m. In this case, the shooter wasn’t aiming at anyone, and no one was injured. Another incident cited a man committing suicide with a gun on school property. The argument made against that statistic was that the school had been closed for seven months at the time.

Both the left-leaning Washington Post as well as several right-leaning websites like Breitbart attacked the numbers for misrepresenting school shootings in a way that made it appear there were more school shootings than there actually were.

And the writers of the Everytown article likely intended it that way as part of a push to support an agenda for gun reform.

Sadly, in another political climate, those same statistics could potentially be used to gain useful information to improve gun safety on school grounds. Was the night shooter putting anyone in danger? Could the suicide have been prevented?

But these finer points get lost in the debate as the weaponization of statistics makes it increasingly difficult to even agree on what the definition of a mass or school shooting is.

The FBI defines “mass murder” as “an incident where three or more people are killed, regardless of weapons.”

But other organizations define a mass shooting as at least four or more people shot.

And then there are questions of how motive plays into defining mass or school shootings. Is terrorism a mass shooting event, or its own separate category? What about gang violence? Is a drive-by shooting of several individuals a mass shooting? What if it occurs at school but is limited to gang members? Is it a mass shooting if one person kills only family members? And if the shooter takes his or her own life at the end, should they be included in the death toll or only their victim(s)?

All of these variables can be added or subtracted to bolster the arguments of the side presenting them. Some gun reformers want higher numbers to force action on gun control, while gun rights advocates sometimes deflate numbers to temper concerns.

The highest reported number comes from left-leaning publication The Guardian, which reports a staggering 1,624 mass shootings in 1,870 days.

That publication keeps a running count of shootings but doesn’t clearly state its methodology for determining a mass shooting. In fact, it doesn’t even gather its sources directly, instead culling them through a list of shootings from the online website “Gun Violence Archive,” which lists a mass shooting as “an event where at least four people are injured or killed in a single incident, at the same general time and location, not including the shooter.”

The Guardian lists incidences that would otherwise be excluded from other mass shooting lists. For example, it cites a Feb. 11, 2018, incident involving a domestic dispute where a male gunman killed his girlfriend, two women and then himself during a 14-hour standoff. The gunman also wounded three officers during the incident, and then shot himself.

Many lists exclude domestic disputes.

The Guardian also lists an incident on Jan. 27, 2018, when an argument at a bar resulted in four people getting shot, but with no fatalities. The majority of lists require a mass shooting to require fatalities.

On the other end of the spectrum, the conservative-leaning group Cato Institute, which often advocates for gun rights, had much lower numbers.

 In a February 2018 report, it cited an FBI study from 2000 to 2016 that showed a rising trend in mass shootings but questioned the agency’s methodology because FBI statistics include gang violence. Cato Institute also questioned how the FBI graphed the rise in incidents as a way of discrediting the report.

However, no matter how one graphs the data, the numbers do show a rise in active shootings.

It should be noted that the Cato study, titled “Are Mass Shootings Becoming More Frequent,” states that the FBI was studying “active shootings,” but doesn’t go into details.

An active shooting, as defined by the FBI, is “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.”

Cato took that FBI study and compared it to the liberal-leaning publication Mother Jones’ study on mass shootings, which defines a mass shooting as “indiscriminate rampages in public places resulting in four or more victims killed by the attacker. We exclude shootings stemming from more conventional crimes such as armed robbery or gang violence.”

That’s entirely different from the FBI’s data, and is an apple to oranges comparison.

Regardless, Mother Jones also showed an increase of mass shootings, just as the FBI did for active shootings.

Cato rightfully pointed out that Mother Jones had a liberal bias but throws out the rising trend due to its limited time span. Cato instead averaged the death from every year, pointing out that there are only 23 deaths per year from mass shootings, an extremely low number when compared to the overall gun deaths in America.

However, Cato ignored Mother Jones’ and the FBI’s main premise that mass/active shootings are rising, concluding instead mass shootings are a rare occurrence in relation to gun deaths as a whole.

At the end of the article, Cato takes its own partisan jab, stating, “Every time one of these random mass shootings occurs, journalists and legislators invariably seize on the tragedy to lecture about the need for artfully unspecific changes in federal gun control laws.”

Are any of the numbers being presented wrong?

No.

Both Cato and The Guardian are absolutely correct in their mathematical assessment based on the criteria defined by each.

And, as Pitcher pointed out, all of these numbers have worth.

It’s important to keep in mind that, statistically, mass shootings are rare compared to other homicide deaths, no matter how it may feel with media coverage.

For example, the Center for Disease Control reported that there were 12,979 firearm homicides in 2015. The numbers did not differentiate where and how these homicides took place, nor did it account for suicides, which make up the majority of gun-related fatalities.

The Gun Violence Archive, which The Guardian used in its statistics, found 475 people were murdered, less than 4 percent of all homicides.

This is not to diminish fatalities in mass shootings — most would agree one fatality is still too high a number. But by focusing the entirety of the gun debate on mass shootings, the debate runs the risk of missing key social and economic factors that can play into gun homicides.

If placing a blanket ban on what some consider an “assault rifle” could, in some way, stop mass shootings, would such a ban stop all gun homicides in America? We must ask if this debate is solely about stopping mass shootings, or if it is about a larger issue that encompasses issues like economics, race relations, access to medical care and other societal hurdles.

These finer points often get lost in the discussion and are not used in a good faith examination on the issue of firearm fatalities in America. Rather, they are used as a way to prove the other side wrong.

“It’s sad that we use statistics to attack one another,” Pitcher said.

Statistics are being used to minimize opponents or instill fear. But fear is the last thing that Pitcher believes we need to feel.

 

“I’m not scared, I’m prepared”

“The odds of a mass shooting happening anywhere are slim,” Pitcher said when asked about the possibility of a school shooting in Florence. “You could pick a school in L.A. and that would be slim. In Florence it’s pretty slim. But to think it would never happen is naive.”

Yet with the seemingly constant barrage of media coverage, it might seem that the next school shooting is waiting around the corner.

“Let me show you something,” Pitcher said as he brought out the children’s picture book “I’m Not Scared, I’m Prepared” by Julia Cook. The book highlights some of the measures of the ALICE active shooter response program, a nationwide program that informs children, school faculty, police responders and others what to do if a school shooting occurs.

“That’s what we want people to be,” Pitcher said. “Prepared. You don’t have to be scared. Just be prepared. Learn how to survive these incidences.”

Pitcher and his department recently taught ALICE — which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate — to local school districts. It’s a way to be more proactive during a school shooting.

Previous recommendations involved people waiting the shooter out, either by hiding in hopes the shooter wouldn't find them, or that the shooter ends the rampage through suicide, running out of bullets, the police, etc.

But ALICE teaches a more proactive approach, stressing evacuation, such as exiting windows, or stacking obstacles that make it more difficult for a shooter to traverse the landscape.

ALICE does have its detractors, though, particularly when it comes to the “counter” portion of the program, including complaints that teaching elementary school students to swarm a shooter is unrealistic and dangerous.

“‘Counter’ is not just swarming,” Pitcher said. “‘Counter’ can be, ‘I’ve got something I can throw at the guy, and then I run.’ We always want to make creating a distance the first option when you have a threat. ‘Counter’ is the very last option. If you’re talking about grade school kids, obviously you’re not expecting them to swarm an armed adult.”

It has also been pointed out that ALICE’s effectiveness has not been proven by any peer reviewed studies. However, data on any school shooting is scarce due to their infrequency. And there has been anecdotal evidence that supports the use of ALICE.

On Jan. 20, 2017, a student at Liberty-Salem High School in Ohio shot and injured another student in the restroom of the school and intended to shoot others in the school indiscriminately.

After hearing the shots, students at the high school began barricading doors and evacuating, while high school staff pounced on the shooter and restrained him until law enforcement arrived.

School officials credited ALICE training for saving students’ lives.

“We’re not expecting little kids to swarm and take down an adult,” Pitcher said. “But once we get into the high school range? Believe me, I think it’s a very legitimate option.”

Pitcher pointed to the Thurston High School shooting in Springfield, Ore., that was also stopped by high schoolers swarming a shooter.

“‘Counter’ is a very last option,” Pitcher said. “‘If I don’t do this, I’m going to die.’ So that’s why we teach it. We want to give someone an option other than dying.”

But if programs like ALICE prove to be effective, it leads to the question: Do we need to arm school staff?

After the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, multiple calls have been made to arm teachers because of the response time of law enforcement.

A 2013 FBI report found that in 160 active shooter incidents, 44 ended in 5 minutes or less, with 23 ending in 2 minutes or less — with 107 of the incidences ending before law enforcement could arrive.

“Even when law enforcement was present or able to respond within minutes, civilians often had to make life-and-death decisions and, therefore, should be engaged in training and discussions on decisions they may face,” the FBI report stated.

Suggestions regarding school staff come down to two groups: Resource officers and teachers.

Resource officers generally have wide support on both sides of the debate, and they have been credited with saving lives.

In August 2010, a man entered Sullivan Central High School in Tennessee, armed with two hand guns, pointing one of the guns at the school principal’s head. The school resource officer was notified, and held the gunman at bay until the arrival of police officers, who eventually shot and killed the gunman.

More recently, in March a high school student in Maryland who was believed to be carrying out a mass shooting was confronted by a resource officer after shooting two students.

While the resource officer was initially credited with killing the gunman by politicians and the NRA, the gunman actually shot and killed himself.

However, he did so when the officer had already drawn his weapon and got off one shot before the assailant took his own life, according to a March 27 CNN report. Whether the resource officer’s actions directly led to assailant’s death is hard to say.

And just because a school resource officer is present during a shooting doesn’t mean that they will always act. In the Parkland, Fla., shootings, a resource officer remained outside the building during the shooting. The officer contended that it was because he believed that shots were coming from outside, while others accuse him of cowardice.

The fact is, armed officers who are able to engage shooters don’t always survive the encounters. According to a 2013 FBI study, of 45 active shooter incidents, 9 police officers were killed and 28 were wounded; 3 armed, non-sworn security personnel were also killed, and 2 unarmed security officers were killed.

Because of the often short response time, and the notion that officers don’t always stop school shootings, it has been suggested that teachers arm themselves. But if trained officers can have difficulties with school shooters, would a teacher prove to be more effective?

Pitcher remains agnostic on the issue of arming teachers, saying, “School policy is school policy. Whatever they say, I’m perfectly fine with.”

But the one thing that Pitcher wants people to keep in mind during the debate is that teachers need to be trained if they carry a firearm.

“There are a lot of things that go along with owning a gun. And not everyone is comfortable having a gun. I wouldn’t make someone who isn’t comfortable with a gun have a gun. But if you’re comfortable and everything allows it, you need to be trained and have continual training. Not just how to shoot that weapon, but when to shoot that weapon,” he said.

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, National Rifle Association (NRA) vice president Wayne LaPierre stated, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.”

He suggested putting armed officers in every school in the nation.

After the Parkland shooting, President Donald Trump suggested “giving concealed guns to gun-adept teachers with military or special training experience — only the best.”

He suggested that 20 percent of teachers would be able to fit that criteria.

But corroborating that 20 percent of “gun-adept” teachers cited by the president is extremely difficult.

Some gun reformers point to gender when speaking about the ability of teachers to fire weapons responsibility. A February 2018 article published by VOX asserted that 76 percent of public school teachers are women, and only 22 percent of women in America own guns, ergo, finding trained teachers is not possible.

However, those statistics make some pretty broad generalizations, first and foremost being that a female-led profession could not produce responsible and effective gun owners.

One example against that argument is the Tennessee resource officer cited earlier in this article. Her name was Carolyn Gudger, and she saved lives. Generalizations may paint women as less capable with a gun, but facts do not support that.

In addition, Trump was not looking for an entirely armed teaching force — only a portion of teachers.

But the Vox article does point out a fallacy in the president’s assertion that there are teachers with military or special-training experience. While exact figures on exactly how many military personnel enter the field of education — a program called Troops to Teachers, which helps veterans transition into educations, only had around 20,000 participants since 1993.

While it’s wrong to think that all militarily trained teachers go through that program, it does hint at the idea that 20 percent of teachers with military experience isn’t accurate.

Instead of relying on an already existing pool of firearms-trained teachers, school districts could instead look to training teachers. This has already been occurring in the U.S. for years.

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, Clarksville School District in Arkansas looked into hiring a resource officer, but found it was too expensive, according to a February 2018 article by CNN.

“Hiring one school resource officer would have cost the district about $50,000 a year,” the article read. “The district spent at least $68,000 training about 13 staff members when the program began.”

The opposite end of that equation is Utah, where anyone with a permit to carry a concealed weapon can take a loaded firearm to school without telling the principal, and no firearm training is required.

While Clarksville has not reported any injuries since implementing its program, Utah has. In 2014, a sixth-grade teacher in Taylorsville, Utah, accidentally discharged her weapon while in the faculty bathroom, shooting her leg. In this case, students weren’t in immediate danger during the discharge.

But just last month, a teacher in Salinas, Calif., accidentally fired a gun at the ceiling while teaching a public safety course. A student contends that they were struck by debris from the discharge.

Another recent incident in Dalton, Ga., found a teacher barricading himself in a room, firing one shot out the window.

The teacher had apparently been going through a crisis and was talked into relinquishing his firearm by a school resource officer without incident.

In both of these cases, physical injury was either non-existent or negligent.

But Pitcher’s concerns about teachers carrying firearms goes beyond the physical — it’s the psychological aspects of teachers carrying firearms that gives Pitcher pause.

“If, as a teacher, you’re going to have a gun in a school, then they need to think about the mental preparation of having to do that and being able to survive that afterward,” said Pitcher. “If you dedicate your life to teaching kids, and you have to be put in that position, can you do it?

“And what is it going to do to you afterwards?”

While there is anecdotal evidence that properly trained personnel could lead to fewer school shooting deaths, do more guns in general equal a safer society?

And while armed resource officers may be a way to react to a school shooting, are there more proactive ways to stop gun violence through legislation or by providing more social services to identify at-risk students?

Is the solution a combination of both?

These and other questions will be examined in the fourth segment of the series.

Note: This is part 3 of a continuing series. Find additional installments in the Special Series Archive, located here.