Like clockwork, another mass shooting occurred last week in an American city.
Names of the dead and wounded scrolled across screens like battle losses in a losing campaign against gun violence.
This one may have been a terror attack. A shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic appeared to have a different motive. No two incidents are exactly the same.
But as Americans cope with the fear that they or a loved one could be the next victim of a bullet-spraying killer, there is a question that echoes: How can we make it stop?
“We need to do something different,” said Montgomery County Commission President Debbie Lieberman. “We cannot continue this.”
But what should we do? Quick, simple answers are lacking, say the experts and officials we interviewed. There may be slivers of hope found within the strategies discussed here, but they may also carry costs that could be seen as incompatible with Americans ideals of personal liberty.
Some fear those ideals have already been sacrificed.
“We’re going to have to change the way we live,” said Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer. “And that’s exactly what the terrorists want.”
1: Gun law revisions
With each mass shooting come calls to tighten gun laws, strengthen background checks and ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
And opponents of stronger gun laws once again argue that people — not guns — are doing the killing, and warn against erosion of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
One strategy among that group is to expand concealed carry permit rules to allow people to carry guns in more places — including daycare centers and on college campuses, which have been the venue for a number of mass shootings.
“When you’re confronted by a criminal looking to do that type of damage, the innocent victim should have access to any tool they want to keep themselves safe and keep their family whole,” said Joe Eaton, treasurer of the Buckeye Firearms Association.
Those favoring tighter gun laws have had a tough road. The last major effort in Congress was the 2013 Manchin-Toomey bill, which required federal background checks for gun sales to be made online and at gun shows. It failed in the U.S. Senate.
“We’ve seen far too many lives shattered by gun violence in this country,” said U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, an advocate of strengthened federal gun laws. “It’s past time we took action to address this problem and we should start by taking reasonable steps — like enhanced background checks to prevent these tragedies from occurring.”
Brown said individuals on the terrorist watch list should no longer be allowed to buy guns in the U.S.
Critics of current gun laws point to the use of legal military style assault weapons in many mass killings and say it is time to reinstate the assault weapons ban that was in place from 1994-2004. The San Bernadino killers, using those types of weapons, killed or injured 35 people in about four minutes. Two police officers later were injured in a shootout with the killers.
“Right now it is clearly too easy for people who want to do harm to get these military style weapons that are designed to simply increase the number of casualties in a shooting,” said Lindsay Nichols, senior attorney at The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “The regulations governing access to guns are simply not strong enough under current law to cover many of these clearly very dangerous people.”
Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl said studies show “pretty definitive” evidence that gun density is a predictor in the rates of gun deaths in America. But of greater concern, he said, is the sheer amount of firepower wielded by a gunman armed with a semiautomatic weapon and a 30-round magazine.
“All you have to do is look at the mass shootings around the country and see the tremendous carnage created by high-caliber weaponry and high-capacity magazines,” Biehl said. “It is shocking the amount of devastation it can cause in a very short period of time.”
Retired Montgomery County Sheriff Dave Vore acknowledged the ability to spray large volleys of bullets very quickly makes assault weapons dangerous. But he said those types of weapons also are legitimately used by hunters, and he said people have a Constitutional right to carry them.
Evan English, president of Olde English Outfitters, a Tipp City gun shop, said targeting gun owners will not address the problem of senseless violence.
“To say we need to add more restrictions now would also be foolish. It doesn’t make sense,” English said. “Whenever you add more restrictions you’re taking someone who is currently a law-abiding citizen and you are going to make them into a law breaker.”
2: Mental health treatment
Mental illness has figured in multiple mass shootings, including the September 2013 Navy Yard killings in Washington, D.C. That has led to calls for more funding for mental health care.
People can’t get the help they need, said Biehl, and as a consequence many of them wind up in jail — “the treatment resource of last resort.”
But while many agree with Biehl’s contention that the needs are not being met, improving mental health takes money that local officials say is just not available.
There are also oddities in federal law that allow unstable people to buy guns. Federal law prohibits individuals from buying a gun if they have been legally declared “mentally defective” or involuntarily committed to a mental institution. Meanwhile, those who voluntarily seek help are not banned from gun purchases.
“We have not done a very good job of connecting mental health issues to gun purchases,” said Springfield Mayor Warren Copeland, who has worked with the national group Mayors Against Illegal Guns. “The trouble is you never know which of the people having mental issues is the one to go over the edge.”
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, voted against Manchin-Toomey, the gun show bill. But Portman said he supports background checks for gun purchasers and wants states to do a better job of including mental health records in the federal database used for those checks.
He also co-sponsored the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act to improve mental health services and tracking for those in the criminal justice system, said his spokeswoman, Christyn Lansing.
Solving the “mental health crisis” won’t fix the larger problem, said Jennifer Thorne, executive director of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence.
“(We) would still have an epidemic of gun violence, and it’s simply because our elected officials by and large are not acting,” Thorne said. “They are choosing to express their condolences through thoughts and prayers, which is important — certainly we need to share our sympathy and empathy with all victims of gun violence — but they are being essentially paid off by the gun lobby to do nothing but think and pray instead of acting.”
3: Increased law enforcement
Increasing police presence in an effort to significantly reduce mass shootings would be an impractical law enforcement tactic and extraordinarily costly to taxpayers, officials said.
“I think it’s difficult to say more police will necessarily move the needle much,” Biehl said. “Active shooter events occur in a very brief period of time.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation studied 160 cases between 2000 and 2013 that were classified as active shooter incidents. Of those, more than 56 percent ended before police arrived by the shooter’s initiative – either by suicide, or the gunman stopped shooting or fled. In 64 incidents where the duration could be determined, 44 ended within five minutes or less. Of those, more than half — 23 — were over within two minutes.
Biehl and Plummer said their staffing is already spread thin.
Plummer said his office has 96 fewer employees than when he took office in 2008. If area residents want more protection, they’d have to pay for it, he said.
“It’s going to be up to citizens to vote in some kind of tax increase for security,” he said.
English has deep reservations about expanding police forces to deal with a threat of mass shootings.Instead of adding police, he and Eaton believe more citizens should be armed and trained to fight back as a last resort.
“If we have an enormous amount of police and it becomes police-driven security then I don’t think that’s advantageous,” said English, adding that “independent people able to protect themselves and their families” provides a more secure environment.
Eaton said police cannot be “everywhere at every time” a violent incident occurs.
“We can’t have a police officer in every business in the state of Ohio,” he said. “That’s just not a sensible solution.”
Many in law enforcement say the biggest assist citizens can make is to be vigilant and report information to police about those who may pose a risk to others.
“If you look at a number of these incidents, there is some information often that something is going on,” Biehl said. “Someone is unstable, there are threats that have been made, but they have not been brought to the attention of law enforcement quickly enough for law enforcement to react in a timely manner to prevent a tragedy.”
4: More security measures
Increased security is already a fact of life in America, with metal detectors in courthouses, locked doors at schools, searches of purses at concerts and requirements that bags be clear plastic at NFL games.
“I think, unfortunately it’s a sign of the times. It’s going to be a cost of doing business,” said Vore, a corporate security consultant and Clay Twp. trustee.
“Major venues that have a lot of folks in them will have to have more professionals on hand to deal with potential violence, active shooters and individuals that would utilize explosives,” he said.
Plummer also called for more armed, trained security at public venues. But Plummer, who also heads the Montgomery County Republican Party, said there should be no more “gun-free” zones.
He believes concealed carry permit holders should be allowed to carry weapons everywhere, including in daycare centers and churches, so they can keep themselves and others safe.
Lieberman wonders how much security and restrictions Americans are willing to submit to in order to stay safe.
“I don’t know if I want to live in a world where everyone is packing,” Lieberman said.
She recalls a 2007 visit she made to Israel, where soldiers in Jerusalem would stack their rifles on tables while they had coffee.
“It’s unsettling,” she said. “When you are on the road there are checkpoints and security. Our bus driver wore his gun in a holster.”
Lt. Wendy Stiver of the Dayton Police Department was a high school student in West Berlin during the tense period before the wall came down, as her father served in the Air Force and brought his family there.
Stiver has no desire to relive the level of security that was central to daily life in the divided city
“I’m familiar with the idea of living inside of a wall,” she said. “West Berlin was completely surrounded by a wall, and barbed wire and armed guards and tank traps. We had armed guards follow our school bus. We went through metal detectors.”
Despite all the security measures, West Berlin was not immune to acts of terrorism, including the 1986 bombing of a disco that claimed three lives, including two U.S. servicemen, and injured 230.
Stiver said there is no practical way to thwart every potential threat.
“You can’t completely control everybody’s behavior with a wall and a barbed wire fence,” she said. “That’s not what we stand for or believe in here. The United States is founded on freedom.”
She added: “There’s a balance to be sure.”
5: Take cover
Security experts offered ideas on how individuals can protect themselves in a mass shooting incident.
“The fundamentals: run, hide, fight,” said Paul Denton, staff consultant for Security Risk Management Consultants LLC in Columbus.
“The best we can do is reduce risk,” Denton said. “We can never eliminate it and make ourselves 100 percent safe.”
Denton said it is critical for people to be on the lookout for suspicious activities and report that to law enforcement. People should be observant when they go inside a building, locate the exits, look for fire extinguishers and search for places to take cover.
Don’t get caught in the middle of a room, said Vore. Sit near an exit and be sure that the exit doors will open. Try to stay calm.
“Panic sets in,” said Vore. “Very few people encounter the threat of imminent death before it happens.”
Vore and Plummer both believe that having armed conceal-carry permit holders everywhere can minimize the damage a shooter does.
But, said Vore, “with that comes a lot of responsibility. A lot of folks think they’re just going to carry a gun…and just going to pop their head up and confront the shooter and shoot them.”
“Unless you train and have the psychological determination to survive through that situation you may not survive,” he said. “You may make it worse.”
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