Kate "Ma" Barker was the mother of Herman, Lloyd, Arthur, Fred and Willmer Barker. Between 1900 and 1935 her sons participated in a string of murders and robberies committed by the notorious Barker-Karpis gang. For decades film, television and legend portrayed Kate Barker as a fearsome "pistol-packin' mama" who was the brains of the Barkis-Karper gang. She was depicted as the epitome of evil: a bloodthirsty, twisted mother urging her brood to commit crime after crime.
Time (and historical revision) has reduced Kate Barker to a cartoon figure, a sideshow of the "public enemies" era. Now Nancy Lanza seems poised to take her place in the American public's imagination.
Early news stories called Nancy Lanza a "prepper"- a paranoid survivalist obsessed with stockpiling food and weapons in preparation for social collapse. Neighbors and friends objected. They portrayed her as a sophisticated woman with a background in finance work and a cheerful, socially active person always ready to help a friend in need.
Nancy Lanza might have been a little bit of all these things, but it was the "prepper" description that stuck. The slaughter of Sandy Hook's little ones was so overwhelming that the public had no appetite for complexity. They wanted an explanation and they wanted it now.
So Nancy Lanza became a symbol of anything and everything wrong with American culture. She was a "gun nut". She was a lousy parent. She was an irresponsible caregiver. The reader comments posted beneath news stories could be condensed into a group chant : her fault, her fault, her fault.
Just read a few:
What a sick, stupid woman. What a pathetic human being.
Let's see. By all accounts, her son was fucking nuts, and people knew it. I think the facts bear that out. Yet despite having a batshit-crazy son, she felt it necessary to stockpile semi-automatic weapons and ammunition whose sole intent was to kill people. A job they did so very well.
I think, in her case, fear, (willful?) ignorance, and stupidity all contributed to her gruesomely violent demise at the hands of her thankfully-dead son. Sadly, it also cost the lives of a couple dozen good, innocent children and adults.
And no, thankfully, I didn't know her.
She did nothing to prevent her son from hurting other people. She may have been too stoooopid to realize that she was breeding a mass-murderer, because really, who would think that. But at some point the thought to at least protect herself would have gone through her mind and she likely poo-poo'ed it thinking nothing's happened yet. THAT is not the criteria to due diligence. She was negligent, period.
These commenters are telling themselves what they have to hear in order to feel safe. In order to feel safe, they must believe that the horror of Newtown was easy to predict and simple to prevent. And if it was that easy, that simple, then obviously Nancy Lanza is to blame. Yes, it was Nancy Lanza- stupid, gun-obsessed, irresponsible Nancy Lanza- who let the Newtown shooting happen.
Suddenly the world is logical again.
Never mind that these comments were made during an information blackout. Authorities don't expect to complete their investigation until June at the earliest. They have released lists of items recovered from the Lanza home and car, including emails and journals. But the content of those writings- words that could explain Nancy Lanza's actions and state of mind- have not been released.
For now, Nancy Lanza is mute.
But she is not alone. She has joined the ranks of parents and guardians murdered by their own unstable children as the first act of a mass shooting:
On May 20th, 1998 Kip Kinkel murdered both his parents, using a gun they had helped him purchase. The next day he (like Adam Lanza) drove his parent's car to school where he killed two more people and wounded 25.
On March 21rst, 2005 Jeffrey Weise murdered his grandfather, a police officer, as he slept, then killed his grandfather's girlfriend as carried a basket of laundry upstairs. He then drove his grandfather's squad car to school and used his police-issued weapons to kill nine people and would five.
Kip Kinkel's parents were William Kinkel and Faith Zuranski. Jeffrey Weise's grandfather was Daryl Lussier, Sr. and Sergeant Lussier's partner was Michelle Leigh Sigana.
But who remembers their names now? Their memory is crowded out by the mass shooting that followed their deaths.
On Friday, December 21, 2012, bells rang across the nation to mark the deaths of the Sandy Hook victims. They tolled 26 times, one note for each murdered teacher and child.
Nancy Lanza was deliberately excluded.
A reporter found only one mention of her that day, written on a scrap of legal paper by someone unwilling to sign their name:
“Others now share pain for choices you faced alone; May the blameless among us throw the first stone.”
"I said, 'Calm down, it's over.' He said, 'Arlen Specter made me do this.' I said, 'What?' "
Principal Norina Bentzel, recounting the attack on North Hopewell-Winterstown Elementary School in February 2001
He might have preferred a gun, but he failed a background check.
So William Michael Stankewicz barged into North Hopewell-Winterstown Elementary School wielding a machete instead. Once inside, he attacked Principal Norina Bentzel, 2 teachers and 11 small children.
Later he would tell Judge Sheryl Ann Dorney a rambling, disconnected tale about the mail-order bride who had dumped him, his 2 years spent in jail for threatening Federal immigration officials and the multiple medications he was taking for various mental disorders.
Still dangerous and still mentally ill, he was sentenced to over 100 years in prison.
Five months later and half a world away, Mamoru Takuma charged into Ikeda Elementary School in Osaka, Japan, armed with a kitchen knife. In ten minutes he hacked 8 first-graders to death and seriously wounded 15 other children and 2 teachers.
Takuma was also mentally ill, also struggling through a divorce. Like Stankewicz, he said the attack "relieved my stress."
Tim Larimer wrote this about the Osaka attack in Time Magazine:
It lasted just 10 terrifying minutes, during which the intruder killed eight children, injured 15 other pupils and two teachers and further eroded Japan's confidence that it is immune to the violence that it associates with the U.S. It is the worst mass killing of schoolchildren in Japan's history, butit is only the latest in a series of knifing crimes (gun ownership is outlawed in Japan). "Schools were always regarded as sacred zones," says Yo Yoshino, a teacher who lives near the Ikeda school.
No motive was given for the stabbings, which echo a string of similar assaults against schoolchildren in 2010 that killed nearly 20 and wounded more than 50. The most recent such attack took place in August, when a knife-wielding man broke into a middle school in the southern city of Nanchang and stabbed two students before fleeing.
Most of the attackers have been mentally disturbed men involved in personal disputes or unable to adjust to the rapid pace of social change in China, underscoring grave weaknesses in the antiquated Chinese medical system's ability to diagnose and treat psychiatric illness.
Thus far, the Chinese government's response to the attacks has been to post armed guards at schools and force citizens to register when buying knives.
What will happen when a would-be attacker is rejected for a knife permit? How many other potential weapons will require a permit in the name of keeping our children safe?
When the "permit-only" list gets too long, maybe we'll finally look at untreated and undertreated mental illness.
For the past two weeks I have been examining the U.S. News and World Report Timeline of School Shootings first published February 15, 2008. I have been working through their list one incident at a time, using online resources to piece together the basic facts.
This slow, painstaking process is gradually leading me away from the common assumptions (of both Right and Left) about school shootings. It is becoming obvious that both sides have selected a single idea- for example, "Guns are Good!" or "Guns are Bad!"- and then assembled a list of shootings whose circumstances appear to support that idea.
This is akin to a scientist deciding that red M&M candies cause cancer and then "proving" it by only collecting data on cancer patients who ate red M&Ms. The methodology might be shaky but the logic is seductive.
You can see a hint of this type of seductive logic in the U.S. News and World Report list. It shows up at the most basic level: before we can examine what causes a school shooting, we have to define what a school shooting is.
The definition on the U.S. News and World Report list seems a bit broad and disorganized. For example, it includes the controversial Kent State shootings in 1970, when U.S. National Guard soldiers fired antiwar demonstrators at Ohio's Kent State University.
Kent State was (and is) a school, there were guns and there was shooting. But does this incident really qualify? The shooters were trained soldiers called in by state authorities after days of violent unrest, not a troubled teen or young adult opening fire without warning on a campus.
Another example on the list is the infamous Newark School Yard Killings, which took place on August 4, 2007. The bodies of three young college students were found shot, execution style, on the playground of the K-8 Mount Vernon School in Newark, NJ. (One victim survived.)
Although the shooting did take place on school grounds, neither the killers nor the victims attended the school. The victims were also robbed and sexually assaulted. The incident also took place late on a Saturday night, not during school hours, and was found to be gang-related. It might just as easily have happened in a public park or in an alley. Does the school backdrop alone qualify it as a "school shooting?" If so, why?
Before we can take effective steps to protect our schools we have to be honest about our definition of "school shooting." The kinds of solutions that work for reducing gang violence or promoting nonlethal riot control are not likely to work in an actual school situation.
No matter how tempting it might be to expand the list by including them.
Since the terrible event at Sandy Hook, pundits and politicians of all stripes have been shouting at each other in the media, each pushing their own solution to the problem of school shootings.
About two weeks ago I put up a post that included several timelines of mass shootings in the United States, as collected by various news outlets. As the shouting continued, I selected a timeline and started looking more closely at the listed incidents. Should teachers be armed? Are assault weapons bans the answer?
What follows is what I was able to uncover, using online resources.
First, Some Caveats
I selected the U.S. News and World Report Timeline of School Shootings. This timeline begins in 2008 and works backward to 1966. No shootings that took place after 2008 are listed.
I do not claim that this timeline includes all school shootings taking place between 1966 and 2008. (So far as I can tell, neither does U.S. News and World Report.)
I have confined myself to school shootings- that is, shootings taking place on campus or school grounds or at school facilities or activities.
I realize that this single timeline does not present all U.S. school shootings from 1966-2008. It is a representative sample.
I'm not a trained statistician, sociologist, criminologist or historian. I don't have a staff collecting material and double-checking my work. I'm an ordinary citizen examining open-source information. I have no doubt made some mistakes.
The timeline lists 57 incidents. 1 incident took place in India, and 1 other in Finland. I did not count these.
The timeline also includes the Kent State tragedy. I did not count that. I also did not count a shooting that took place at a Colorado church/missionary-training school.
With Caveats in Mind, Here's What I Found:
Total number of school shootings I examined: 53
Number of shootings taking place at colleges or universities: 18
Number of shootings taking place at public or private K-12 schools: 33
(Of the two remaining incidents, one shooting took place at a football game and another at a school dance held off-campus.)
K-12 School Shootings Listed by U.S. News and World Report:
Number of K-12 school shootings committed by non-student adults: 4
Number of K-12 school shootings committed by students who were legal adults: 2
Number of K-12 school shootings committed by minors: 29
Age of youngest recorded shooter: 6
Many recently proposed solutions to gun violence in schools seem designed to prevent another Sandy Hook massacre, i.e., an armed adult forcing his/her way into a school. The notion of armed guards, armed teachers or armed administrators overpowering an adult intruder has been pretty popular.
Yet that particular situation occurred only 4 times on the U.S. News and World Report list. The vast majority of K-12 shootings on the list- 29 of them- were committed by minors. The youngest shooter was 6 years old.
This means that any armed guards, teachers or administrators would have to be mentally prepared to shoot a 6-year-old. Or a 12-year-old. Or a 14-year-old.
Another problem with the idea of armed officials preventing a shooting crops up when you look at the logistics of the actual crime scene. For example, at least 7 shootings took place inside a classroom. Another 9 took place in school hallways or entryways during times of heavy traffic. These are closed spaces with limited means of escape and lots of panicky children milling around. In such circumstances it would be very difficult for an armed adult to get a clear shot.
In indoor situations the shooter has one ugly advantage over any school official: the shooter doesn't have to worry about killing an innocent bystander, but the official does.
Even when shootings take place outdoors, the odds are no better for the armed guard, teacher or administrator. There are two examples on the list where the shooter took up a concealed position in a wooded area near the school, then began shooting into the school grounds. It would have taken a trained sniper to locate and disable the shooter- and fleeing students would still have been at risk. Even in outdoor situations where the shooter is not concealed, the danger of students getting caught in the crossfire remains great.
The idea of arming teachers administrators and guards has seemed pretty popular with the NRA and many rightwing pundits. But if it seems like I'm only trying throw cold water on the NRA and the rightwing, have a look at this next statistic:
At least 22 school shootings took place during the previous Assault Weapons Ban (1994-2004).
The 1994-2004 Assault Weapons Ban appears to have had no effect on the shootings in this list. Twenty-two of the listed shootings were committed during the ban. In fact, one of the most notorious school massacres- Columbine- took place during the ban.
I'm not finished with this list yet. I'll post more as I learn more.