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Olivia Luna, 15, is comforted at a memorial in front of Robb Elementary School on 17 June 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. Committees have begun inviting testimony from law enforcement authorities, family members and witnesses regarding the 24 May mass shooting at the school. (Photo by Brandon Bell, Getty Images)

U.S. Mass Shootings Continue to Take Center Stage

Gun violence in the United States took center stage yet again yesterday. In one incident on 17 July, a man began shooting at a mall in Greenwood, Indiana, killing three people and wounding two others before a bystander ended the incident by shooting and killing the assailant. In other news, the Texas House of Representatives released a report on its investigation into the Uvalde, Texas, elementary school shooting in May; an Associated Press headline summed up the report: “Two Decades of Shooter Response Strategy Ignored in Uvalde.”

Bystander Intervention

In Indiana, Jonathan Sapirman “entered the mall and walked into a bathroom, where he spent about an hour before he emerged and opened fire,” the AP reported. Authorities said he may have been assembling an AR-15-style rifle he had taken into the mall in backpack. He had more than 100 rounds of ammunition with him, but managed to fire only 24 in approximately two minutes before Elisjsha Dicken, who was shopping at the mall with his girlfriend, used his handgun to shoot and kill Sapirman.

At a press conference, Greenwood Police Chief James Ison described Dicken’s actions: Dicken “engaged the shooter… firing several rounds, striking the suspect. The suspect attempted to retreat back into the restroom and fell to the ground after being shot. …His actions were nothing short of heroic. He engaged the gunman from quite distance with a handgun and was very proficient in that, very tactically sound. And as he moved to close in on the suspect he was also motioning for people to exit behind him. To our knowledge he has no police training and no military background.”

Authorities described Dicken as being lawfully armed. The AP reported that an Indiana law that began 1 July gives anyone 18 or older the right to carry a handgun in public. The law makes exclusions for felons and some other cases, and allowed private property owners to prohibit firearms. The company owning the Greenwood Mall does have a “no weapons” policy, as seen in policies dated to 2020, but the mall put out a statement praising Dicksen’s actions with no mention of the policy.

As described in a Reuters report, someone who ignores a private property owner’s no weapons policy is not subject to arrest; however, it does give private property owners the right to deny access or service to someone carrying a weapon.

Several news outlets covered the rarity of active shooters that are shot and killed by bystanders at the scene. “The Greenwood incident is unique, however, because it became one of the rare instances of an armed civilian successfully intervening to end a mass shooting,” The Washington Post reported, “adding more fuel to a national debate about the role of bystanders during an active shooter attack.”

In June, The New York Times used data from the Texas State University’s Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center to perform a detailed analysis of how active shooter attacks. The analysis excluded domestic incidents and gang-related shootings, leaving a tally of 433 active shooting attacks from 2000 to 2021. Here is how those attacks ended:

  • 26 percent of the time the assailant left the scene before police arrived.
  • 23 percent of the time the assailant was shot by police.
  • 17 percent of the time the assailant died by suicide before police arrived. (Overall, 25 percent died by suicide, including instances after police arrived.)
  • 10 percent of the time the assailant was subdued by bystanders who did not use firearms before police arrived.
  • 9 percent of the time the assailant died by suicide after police arrived. (Overall, 25 percent died by suicide, including instances before police arrived.)
  • 8 percent of the time police subdued the attacker without using firearms.
  • 3 percent of the time the assailant surrendered to police.
  • 3 percent of the time citizen bystanders shot the assailant before police arrived.
  • 2 percent of the time security guards or off-duty officers shot the assailant before police arrived.

"A Calamity of Errors"

The school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, was the deadliest mass shooting this year, and falls into the category of assailants shot by police—but it was far from an ideal response. Soon after the incident, media reports began to detail the failures of authorities in their response at the scene. On 18 July, the Texas House of Representatives released a scathing report enumerating the failures from school personnel and law enforcement.

The AP article on the report noted that within minutes the first of what would eventually be 376 officers from various local, state, and federal agencies responded to the incident, but the shooter was active in the building for more than hour. The gunman had killed 19 children and two teachers before authorities killed the gunman.

“The response counters active-shooter training that emphasizes confronting the gunman, a standard established more than two decades ago after the mass shooting at Columbine High School showed that waiting cost lives,” the AP reported.

“This is going to set back law enforcement 20 years. It really will,” Greg Shaffer, a retired FBI agent who is now a Dallas-based security consultant, told the AP. “It was a calamity of errors.”

The Washington Post combed through the Texas House report and pulled six primary lessons from the analysis, which can grouped into three themes: crisis leadership failure, poor security preparation and practice by the school, and missing signs that a threat existed.

Crisis Leadership Failure

Response from police was quick and substantial. However, no one took charge of the situation leading tragically to confusion and inaction. The school district police chief has the role of incident commander, but he was one of the first to arrive and entered the building, leaving a leadership void that no one else assumed.

In one instance, an officer asked for authorization to shoot someone he suspected was the assailant. Instead, it was a teacher who was ushering children who were outside to safety. Tragedy was avoided, but the occurrence was more evidence of the potentially dangerous consequences when no leader had taken charge and intelligence was not being centralized, processed, and used to end the incident.

Finally, officers on the scene made an inaccurate assessment that the subject was barricaded and no longer actively threatening multiple people. It’s an important point because law enforcement tactics for a barricaded subject are different than tactics for an active shooter. The officers should have obtained additional evidence before changing tactics—again, the lack of incident command likely contributed to this failure.

Poor Security Preparation and Practice

The school had grown lax in its security systems and procedures. A teacher saw the gunman climb the fence surrounding the school and radioed the front office, but poor connectivity interfered with the lockdown order and many or most teachers were not aware an incident was occurring.

In addition, the report noted that access control and door locks were not maintained properly, and policies were routinely ignored. In addition, due to its proximity to many border-crossing crackdowns, the school had been on lockdown at least 50 times just this year alone.

Missed Warning Signs

As is often the case when examining the background of an active shooter, there were signs of potential trouble. He had an obvious fascination with guns, asking relatives to purchase him guns before he was 18 years old—and when he turned 18, he purchased multiple guns himself. He had told online acquaintances the he would make the news when sharing photos of his guns. He quizzed his cousin's son who attended the school he attacked about the school’s schedule.

The report also indicated the gunman had a troubled childhood, including strained relations with parents and few friends. He struggled academically and reported being bullied. School absences piled up, and by age 17 he had only completed the ninth grade. There was no record of a school resource officer visiting his home. He had an argument with his mother and moved in with his grandmother, who he shot before heading to the school on the day of the tragedy (the grandmother survived).

After release of the report, Texas state police announced they would perform an internal review of the actions of the troopers that responded to the incident.

“The report puts a new spotlight on the roles of state and federal agencies whose leaders, unlike local authorities, haven’t had to sit through meetings where they were confronted by the furious parents of the dead children,” the AP reported.

Prosecuting Mass Shooters

In other mass shooting news, in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018, prosecutor Mike Satz argued for the death penalty.

“Satz called the murders cold, calculated, cruel and heinous, quoting the video Cruz, then 19, made three days before the shooting,” the AP reported. “This is what the defendant said: ‘Hello, my name is Nik. I’m going to be the next school shooter of 2018. My goal is at least 20 people with an AR-15 and some tracer rounds. It’s going to be a big event, and when you see me on the news, you’ll know who I am. You’re all going to die. Ah yeah, I can’t wait,’ Satz said.”

In addition, the gunman charged with the killing 10 people in a Buffalo supermarket in May 2022 will face 27 federal indictments. “The Justice Department said a decision on whether to seek the death penalty against the shooter, who turned 19 in June, would come later,” the AP reported.

A sadly prophetic Washington Post article on 9 July noted that there are too many mass shootings for media organizations to cover them all adequately.

“Many journalists have a similar triage process: prioritizing shootings based partly on death tolls, partly on a subjective sense of horror and shock,” the Post said. “Inevitably, that means most do not end up receiving significant national coverage.”

To wit, in Houston over the weekend an argument in an apartment building led to a shooting and the death of four people, a story that didn’t get much if any time beyond local reports.

Also this weekend, in Memphis, police arrested a man they say was planning a mass shooting when a rap concert ended in downtown Memphis. According to a Yahoo News report, “Officers initially responded to [the suspect’s] apartment around 2:45 a.m. Saturday for an ‘armed mental consumer call,’ according to the police statement. [He] was taken into custody after police spoke to him and his girlfriend, officials said.”