Can mass shootings be stopped or prevented? The Obama administration’s political views prevent it from even considering certain obvious solutions.
On Tuesday the Department of Defense released its report on the Sept. 16 Washington Navy Yard shooting. But the report focuses solely on how mental illness of the assailant went unreported.
There clearly were mistakes. The Navy did not properly report multiple troublesome incidents during Aaron Alexis’ active-duty service. The government did not tell his employer about any of these problems. When the private contractor noticed instances of psychological instability, it thought that they were aberrations, not part of a pattern, and didn’t report these back to the government.
However, it would be foolish to believe that all potential mass shooters will be identified in advance. Even with better reporting practices, many will slip through the cracks. Besides, it is always much easier in hindsight to realize that people had mental health issues. Besides, mentally ill employees are not the only threat to military bases. Determined terrorists pose a serious threat, too.
What should be done if the screening for mental illness fails? Or when there is a terrorist plot?
Currently, soldiers on military bases are not allowed to carry guns. Indeed, the military specifically forbids personnel from carrying firearms for personal protection except when “a credible and specific threat against [military] personnel [exists] in that region.”
Thus, during the Navy yard shooting, the unarmed JAG officers, Marines, could do nothing but cower as the shooter fired round after round. What’s more, military bases have few military police, as crime rates on bases are normally low and many are still stationed in Afghanistan.
And it was a similar story in 2009 at Fort Hood. Maj. Nidal Hasan was unchallenged as he stood on a desk and kept shooting down victim after victim in work cubicles.
Even in Europe, with its normally anti-gun sentiments, the thinking is starting to sway toward active self-defense, allowing normal people — not just off-duty police — to carry guns. The head of Interpol, Ron Noble, stated last fall that there are two ways to protect people: “One is to say we want an armed citizenry; you can see the reason for that. Another is to say the enclaves are so secure that in order to get into the soft target you’re going to have to pass through extraordinary security.”
He pointed to the real problem: “How do you protect soft (civilian) targets? That’s really the challenge. You can’t have armed police forces everywhere.”
Noble’s comments came right after the terrorist attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, where 68 people were fatally shot. It should be no surprise that in Kenya both open and concealed carrying of firearms by civilians is banned. Obviously, the ban didn’t stop the terrorists. And we have to recognize that the vast majority of mass public shootings have been extensively planned beforehand — often many months or even years in advance — making it extremely difficult to secure areas.
Even American police understand the problem with “gun-free zones.” Last year, PoliceOne, the largest organization of officers in the United States, with 450,000 members, asked its members, “What would help most in preventing large-scale shootings in public?” Their most frequent answer, with 30 percent support, was “more permissive concealed carry policies for civilians.”
Immediately after the Washington Navy Yard shooting, President Obama called for more gun control. But none of the new laws he advocated would have stopped this attack. A shotgun was used in the attack, not one of the guns that Obama wanted banned. Since the killer had a government security clearance, no background checks would have stopped him from acquiring a gun. And Washington already has some of the toughest gun control laws in the country.
News stories following the Defense Department report proclaimed, “Navy Yard shooting could have been stopped.” But figuring out what needed to be done after the fact is always easy. Even if reporting is done better in the future, it doesn’t mean that the next shooter would indeed be caught before it is too late.
We need to trust soldiers to carry weapons on bases. That would provide another line of defense against any attacks and not leave our soldiers as sitting ducks.
John R. Lott Jr. is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author of the third edition of “More Guns, Less Crime” (University of Chicago Press, 2010).