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Coffey: Shooting Anniversaries

04/24/12 7:55AM By Rebecca Coffey
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(Host) This month, we mark the fifth anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre. Next month it will be 85 years since America's first school massacre, when an irate taxpayer dynamited an elementary school in Michigan. Commentator Rebecca Coffey is a science and psychology journalist who's been considering what these and similar events suggest about gun control and community responsibility.

(Coffey) By my count, about 200 people have died in school massacres in America. Even here in Vermont, a second-grade teacher was killed in 2006 by a man on a rampage at her school in Essex .

Clearly, sweet towns and safe campuses are not always sweet and safe. And the FBI says there's little way to predict who will strike next - or where. Perpetrators come from various races and backgrounds, with no apparent pattern in impulse control or temperament. They aren't all social rejects. They haven't all overdosed on video games. Most are not even visibly disturbed.

Only two generalities hold. Most are male, and they use guns.

Around the time of the Columbine massacre, the University of Chicago Law School published a crime report analysis showing a relationship between loose gun control laws and far fewer deaths in multi-victim, public killings. It may seem counter-intuitive, but in this study more guns translated to fewer deaths. This led to the theory that, when a shooter thinks victims might be armed, mass murder looks uneconomical. If the shooter can be killed while the body count remains low, the price is too high for the benefit.

But the researchers didn't look at gang killings and those carried out by organized crime. Their reason? They assumed the victims were carrying guns regardless of what the law allowed. But mob and gang killings make up a huge portion of mass shooting deaths in America. Any analysis of related statistics is biased without them. So the debate about multi-victim, public killings and gun control laws continues.

Right now, only 22 states ban concealed weapons on college and university campuses. Meanwhile, the FBI acknowledges that a "school shooter profile" remains elusive. In its absence, the agency encourages educators and parents to listen to what students say and to notice what's in their schoolwork. Days before one massacre, the young perpetrator shouted at school, "You're all going to die." The Virginia Tech killer's response to a poetry assignment was a string of venom about Americans.

The FBI also wants community agencies to stay in better touch - and for good reason. Before his rampage at Virginia Tech, campus security brought the Virginia Tech killer to a mental institution, which wanted to commit him. But a judge assigned him to outpatient care instead - assuming that the evaluating mental hospital would become his provider of record, and have a duty to monitor him.

But the hospital never got the memo.
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