When a disturbed man pulled an assault rifle out of a bag in a crowded Los Angeles airport terminal and shot four people last Friday, it marked the 17th mass shooting just this year in the U.S. The phenomenon only seems to have increased in number since Newtown.
The recipe is the same. A suicidal man arms himself and takes out his rage on a surrogate, in this case the Transportation Security Administration. The violent spree left three people wounded and one man – Gerardo Hernandez, a TSA employee – dead.
But it could have been worse.
The LAX gunman was allegedly armed for war. In addition to five 30-round magazines, he also carried a bag stuffed with hundreds of .223-caliber rifle rounds (AP 11/4) for the purpose of killing ”multiple TSA officers,” according to a handwritten note.
With due respect to the four victims, especially Hernandez’ grieving family, the outcome of the LAX incident was far different from that of a similar shooting last month at the Washington Naval Yard, when a former reservist gunned down 12 people before being fatally shot by police.
So what was different?
The answer is not a simple one. Any number of subtle differences might have had great influence on the outcome of each shooting, such as time of day or the shooter’s state of mind. Generalized assumptions, such as that the location (an open airport area vs. an office building) or the caliber of weapons (the Naval Yard shooter allegedly alternated from a shotgun to a handgun) were behind the disparity in numbers, can lead to lengthy sidebar arguments that ultimately derail our ability to both understand and prevent such crimes.
But one difference – the response by police – does stand out.
In the moments after the LAX shooting, police officers converged quickly, engaged the gunman and shot him four times. Their rapid deployment was, in large part, due to a tactical response known as “Active Shooter,” a training regimen first proposed in 2007 following a deadly shooting inside a Salt Lake City mall. Since then, many law enforcement agencies have trained their officers under this standard.
Unfortunately, that did not seem to be the case at the Washington Naval Yard. Recently, Eric Tucker of the Associated Press reported that “the contract guards who protect federal buildings have received uneven and inconsistent training on responding to shootings like the one last month at the Naval Yard,” (TNT 11/4). In fact, the contracting agency claimed it had “limited assurance that its guards are prepared for this threat.”
That troubling comment aside, the traumatic results of both incidents underscores the absolute necessity that police officers must be adaptable to emergent threats.
Unlike many professions, the practice of law enforcement is a continuum. Because criminals constantly find new ways to steal, harm or kill others, the tactics used by police officers must likewise evolve.
Consider the infamous shooting in 1966, when a former marine killed seventeen people and wounded thirty-two others. Despite the huge response of officers to the scene, they were helpless to intervene. The lack of training and equipment to handle this new type of crime (the incident became known as the Texas Tower shooting) led to the creation of modern-day SWAT teams.
Fast forward to 1999, when police officers in Colorado responded to a mass shooting. This time, two students at Columbine high school went on a rampage, shooting fellow students and teachers. Outside the school, patrol officers waited while SWAT officers donned their gear and prepared for a dynamic entry that would be far too late to save the lives of the 13 people killed by gunfire. It was clear that the protocol was flawed.
Unfortunately, it was not until the aforementioned shooting in Salt Lake City, when an off-duty officer already inside the mall engaged the gunman, that the concept of an immediate entry was developed and embraced.
These can be hard lessons to learn. There will be no celebrations in Los Angeles to commemorate the fact that law enforcement officers have improved their response to mass shootings. After such a tragedy, “Hey, it coulda’ been worse,” makes for a lousy banner.
But if the quick and courageous actions of a few cops did manage to save a few lives last Friday, then that fact alone is worth all the confetti in the world.