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School Shootings and Massacres - Interview with Joseph Lieberman

Scott Vogel, Communications Director of the Freedom States Alliance, recently conducted an in-depth interview with Joseph Lieberman, author of the new book “School Shootings: What Every Parent and Educator Needs To Know To Protect Our Children.”

They discussed the four categories of school shootings, the psychology of those who carry out these acts, and how we can begin to ensure such tragedies never happen again.

(Editor's Note: Part I of the interview is below. Part II will be posted later this week.) 

FSA: School shootings account for a very small percentage of gun violence in national terms. But when they happen, there is an enormous amount of attention and soul-searching.

Joseph Lieberman: I don’t like to talk in statistics, but there are a few that should be mentioned. It’s estimated that the chance of dying in an American school or school-related environment, from any cause, is one in two million. That’s very small.

When a school shooting occurs it’s often big news and consumes enormous media attention, but that’s the nature of news, just like an airplane crash. We know that flying is the safest way to travel, but one crash makes everybody nervous about flying.

On the other hand, I speak very personally about this issue. My own daughter was in Japan where she narrowly escaped being at a school where there was not a shooting, but a major knifing – eight children were killed by a madman. He was 42, and he got into the school.

Here in Eugene, Oregon, an angry 15-year-old dropout with two loaded, stolen handguns and extra ammunition showed up at my own daughter’s high school campus, but was safely disarmed by police before he could effectively launch an attack. But in my own life, I have actually two incidents that came close to my own family. If it’s one in two million, then something is out of kilter here.

FSA: It’s understandable why there’s such a strong reaction to a school shooting or a massacre. Psychologically it’s a shock and induces trauma within the community. Such wanton violence offends our sense of order. If you can’t feel safe at school, where can you be safe?

Joseph Lieberman: Right, because the reality is that schools are still the safest place for children to be. Approximately 8 young people under the age of 19 are killed every day in America by gun violence. An entire classroom every three days. However, it’s a very small portion of those kids that are actually killed inside our schools. We think of schools as being a safe environment. When these things do occur, we are indeed “offended” and that’s exactly what the shooters want, to have that effect on us.

FSA: Explain the different types of school shootings.

Joseph Lieberman: School shootings actually fall into four categories.

The first is the classic shooting committed by a student, or students, who attack their own school, such as the infamous Columbine massacre. They are often committed by a student who’s upset, depressed, or maybe having been bullied or for other reasons. The student wants to kill other students and teachers en masse. It’s not targeted. The shooters go in, and they just start shooting everybody and anybody they can find.

Another type of school shooting happens when a student is angry at another student or teacher and takes revenge on school grounds. It could be a rival gang member type of killing, or a student targeting a principal, but still classified as a school shooting.

Then we have another category of an adult invading and committing a school shooting. And this is where we get very close to what you just brought up as far as society being terribly shocked and traumatized by a shooting.

Perhaps the most horrifying example happened in Nickel Mines, PA on Oct. 2nd, 2006 where a man attacked a one room Amish school and shot to death, execution style, five young Amish girls and wounded five others.

We can almost understand a bullied school shooter, or a student wanting revenge, even though we are shocked and disgusted by it. But when an adult commits a school shooting, it’s almost always an attempt to shock and traumatize the community, if not the country, because they are choosing the most innocent members of a society. These attackers blame the society in general for their pain, or what they’re perceiving as their hurt. And so they want to attack in such a way that will hurt society the most. The worst thing you could do is to attack the most innocent.

The fourth category of school shootings is terrorism, which we haven’t seen, fortunately, here in the United States. But Beslan, Russia is a tragic example when on September 1st, 2004, Chechen terrorists took hostage over a school that resulted in the deaths of 186 children, and killed about 334 people. It was the worst school massacre ever.

FSA: The prevailing view from the media, and a lot of politicians, is that there’s really not much you can do to stop school shootings – it’s their “bad apple” theory.

Joseph Lieberman: That view means that there’s no way to identify would be school shooters, or to figure out who might be capable of committing a shooting. I’ve been working recently with a lot of universities and colleges which are putting programs into place to figure out who might be capable of an attack.

The Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, gave us several examples where he was recorded by teachers who were disturbed by him and his violent writings. Cho had said things to his roommates where he threatened suicide and was examined by a psychiatrist. But he was still able to purchase guns.

Clearly, Cho, and other mentally disturbed people like him, never should have been able to purchase and gain access to guns. So there are, in fact, possible interventions.

At the University of Oregon, I just had a meeting and published a story about how administrators and professors are holding meetings every month to address students that seem like they could benefit from services, counseling, and support. The strategy is to assist these students with their health and safety, but also to prevent any kind of a violent outburst.

In some cases, though not all, they will recommend that those students get help through the campus psychiatrist or psychologist. The key is to address these concerns with prevention.

There are red flags, 15 warning signs which I’ve listed in the back of my book. The caveat is that a red flag should be raised whenever the student in question exhibits at least two of those warning signs. After every school shooting there is a push to simplify the reasons that led to the attack.

FSA: After a school shooting the media, and certainly politicians, want to talk about everything but the role of guns. They’ll focus on violent video games, medication, depression and mental illness, certain kinds of music that maybe the school shooter listened to, or the student’s family life. Oftentimes, these factors are very important and we shouldn’t downplay them.

But there’s virtually no discussion about the access to guns, or the lethality of the weapons used. It sounds so basic to say, but without access to guns, there would be no school shootings. Why is there such a lopsided debate following a school shooting?

Joseph Lieberman: I’m glad you brought it up. When I have done radio shows and interviews, inevitably there’s someone who calls in and says something like: ‘If a crazy student ran over a bunch of kids with an SUV, would you be talking about banning SUVs?’ And my answer is always the same. I don’t mind insulting the caller because the stupidity of that comparison is ridiculous.

Guns are the one instrument, the one machine we have, which are purposely made for killing. You can kill somebody with a SUV or with a golf club or a knife or a rope. But none of those things were designed for killing. They were all designed to be useful tools for other reasons. But a gun only has one purpose, and that is to kill.

Now a person could use a gun in self-defense. They could use it to put food on their table as a hunter. Or they could use it to commit mass murder. That’s up to the person using it.

But when gun proponents say ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ – my response is that yes, people do kill people, but guns make it easier to kill a lot more of them. The caller usually doesn’t have a retort.

You’re absolutely right, school shootings produce so much death and carnage because of the weapons that are used.

FSA: There’s a predictable pattern following a school shooting. There’s the live on-site “crisis reporting” with little or no information being broadcast. Then the story turns to focus on the rage and grief from the tragedy.

A day or two later the shooter’s history is revealed. There will be some initial comments by some political leaders, the President or members of Congress. And then the day after that, if we’re lucky, information about the types of guns used and where they came from. Then there are the memorials and funerals, and the country moves on.

The question, if any, asked of gun violence prevention advocates is: “What law would have stopped this school massacre?”

But it is such a narrow and limiting question. The questions that should be asked go much further than one particular shooting or massacre.

There is simply no dialogue that there are simply too many guns, not enough regulations, no accountability for the gun industry, too much political power given to the gun lobby and certainly no discussion about the role of our “gun culture”. Aren’t we living in denial?

Joseph Lieberman: That’s exactly why I wrote a book to identify the patterns about these types of tragedies, and to talk about how we should respond to these difficult challenges.

Let me give you an example. On November 7th, 2007 in Finland, the country suffered its first real school shooting. An 18-year-old gunman, Pekka-Eric Auvinen, killed eight people at a high school in southern Finland then shot himself. The young man had just posted a video on YouTube predicting his massacre at the school before he started his attack.

Almost a year later, on September 23rd, 2008, a nearly identical school shooting took place in Finland, a copycat shooting. It was so much of a copycat shooting that the killer, Matti Juhani Saari, 22-years-old, actually drove over 200 miles to buy a gun at the same gun store as the last year’s school shooter and also posted a video on YouTube before the attack. Saari attacked a vocational school in Kauhajoki, western Finland where he killed 9 students and a teacher.

After the first school shooting in 2007, legislation was debated to change the law so that instead of being at least 15-years-old to legally own a gun in Finland, you had to be at least 18-years-old. That legislation has not yet passed.

The problem is that in the “copycat” school shooting in 2008, the shooter was 22-years-old. So had Finland passed the law and made the age requirement 18-years-old, it wouldn’t have the stopped the shooter from buying firearms.

So something more comprehensive needs to be done in asking why, in fact, Matti Juhani Saari, was able possess an assault pistol when the day before the attack he was interviewed by the authorities for suspicious activity. But without probable cause, they let him go and the next day he committed Finland’s second school massacre.

Now, Finland has the third largest private gun ownership rate in the world, the most gun owners in Europe, and say they’re a hunting culture. The United States is ranked number one, and Yemen is ranked number two in gun ownership.

At the very least in Finland, you have to fill out a form and give a reason why you want a gun and what you will use it for. There is some indication that the reasons given by the Finnish shooters was for “target practice”. And even though Finland has a more sensible gun policy, it still didn’t stop these young men from purchasing guns and killing other students.

A possible response could — or perhaps should — be to look at the lethality of firearms used, as Saari, the attacker in September, used an assault pistol.

If I may, let me address this issue of gun culture.

To me, after living in a non-gun culture for more than fifteen years in Asia, mostly in Japan, coming back to the United States was like returning from a time trip. I got a huge culture shock being back in the U.S. seeing how acceptable gun violence is and the sheer saturation of guns in our society.

I’ve lived in a society where people didn’t feel they needed to have so many guns. And you ask yourself why is this so? Why do people feel they need so many firearms?

I’m not talking about hunters. I’m not talking about Second Amendment “rights”. I’m just talking about the need to have guns.

The fact that a lot of gun owners say they need dozens or even whole stockpiles of weapons, even assault weapons all for protection, says to me that they’re living with a lot of fear.

In Japan, it’s true that it’s a more homogeneous society. But people don’t live in fear. They don’t fear that they have to protect themselves every day and night. I think a culture of fear has permeated our society in America, and which is not accidental – it is purposeful.

That’s why, with so many guns in our country, it is far too easy for young people to gain access to firearms, and even though it’s rare, commit school shootings and massacres. Amidst the need for comprehensive policy to restrict access to guns, we can’t dismiss the role of “gun culture” in our country that fuels this problem.

(Editor's Note: Part II of the interview with Joseph Lieberman will be posted later this week.)

Visit the website www, for more information about Lieberman's book, “School Shootings: What Every Parent and Educator Needs To Know To Protect Our
Children.” (Citadel Press, Sept., 2008).

To order a copy of the book on Amazon, click here.

To read more from the Freedom States Alliance, click here.



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