“You are responsible for protecting yourself”: Fear, Anxieties and Concealed Carry on Campus

The quote in the title exemplifies the feeling at the crux of the concealed carry on campus movement that individuals are responsible for defending themselves against threats like school shooters. The blogs posted throughout July and August 2015 detailed the contributory factors leading to this assumption. This post will summarise the various facets of these discussions.

To begin with, YouTube debates found that users commonly blamed the high death toll of thirty-two staff and students at Virginia Tech University in 2007 on the institution’s ban on concealed firearms. Since this school shooting is commonly referred to as the deadliest in U.S. history, it seems to epitomise what can transpire if students and staff are not armed at the time of a shooting. In a similar vein, commentators on YouTube drew upon their knowledge of other school shootings to make the case for arming students as a way to ‘take down’ the shooter before a high number of people are killed. Such sentiments have been translated into legislative proposals, with eighteen states debating whether to allow students to carry concealed firearms at colleges and universities in the year following the Virginia Tech shooting. Consequently, most of these did not pass and seven states currently allow concealed carry on campus; although it is probable that the number of states where it is legal may increase in future.

The next dimension to the argument is the anxiety around college and university campuses being targeted by shooters. The socially constructed term ‘gun free zone’ was utilised to describe a public location where citizens cannot legally carry firearms, with most educational institutions falling under that standard. Users discussing this on YouTube felt that these ‘gun free zones’ would be purposefully targeted by criminals because of the lack of armed defence. Such a perception disregards the role of law enforcement in dealing with active shooter scenarios; this, however, is explained by the lack of trust in the abilities of law enforcement displayed by YouTube users. Notably, the general feeling seemed to be that ‘law enforcement will not adequately protect citizens and are just there to clean up the crime scene.’ Users remarked that individuals are within the situation and police just respond to it, frequently quoting the notion that ‘when seconds matter, police are just minutes away.’ Previous school shootings with high death tolls have probably contributed to this perception, with people feeling that the police were not there in time to save the lives lost on those occasions.

Combining all these elements gives the following scenario forms the perception that: 1) ‘gun free zones’ will face threats from criminals; 2) without concealed carry on campus, potential victims will be unable to defend themselves; 3) law enforcement will not protect them and will just ‘clean up the crime scene.’ Extrapolating from this it is not a far stretch to see how this leads into the ‘solution’ of concealed carry permit holders taking firearms to class to avert and negate any potential threats of criminal activity and extreme violence — the next blog will outline the problems with this perceived solution.

[The blog was put together using the findings from posts published throughout July and August 2015, most of which utilized results from analyses of YouTube comments from relevant videos. The next post will detail challenges to the concealed carry on campus argument.]

“When seconds matter, police are just minutes away”: Doubts about Law Enforcement

The often-quoted sentiment in the title exemplifies the cynicism surrounding the ability of law enforcement to protect individuals. The post published on the 13th July 2015 demonstrated that a number of YouTube commentators blamed the ban on allowing students and staff at Virginia Tech University for the high death toll from the tragic 2007 shooting. What may be extrapolated from this is that the concept of defending one’s self is inextricably linked to individuals, rather than the police — this is particularly remarkable, considering law enforcement is an institutional body entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the public. The purpose of this blog post is to uncover the reasons why this is the case.

As posts published throughout July and August 2015 have highlighted, YouTube users are familiar with previous school shootings and draw upon those ‘second hand’ experiences to form ideas about what might transpire during such an incident. The relatively short time period in which school shootings occur is likely a driving factor. Some YouTube users made sardonic comments that pizza would be delivered before the police arrived. Commentators drew upon knowledge of past school shootings, pointing out that most of these ended before law enforcement arrived. There is some truth to this: only 27% of thirty-seven school shootings were stopped by law enforcement and several studies have documented the proclivity of school shooters to kill themselves before law enforcement intervention.(1)

Further to this, YouTube users were particularly scathing of the abilities of law enforcement on college and university campuses to offer protection, purporting they were ‘tiny forces’ with ‘little experience’ and thus ‘not equipped’ to act as first responders to a school shooting situation. Something which acutely concerned users was the fact that in some states campus police are ‘unarmed,’ meaning they do not have access to lethal weapons (firearms). The Secret Service (2002) report, however, found that only 8% of school shootings required law enforcement to discharge weapons. (2)

The outcome of these sentiments then translates into the idea that police are just there to ‘clean up the crime scene’ of all those killed before they arrived. Accordingly, numerous YouTube commentators appeared to believe that the purpose of the police is not to act as ‘bodyguards’ or ‘prevent crimes’ but to ‘enforce the law’ by investigating crimes after they transpire and acting as a visible deterrent to criminals. As documented in empirical studies, fear — in this case of a school shooting or even just general crime on campus — is a catalyst for eroding trust and confidence in the police. (3) Such a sentiment, hence, paves the way for the notion that the individual is the only one who can be trusted to protect themselves — this will be elucidated in the next post in relation to the issue of students and concealed carry.

[This blog post was put together from analyses of YouTube comments and further reading around fear and government studies of lessons to be learned from previous school shooting incidents. The next blog post will bring together all the elements discussed in posts throughout July and August 2015.]

(1). See the following studies: Lankford, A. (2013a). ‘A comparative analysis of suicide terrorists and rampage, workplace, and school shooters in the United States from 1990 to 2010.’ Homicide Studies: An Interdisciplinary & International Journal, 17 (3), 255-274; Lankford, A. (2013b) ‘Mass Shooters in the USA, 1996-2010. Differences between attackers who live and die.’ Justice Quarterly; Vossekuil, B., R. A. Fein, M. Reddy, R. Borum, and W. Modzeleski. (2004) The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. Washington.

(2) Vossekuil, B., R. A. Fein, M. Reddy, R. Borum, and W. Modzeleski. (2004) The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. Washington.

(3) Farrall, S. D., J. Jackson and E. Gray. (2009) Social Order and the Fear of Crime in Contemporary Times. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Gray, E., J. Jackson and S. Farrall (2011) ‘Feelings and Functions in the Fear of Crime: Applying a New Approach to Victimisation Insecurity.’ British Journal of Criminology 51, 75-94.

“Gun-free zones are killing zones”: Anxiety about School Shootings and the ‘Concealed Carry on Campus’ Movement

At the crux of the ‘concealed carry on campus’ debate, discussed in the last two blog posts, is the notion of the ‘gun free zone’: a public place where guns cannot currently be carried by citizens. It tends to be the case that following a mass shooting incident, some argue that the shooter(s) chose this location because of the lack of ‘armed resistance’; conversely, others maintain that forbidding gun in certain public places is a safety measure. This post will further explore the first line of argument as it pertains to the feelings of fear and anxiety around school shootings.

As it transpired, in the sample of YouTube comments I assessed, there were thirty comments encompassing the notion that criminals purposely target gun free zones: “Shooters attack schools because they are an easy target”; “‘Gun free zones’ are an invitation for criminals.” Additionally, some YouTube users drew upon knowledge of previous school shooting events and argued that the lack of armed resistance encouraged the shooters to perpetrate their attack there. A similar argument was made by the executive director of Gun Owners of America, Larry Pratt, in a news release following the shooting at Virginia Tech University:

Pertinent here is GOA’s framing with the terms ‘deadly’ and ‘dangerous,’ presenting the gun ban as being responsible for harm caused in shootings taking place in educational establishments — this is a one-sided assessment, for it fails to take into account the potential violence that gun bans in education institutions do prevent. The interest group in favour of allowing firearms on campuses, Students for Concealed Carry, made a similar argument: “‘Gun free zones’ serve to disarm only those law-abiding citizens who might otherwise be able to protect themselves.”(2) It, therefore, appears that the notion of a ‘gun-free zone’ has been socially constructed to infer a site where people are particularly vulnerable to attack.

‘Gun free zones’ being commonly described as ‘soft’ and ‘easy targets,’ henceforth, paved the way for the notion that people will be ‘defenceless’ in ‘gun-free zones,’ with YouTube users making statements like: “The fact that we aren’t allowed to carry here forces us to be a victim”; “Gun free zones equals killing zones.” These YouTube commentators are, henceforth, equating potential victimhood with being in a ‘gun-free zone.’ The implications of this fear are covered in comments from users surmising they would be helpless in a school shooting scenario:

“How is hiding behind my desk listening to my classmates scream and hoping that the police, who are minutes away, will arrive in time to save me the best way to defend myself?”

Such statements evoke the actor’s own subjective interpretation of the physical environment and risk of victimisation affect their fear of that particular crime. (3) The main conclusion to draw from this frame is a general feeling of helplessness that there is no way to negate the threat. Key here is the anticipation of threats: even though they are horrific when they occur, school shootings are actually quite rare within the wider spectrum of gun violence; it, hence, appears that people are overestimating the risks. Moreover, this ‘probability neglect’ can thereafter lead to ‘affect rich’ reactions where people take unnecessary precautions for the level of threat posed. In the case of school shootings, key to the feelings of susceptibility to attack is the notion of not being able to control the crime should it transpire. (4) Taking all this into consideration, it is not insurmountable to see how this would then translate into concealed carry on campus as the ‘solution’ to the problem — the next blog post will explore why individuals do not trust law enforcement to protect them.

[This blog post was put together using analyses of YouTube comments from a selection of 32 videos relating to the Virginia Tech school shooting and the concealed carry on campus movement. Also examined were the press releases and statements from Gun Owners of America and Students for Concealed Carry respectively. Literature relating to fear of crime was utilised to assess the findings. Future blog posts will continue this area of discussion.]

  • (1) Gun Owners of America (GOA) (April 2007) ‘Virginia Tech Shooting — Gun Bans Are The Problem, Not The Solution.’ Available at: http://www.gunowners.org/pr0704.htm
  • (2) Students for Concealed Carry on Campus. (n.d.) ‘About: Who We Are.’ Available at: http://concealedcampus.org/about/
  • (3) Ferraro, K. F. (1995) Fear of Crime: Interpreting Victimization Risk. New York: University of New York, 9.
  • (4) Information taken from reading the following sources: Sacco, V. F.and W. Glockman. ‘Vulnerability, Locus of Control and Worry about Crime.’ Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, 6(1) (1987): 99-111; Sunstein, C. R. (2005) Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Warr, M. (2000) ‘Fear of Crime in the United States: Avenues for Research and Policy.’ Measurement and Analysis of Crime and Justice.

Students and Guns in the United States: What is the ‘Concealed Carry on Campus’ movement?

The last post explored the feelings of blame aimed at the ban on allowing staff and students to carry concealed firearms at Virginia Tech University. This post intends to expand upon this idea of an individual being responsible for their own safety, detailing what the ‘concealed carry on campus’ movement actually entails. Concealed carry laws at public colleges and universities generally fall into three categories: completely banning firearms on campus, including for ‘concealed carry permit’ holders; allowing individual institutions to determine whether to allow concealed carry on campus through mandatory or discretionary policies; allowing permit holders to carry their weapons on campus. Overall, thirty and nineteen states follow into the second and third categories respectively. (1) The movement known as ‘concealed carry on campus’ aims to achieve the third category of allowing students and staff to carry concealed firearms at public colleges and universities.
The official reports sanctioned by the government after the Virginia Tech shooting recommended that educational institutions continue to prohibit guns in campus. (2) Despite this advice, there were still a number of concealed carry on campus proposals after the 2007 Virginia Tech tragedy. In 2008, Utah’s state Supreme Court concluded that, in order to comply with state law, higher and further education institutes did not have the authority to ban on guns on campus and so it became legally viable. The Utah case then became a model for other proposals in seventeen states in 2008, all of which failed. In 2013, five states introduced bills to forbidden concealed firearms on campus; however, all of these failed. At the present time, the states of Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah and Wisconsin now allow concealed carry on campus.(3)
Further complicating matters are two United States Supreme Court cases putting some legal parameters on this debate: the Heller (2008)ruling maintained that the second amendment protected an individual’s right to a firearm in the home; whilst McDonald (2010) incorporated this right into the laws of states and localities, so any policies have to take this into account. Further complicating matters, the Heller ruling did not specify whether the right to carry firearms for self-defence purposes applied only to the home. The Heller and McDonald rulings also favoured retaining concealed carry bans in ‘sensitive places’ like government buildings and schools. Of particular interest in the ‘ concealed carry campus debate’ is that educational institutions fall under the rubric of ‘sensitive places’ as defined by Heller; however, at the same time, it is unclear whether this only applies to K-12 schooling where minors are present. The fact that colleges and universities do hold K-12 field trips and education camps and so forth may strengthen the ‘sensitive places’ argument.(4)
Consequently, it remains to be seen whether this movement will gain legislative traction in a post-Heller world. Despite this, the fear driving the desire to have concealed firearms on campus is ever-present — the next few blog posts will further elucidate the linkages between fear and this movement.

[This blog post was put together by reading the works of legal scholars and findings from the National Conference of State Legislatures. The next few blog posts will interrogate this movement further, looking at the reasons why people support it and the possible problems with the reality of allowing concealed firearms at colleges and universities.]

(1) See: L. M. Wasserman, ‘Gun Control on College and University Campuses in the Wake of District of Columbia V. Heller and McDonald V. City of Chicago,’ Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law 19(1), 2011: 4, 6. It is important to note that these restrictions apply to state-sponsored colleges and universities; hence, private institutions determine their own restrictions.
(2) Leavitt, Michael O., Alberto R. Gonzales, and Margaret Spelling (2007) ‘Report to the President on Issues Raised by the Virginia Tech Tragedy.’ 13 June, Washington, D.C.:U.S. Department of Justice
Virginia Tech Review Panel. (2009) ‘Mass shootings at Virginia Tech April 16, 2007: Report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel presented to Timothy M. Kaine, Governor, Commonwealth of Virginia (updated edition)’ November. Available at: http://www.governor.virginia.gov/tempcontent/techPanelReport-docs/VT_Addendum_12-2-2009.pdf
(3) National Conference of State Legislatures.(2015) ‘Guns on Campus: An Overview.’ Available at: http://www.ncsl.org/research/education/guns-on-campus-overview.aspx
(4) For further information, consult the following scholars: Joan H. Miller, ‘The Second Amendment Goes to College,’ Seattle University Law Review 35, 2011: 248; J. E. Pratt, ‘A First Amendment-Inspired Approach to Heller’s “Schools” and “Government Buildings,’ Nebraska Law Review 92, 2013: 618, 620; M. Rogers, ‘Guns on Campus: Continuing Controversy,’ Journal of College and University Law 38(3), 2012: 665; M. L. Smith, ‘Second Amendment Challenges to Student Housing Firearms Bans: The Strength of the Home Analogy,’ Law Review 60, 2013, 1053.

“An armed student could have saved so many lives”: Blaming the Virginia Tech Shootings on the Concealed Carry Ban

The quote in the title exemplifies the idea circulating in online discourses[1] that the 32 tragic deaths at the Virginia Tech University shooting could have been prevented if students and staff had been permitted to carry concealed firearms on campus. This is explicated in statements such as these: “If only one person in that classroom had been armed, he might not have killed so many”; “One law-abiding armed citizen could have taken down the shooter after the first couple of shots.” Through speculative propositions with reference to the term ‘armed,’ it may be inferred that the circumstances shaping this are the lack of firearms. To some degree, online commentators blame ‘regulatory failures,’ where the ban in place is held accountable for students not being able to take the ‘appropriate precautions’[2] of carrying firearms to campus.

To take this argument further, for many users, the shooting at Virginia Tech represents an example of what can transpire when students are not allowed to carry weapons: “People thought Virginia Tech was safe, didn’t they?”; “Virginia Tech…enough said”; “Look at what happened at Virginia Tech.” The theorist Ferraro did say that fear of crime involves an “emotional response of dread or anxiety to crime or symbols a person associates with crime.”[3] It could be said that the shooting at Virginia Tech evokes images of horror and dread and is a ‘buzzword’ for the ‘worst gun massacre ever.’ Further to this, it appears that second-hand understandings of what took place at Virginia Tech — such as students hiding under desks waiting to be saved — are allowing for such perceptions to crystallise in a number of users.

In a similar vein, a video containing an interview with Virginia Tech survivor, Colin Goddard, who has worked with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, led to outrage and anger from a lot of online debaters. Some displayed incredulity that Colin was against concealed carry on campus, stating that it was these rules which prevented him and his peers from ‘defending themselves.’ Such a sentiment was echoed by the Gun Owners of America’s Executive Director, Larry Pratt, who stated in the immediate aftermath of the shooting: “All the school shootings that have ended abruptly in the last ten years were stopped because a law-abiding citizen — a potential victim — had a gun…”[4] The terminology used here is indicative of an idealistic stance that a ‘law-abiding citizen’ was able to prevent themselves from becoming a ‘victim.’ The ‘solution’ to the problem is deemed by some to be allowing for concealed carry on campus — this will discussed in the next blog post.

[This post was put together using the results from critical discourse analyses of comment threads in thirty-two YouTube videos relating to the Virginia Tech shooting and the concealed carry on campus movement. The blog posts over this and next month will further explore the discussions around this movement and school shootings.]

[1] These came in the form of comments on thirty-two YouTube videos filtered as the ‘most relevant’ to the terms ‘Virginia Tech shooting’ and ‘concealed carry on campus.’ Please refer to the blog posted on the 15th October 2014 regarding the usefulness of YouTube in research projects.

[2] This is discussed as a way to avert and negate crime in the following source: Elias, R. (1986) The Politics of Victimization: Victims, Victimology and Human Rights. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 72, 87.

[3] Ferraro, K. F. (1995) Fear of Crime: Interpreting Victimization Risk. New York: University of New York Press, 179.

[4] As quoted in the following press release: Gun Owners of America (GOA) (April 2007) ‘Virginia Tech Shooting — Gun Bans Are The Problem, Not The Solution.’ Available at: http://www.gunowners.org/pr0704.html.

Changing the Landscape of Emergency Management Legislation

During ‘crises’ — something as horrific and unexpected as a school shooting fits that criteria — immediate strategies have to be formed; prevailing narratives then have a direct impact on which coping strategies are selected.[1] As documented in the blog post published 16th February 2015, school shooting incidents have elucidated flaws in emergency management plans; this requires legislative response. In Colorado, the site of the Columbine school shooting (1999), the General Assembly passed the ‘Safe Schools Act’ (2000), requiring each school district board in the state to adopt a emergency management plan, crisis management procedures, and employee training. This framework had to adhere to the ‘National Incident Management System’: a federal-level framework of four principles for responding to crises consisting of organisational structures and strategies, intended to allow first responders from different jurisdictions and agencies to be able to coordinate more effectively.[2]

Following the 2007 Virginia Tech school shooting, legislation was implemented the year after at the state-level. All institutions falling within the purview of higher education were mandated to have emergency management plans and coordinate these with local community ones; every year the president or vice-president of every institution is to review and make any necessary revisions to ensure it remains current, and the institution shall carry out a drill; after a period of four years, the plan is to be reviewed and submitted to the state ‘Department of Emergency Management.’

Although Colorado had already taken action in the past, the Virginia Tech shooting (2007) prompted the Governor of Colorado to make school safety a priority item once again. In 2008, he signed a bill which established the Colorado School Safety Resource Center to provide assistance and funding to schools in preparing for and responding to emergency situations. An existing Colorado statute was amended to include the addition of a sub-section provisioning funds for the school mapping information to first responders.

Moreover, the Colorado ‘Safe Schools Act’ (2000) was amended in 2008 to include the requirement that all school districts had to incorporate components of the ‘National Response Framework’ into emergency management plans. The actions to be taken were: devising a plan to meet the date of compliance (1 July 2009); adopting the ‘National Incident Management System,’ the federal-level framework for dealing with emergencies and the ‘Incident Command System,’ as the management structures to organise and organise crisis responses; form relationships and communicate with local responders to check adherence to local, county and state level plans; define the roles and responsibilities of community partners through memoranda of understanding (known as MOU’s); engage in practice schedules, such as drills and tabletop (i.e. simulation) exercises; partake in an annual inventory of emergency equipment. Revised Statutes in the 2012 Colorado General Assembly made the legislative declaration that “emergency response and crisis management measures should be implemented in all communities within the state to protect students and school personnel.” The importance of emergency management plans, training and response means that legislation is an expected response to flaws; the next blog will discuss this in relation to law enforcement tactics.

[This blog was put together by analysing legislative documents from Colorado and Virginia. Future blogs will look at a different dimension of emergency management, by exploring the response of law enforcement to school shooting incidents.]

[1] Fairclough, Isabela. and Norman Fairclough. (2012) Political Discourse Analysis: A Method for Advanced Students. London, New York: Routledge, 3, 16.

[2]  Definition taken from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (n.d.) ‘National Incident Management System,’ https://www.fema.gov/national-incident-management-system


Managing the Risks of School Shootings: Flaws to Avoid

Continuing the theme of the last two blogs of emergency management plans and training — something which is crucial to managing something as deadly as a school shooting — this post elucidates what to avoid when planning for and responding to acts of violence. Since something like ‘risk’ cannot be entirely eliminated, what organisations should strive to achieve instead is a level of ‘safety,’ i.e. what is deemed to be “an acceptable level of risk.”[1] In terms of school shootings, this means planning for which actions to take in a crisis should be located within the wider rubric of school violence; as well as accounting for potential spectacular events, which are rarer but more likely to be lethal in nature.

A common flaw of emergency management plans in educational institutions where school shootings have already taken place is not considering the possibility of such an event occurring in the first place: for instance, Columbine High School and Virginia Tech University had guidance in place for fires, bomb threats and so forth; yet not for an active shooter scenario. Whilst schools may feel that ‘it can’t happen here,’ the myriad school shootings which have occurred in the United States show that these tend to occur in suburban areas with relatively little crime. Moreover, the danger in not acknowledging the risk of a school shooting is that no plans would be put into place about how to eliminate or reduce that risk.[2]

Another common mistake is outdated or incomplete information in emergency management plans. An example of this is Virginia Tech University’s plan, which, at the time of the shooting, was two years old: this meant it had outdated information in it, such as the name of a previous police chief. Another instance of incomplete information is the case of Columbine High School, where, prior to the shooting, the building layout for the school had not been included in the plans — it has been said by delayed the response of police and other rescue personnel.[3] In situations like these, it certainly seems the point that Coombs[4] makes about the danger of having a plan in place is providing a false sense of security is correct: these have limited usefulness when actually applied to a crisis.

Probably the most well-known of emergency management mistakes is the delay in emergency communication at Virginia Tech University (refer back to the blog posted on the 20th August 2014 for more information). In addition to staff error, this transpired because of a number of pre-existing flaws: there was confusion about what ‘timely’ actually meant; there was no set template(s) for emergency communication messages; there were inconsistences in the emergency communication policy and emergency management plans about who had the authority to release an emergency alert. This exemplifies the importance of the linkages between different facets of emergency management: prevention, planning, communication, training and response.

[This blog post was put together using analyses of policy documents produced after the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings, as well as further reading. The next blog post will document some of the changes made to law to eradicate these flaws.]

[1] Borghesi, Antonio and Barbara Gaudenzi. (2013) Risk Management: How to Assess, Transfer and Communicate Critical Risks. Springer: London, New York. Page 19 cited.

Vestermark, S. D. (1996). ‘Critical decisions, critical elements in an effective school security program.’ In A. M. Hoffman (ed.) Schools, violence and society. Westport, CT: Praeger, 101-122. Page 108 cited.

[2] Coombs, W. Timothy. (2012) Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing and Responding (third edition). Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage. Page 41 cited.

[3] For more details refer to Jefferson County Sherriff report. http://extras.denverpost.com/news/colreport/columbinerep/pages

[4] Coombs, W. Timothy. (2012) Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing and Responding (third edition). Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage. Page 106 cited.

“We are just waiting around as easy targets”: Anxiety about School Safety Procedures

The last blog detailed measures that can be utilised to prepare educational institutions for the occurrence of a school shooting. Discussed in this blog post will be the results of research into online commentaries of videos relating to previous school shooting attacks: these elucidate a further need to reassure students about the importance of emergency management training to their safety. In online debates, notably, there were insecurities expressed about whether school safety measures actually offer protection.

One issue, for instance, was a concern about hiding in a corner or under desks, rather than running for the nearest exit. Likely exacerbating these perceptions is knowledge of past shooting events — the mass shooting in Norway (2010) and the school shooting at Columbine High School (1999) were commonly cited  — and how others were killed. Extrapolating from this, the main ideas probably driving these reactions is a kind of helplessness at being inside where the threat is rather than running out to safety. Appropriately, a study by Fisher and Nasar’s study[1] into fear of crime on college campuses discovered that fear levels were highest in sites which offered low prospects for escape. As the last blog outlined, however, in cases where the attacker is inside the building, a ‘lockdown’ procedure is actually safer than trying to escape. With this in mind, training scenarios for educational institutions should spend a substantial amount of time explaining why taking a particular kind of action would be the safest in a particular situation, so that students are aware of why they are hiding rather than trying to escape.

In addition to this, despite the wave of school security measures implemented after high-profile school shootings like those at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech University, online users still felt that this was an area of weakness; this is evinced with statements like “schools need better security” and “security was lax as usual.” Online users were particularly incredulous that higher educational institutions do not even have metal detectors, pointing out that this made them ‘open targets’ for shooters. Considering this, some users argued in favour of universal metal detector implementation across all educational institutions. Despite this, as pointed out by my blog post ‘Creating a Market? The Commercial Products of School Shootings,’ (published 14th May 2014) the actual likelihood of metal detectors preventing school shootings is questionable. A study[2] of school safety administrators found that only 32% considered these to be effective in reducing more general school violence; this is even less likely to be the case when dealing with an active shooter event. Instead of metal detectors and other ‘target-hardening’ measures, it would be more fruitful to train students to prepare for school shootings, as well as to report any ‘warning signs’ that could prevent an attack from occurring in the first place.

[This blog post was put together by using analyses of comments from YouTube videos and some scholarly sources. The next blog post will discuss emergency management mistakes to avoid.]

[1] Fisher, Bonnie S. and Nasar, Jack L. (1992) ‘Fear of Crime in Relation to Three Exterior Site Features: Prospect, Refuge and Escape.’ Environment and Behaviour 24 (1), 35-65.

[2] Crystal A. Garcia. (2003) ‘School Safety Technology: Current Users and Perceived Effectiveness.’ Criminal Justice Policy Review 14: 30-54.

“How to turn the ‘what if’ of emergency management into ‘how to’”: The Standard Response Protocol of I Love U Guys

The quote above was said by John-Michael Keyes, of the non-profit foundation I Love U Guys (1) set up by himself and Ellen Stoddard-Keyes, the parents of Emily Keyes: a young girl killed in a hostage situation at Platte Canyon High School, Bailey, Colorado (2006). This organisation put together a training package for parents and educators, said by John Michael Keyes, to turn the ‘what if’ of emergency management plans into ‘how to.’ Emergency management plans are a form of risk management, seeking to avert a crisis and deal with one most effectively if it was to occur — these are particularly relevant to incidents like school shootings, where the risks are unquestionably highest. The ‘standard response protocol’ developed by I Love U Guys (see image below) has been described as the ‘safety nexus’ of the school district of Jefferson County, Colorado, by its Executive Director of Emergency Planning. Over the course of three years, it has allowed them to converse with and train over eighty-two thousand school students.

i love you guys

The basis of this protocol is the federal-level guide (2) on crisis planning, which distinguishes between response actions in different situations. ‘Evacuation’ would take place in a situation where staff and students have to leave the building; thus refuge points should be decided in advance, taking into consideration the needs of disabled students. The ‘reverse evacuation’ scenario would occur when the incident is outside and students are re-entering the school. When students are unable to leave or move through the building ‘lockdown’ occurs. The ‘standard response protocol,’ devised by I Love U Guys, consists of four options: lockdown, when there is a threat inside the building; lockout, in the case of criminal activity outside; evacuation, allowing for escape; shelter, for seeking refuge. In the case of a ‘lockout,’ the priority of staff in this scenario is to account for every student inside the building, since the threat is outside. A ‘lockdown’ scenario would be more problematic to manage, with the ‘time barrier’ between the threat and potential victims — utilised through a locked door and lights being switched off to hide from the threat — being crucial to safety. It was stated by John Michael Keyes that there has only ever been one case of a gunman entering a classroom through a locked door and the teacher was able to tackle him because of this time delay.


Pertinent to the effectiveness of the Standard Response Protocol is practice. I Love U Guys has put together a presentation and training workbook for educators and school resource officers (3) to conduct drills in classrooms. A state-law implemented in Colorado following recommendations made about response to the Columbine shooting (1999) mandated training staff members with local community partners and first responders (law enforcement, medical, fire) and highlighting the roles and responsibilities of every actor. After investigating the bill further, I Love U Guys found the legislative change did have an effect: fire, medical, and law enforcement response agencies were using a shared language and had a clear management structure. It is likely that relationships between rescue agencies and training involving all involved (educators, students, first responders) will improve reactions should an incident transpire. Something that has to be taken into account when devising training plans, however, is that the first responders to a school shooting incident could actually be the administrators and teachers who are there when events unfold, especially if they occur in the classroom — the Sandy Hook elementary school is a prime example of this.

[This blog post was put together using presentations from the ‘School Safety Symposium’ in June 2013, held by the I Love U Guys foundation, and reading about the organisation. Future blog posts will further examine the role of emergency management planning and training in managing school shooting incidents. Special thanks for this post go to the organisers of this event and the board members of I Love U Guys.]

“These people [school shooters]: they’re seriously mentally ill, they’re hearing voices”: Will redefining the criteria for prohibited gun owners reduce school shootings?

The quote cited in the title, said by one of the experts on gun-related legislation I interviewed, highlights the difference of school shootings from other types of gun violence in the U.S. A commonality in school shootings and other types of spree incidents does tend to be mental illness: the Virginia Tech University shooting (2007); the Northern Illinois University shooting (2008); the mass shooting in Tuscon, Arizona (2011); the Aurora Theatre shooter in Colorado (2012); the ‘Navy Yard’ shootings in Washington, D.C. (2013). In all of these examples, the perpetrators legally procured firearms: my gun violence prevention interviewees claimed that this was due to limitations in existing laws.

One interviewee pointed to the restrictiveness of the criteria for disqualification under the federal-level “Gun Control Act” (1968): being admitted to a psychiatric institution or being formally adjudicated by a court as a danger. For instance, the Virginia Tech shooter was prohibited from purchasing firearms under federal law; however, because he had only ‘temporarily detained’ at a mental institute rather than ‘committed,’ he was able to circumvent the federal restrictions and be eligible to buy firearms under state law at that time. Following the attack, the Governor of Virginia, using executive order, changed the law to prescribe that anyone found to be a danger to themselves or others by a court-ordered review — regardless of whether or not it was voluntary — should be prohibited. It was suggested by another interviewee that the specific criteria for firearm purchase exclusion at both the federal and state levels should mandate a broader scope of the threat posed by individuals, based on their history and whether they have expressed intentions to harm themselves or others.

Citizens themselves could also play a part by monitoring those closest to them and taking precautions to ensure untoward things do not happen, suggested one of my interviewees. This is particularly relevant when considering the Sandy Hook elementary school shooter had severe mental illness, yet was able to access his mother’s firearms to kill her and the victims at the school. The careful monitoring of those closest to them could also encourage those with mental illnesses to seek treatment before they carry out violent actions. Notably, the Virginia Tech school shooter (2007) did not pursue treatment on his own; rather, it was his remark to his suitemates “I might as well kill myself” that resulted in him getting mentally assessed.

In order to put mental health on the government agenda, interviewees recommended framing it as a ‘public health issue’ centred on school and other types of mass shootings. The issue of mental health and guns would then have to be based on a reconceptualisation of public safety based on the increasing number of mass shooting incidents, particularly those where the perpetrator legally procured a gun despite a history of mental illness. When it comes to school shooters, it is possible that putting barriers in the way of those who are mentally ill and have the potential to act violently could allow for interventionary efforts to help the individual before it culminates in a shooting incident.

[This blog used results from interviews with representatives from gun violence prevention groups and other experts in gun-related legislation. Further adding to this post were studies about the legal changes after the Virginia Tech shooting and general readings about past mass/school shooting incidents. The next blog post will examine how emergency management could play a part in reducing the severity of school shootings.]