Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


School Shootings and Gun Control

• December 14, 2012 • 10:56 AM

The tragic mass killings at that Connecticut school will undoubtedly spur renewed calls for gun control. According to one criminologist, that would be a welcome but somewhat ironic development, since mass school shootings seldom provide compelling evidence in favor of more restrictions on weapons.

The scholarly journal American Behavioral Scientist devoted two issues in 2009 to the 10th anniversary of the Columbine High School mass killings and what, if anything, we have learned from them. Gary Kleck, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida State University, contributed an essay in which he called mass school shootings “the worst possible case for gun control.”

Here’s his reasoning:

The following are important attributes of the “typical” school mass shooting, if one can speak of a typical scenario for such infrequent events. First, the crimes are premeditated. The killers plan the murders, and how they will carry them out, for days or weeks in advance, and sometimes even longer. This means they possess a persistent ongoing desire to acquire the tools of murder, not a transient short-term desire. Gun control measures that merely delay gun acquisition, such as waiting periods, are therefore irrelevant, as are those that merely place minor obstacles in a gun buyer’s way.

Second, the guns used in the shootings typically either already belonged to the shooters prior to their formulation of an intent to carry out a mass murder or were acquired by theft. Only the shooters at Columbine used guns obtained at gun shows, and even this was purely incidental—the killers could have legally acquired the same guns at gun stores. Restrictions on gun shows are therefore irrelevant, both to Columbine and other mass school shootings.

Furthermore, locking devices are irrelevant to blocking access to a shooter’s own gun, that is, one to which he has authorized access, and are relevant to the prevention of theft by would-be mass killers only to the extent that they can defeat the efforts of these strongly motivated thieves.

Third, the killers who seek to inflict large numbers of casualties typically use multiple guns, and often multiple magazines full of ammunition as well. Therefore, guns with large-capacity magazines were unnecessary to inflict even the very large numbers of wounds inflicted in these incidents without reloading. Controls on large-capacity magazines are therefore largely irrelevant to either preventing these incidents or reducing their victim counts.

Fourth, mass shootings, in or out of schools, take a long enough time to carry out that all of the shots fired could also have been fired had the shooters used slower firing guns. Thus, rapid-fire guns are not needed to inflict as many casualties as were inflicted. The significance of their high rate of fire is thus more potential than real. Controls on rapid-firing semiautomatic guns (which fire just one shot per trigger pull) are therefore largely irrelevant to either preventing these incidents or reducing the number of victims.

The terrible reality is that powerfully motivated and premeditated violence, especially that carried out by killers willing to die—by their own hands or those of the police—are among the hardest violent acts to prevent, regardless of what measures one might use to do so.

In retrospect, one can apply that same thinking to the Aurora, Colorado theater tragedy.

That doesn’t mean Keck is anti-gun control. Rather, he writes, “The irony is that some of the proposed gun control measures that would have been useless for preventing either Columbine or the other mass school shootings of the late 1990s might be perfectly reasonable measures for preventing ordinary gun violence.”

Keck argues it would be “perfectly reasonable, for the purpose of reducing ordinary gun violence, to extend background checks on gun purchasers to cover transactions between private parties, as well as those involving licensed dealers.

“This … could prevent casually motivated gun acquisition by convicted criminals and other high-risk persons who are less powerfully motivated than mass killers to get guns regardless of the obstacles. This in turn could make any violent acts later committed by these persons less lethal, helping to reduce the homicide rate.”

So, if you hear the argument “Gun control wouldn’t have prevented tragedies like the one in Connecticut,” the answer is: That’s probably true. But it would lessen the likelihood of a lot of other, smaller tragedies that receive less publicity, but still cause enormous pain.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.