Sunday, December 16, 2012

Connecticut: An engineering response (sort of).

I guess a reaction from me about the Connecticut shooting was inevitable. my only hope is to apply logic, and not emotion to this situation. Emotions have their place, but here, I believe, is not it.

I'm not here to question who, or what, or why. I'm here to add logic, and process to the discussion. I'm not going to try and tell you what to think, I'm going to ask you to consider what I have to say, and hopefully include it in your discussions.

Point of entry.

How did the attacker get into the school? I'm not asking this question flippantly, or accusingly. There is a very serious set of implications associated with this. First of all, I have heard several reports that the school was locked from the inside to control outside access. Having working security at public schools myself, I find this highly likely and relatively easy to accomplish.

Understand, there are a lot of really good reasons to lock doors at a school, even before you talk about something horrid like a shooting. Not the least of which is just general durability; exterior doors take a lot of punishment on a day to day basis, so something durable is important. Also, when dealing with the safety and custody of children, it just makes sense to control who has access to the building. With custody disputes, divorces, and other things now an accepted reality in this country, public schools need to take reasonable measures  to regulate who gets into the school, especially elementary school students.

Its obvious that in Connecticut, the guy got in. My question is “how?” Did he kick the door open? Was he let in? Did someone leave a door unlocked? Was there a door that was always left open?

I don't know any of this, and I'm not pretending to. Also, I don't think the answers to any of those questions absolve the gunmen of his crimes, or incriminate anyone else for the same.

That being said, if something was amiss, or if somewhat was done deliberately that was exploited to grant entry for him, we need to look at that and learn. We need to say to ourselves, “maybe we should lock the doors at school,” for example. Doors that can be locked on one side, and allow free exit in an emergency are standard on almost all public schools theses days, I'm not talking about an added cost, just properly using what is there.

No, I don't know of any school with a bullet proof door, but how long do you think it would take someone to shoot out the glass, knock it out of the way, and then open the door? Maybe a minute, maybe more, but that's time to lock other doors, and call law enforcement. No, locking a door would not have stopped the shooting outright, but it might well have reshaped the course of events, even if only a little.


I'm probably going to make people angry with this, but it is what it is.

I've heard two news reports so far that said the school did lock down when the shooting started. Classrooms were locked, doors barricaded, people hid. As sickening as it might be to say this, from what I have heard, such procedures are the reason that we only have 29 deaths. We won't know for sure for months, but the police, with the help of a likely army of specialists, will go over this aspect of the event in detail, and will probably make a formal report to the local school district and the sheriff sometime next year.

But my point here isn't to say what should, or shouldn't have happened, but to look at what did, and look at what we might do differently in the future.

And let me say again, based on what I have heard... lives were saved through the lock-down. Yes, we lost many, but many, many more are still with us. In event's like this, we don’t' talk about failure and success in absolutes, we talk about what worked, and what didn't, and what we can do differently going forward.

The Weapons:

I certainly have my opinions about guns, but here, I am going to honestly try and keep those out of the conversation. As an engineer, I need to evaluate facts.

Basic reports right now (barely three days after the shooting) are talking about four sidearms and a long-arm (rifle) with conflicting reports as to which were used and which weren't.

In short, the sidearms have been particularly identified as Sig, or Glock type weapons. Both are reputable, high quality sidearms, with magazine capacities ranging between 10 and 19 rounds, depending on the model or type in question. So far, all of the pistols in question have been called 9 mm, which is not unlikely. I myself carry a 9mm, and it is an effective and inexpensive round.

Knowing what I do about both the Glock and the Sig series of pistols, I can say that the technology behind them is nothing new. They are well made, and high end, but their fundamental working principle dates back to the short-recoil action of the American model 1911 pistol, which is over a century old. This basic engineering design is used internationally in civilian, military and law enforcement roles every day. The vast majority of civilian sidearms in the United States today are likely very, very similar to the designs of the Glock and Sig pistols in their basic function.

Also, one last fact, with four pistols recovered, even if each weapon were only carrying 10 rounds (the maximum capacity under the “assault weapons ban” of the 1990s) the assailant would still have had 40 rounds of ammunition available to him without having to reload.

The “AR-15” type rifle at the scene bares a little more explaining. First, the “A” in AR does not stand for “assault”. It stands for ArmaLite, the name of the company to first design the rifle that would become the M-16 for the military. The corporate designation was AR-15, an abbreviation of “ArmaLite Rifle (model)- 15” Now, I don't know anything about the specific weapon recovered at the scene of the crime, but I can say that the AR-15 “family” of weapons (which includes clones built by countless companies) are .223 caliber rifles sold for hunting, competitive shooting and personal protection all across the United States. Their are models available with 3-round-burst and / or full automatic settings, but these require a class 3 license issued by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. 

My point here is that I don't want people looking at the letters “AR-15” and automatically thinking of a fully automatic, fully “militarized” killing machine. This is a dependable, versatile firing platform with lots of options associated with it. Before we say anything about the one in Connecticut, lets wait and see what it could do, couldn't do, and what it did do, if anything at all.

A little bit of history for you. Take this for what it's worth, if anything.

You are going to hear the words “assault rifle” in the future. Regardless of if the rifle in Connecticut was used, the subject comes up frequently, and almost always after a shooting related crime.

“Assault rifle” is not, as some would say, a media-invented term, nor was it coined by the US military. The fact of the matter was that the concept was first created by the German army in 1944 with the invention and deployment of the StG 44 rifle. This was the first weapon in the world that would give the individual soldier the ability to accurately fire a rifle round, and then switch to a fully automatic fire setting in a controllable, lightweight platform. The Germans called it the Sturmgewehr, or “storm rifle”. In this case “storm” being used in the sense of 'storming the ramparts”. The term was translated to the native languages of each nation that later adopted the concept from themselves, “assault” being the selected term in the United States.

As the Germans used it, an assault rifle was able to fire in single-shot and fully automatic mode. The United States later developed the AR-15 with included a 3-round-burst as an intermediary option. No one has ever set down a legal, or ethical definition of what an assault rifle is specifically supposed to encompass. And the question of what is an assault rifle is even further complicated by the fact that the US military itself removed the automatic setting on their rifles in the late 70s through the mid 90s before giving it back to their troops.

Weather or not you call something an “assault rifle” is your decision, I honestly have no stance on the subject in this post. But I do ask that when you talk about rifles, you understand what the implications are of using the word, and also asking yourself if the weapon you are talking about actually lives up to those abilities.

Backing up a few steps, I wanted to close the weapon's portion of this with one more point.

Again, with the information we have on hand, it looks like all of the weapons involved were legally purchased and owned by the assailant's mother, who was reportedly his first victim that day. I know nothing about the home, the living situation, the family dynamic or the personalities involved. However, another common question that is asked with these types of situations (and rightfully so) is how did the attacker get the weapons. In this case, we (at least partially) know that much, and it looks like the first law broken there was when he took the life of the gun owner.

“I could have stopped it”

I'm going to deviate from my purely logical, engineering goal for a moment here, but I feel this is still important to say.

Within hours of the news breaking, my Facebook feed was flooded with people saying “I could have stopped it if I were there with my gun”.

Honestly, I am skeptical of that.

You would have been another civilian, with another gun, in another hallway, in the midst of a firefight. We don't know what the hallways looked like, what don't know if there was chaos, or terrified calm, we don't know if there was some semblance of order, or if madness took over. But what I can tell you if that if you, or anyone had gone out in the hall, you would just been another target, another person with a gun for everyone else to sort out, evaluate and device if you are friend or foe.

That's not to say you would not have stopped this. But you also might have gotten hurt or killed yourself. You might have hesitated at the wrong moment, asking yourself “is he on my side?” when you saw a familiar face with a gun in hand, only to be answered with a hail of gunfire. Or you might have acted as best you could, taking the shot you had, with the evidence you had... only to have killed a fellow “sheepdog” trying to do the same thing you were doing.

Members of police SWAT teams, as well as military counter-terrorism and special operations units train daily to make those split second decisions. Whole thought processes have been programed into muscle memory with them so that they can react in a fraction of the time that your or I could to a threat. They have weapons and ammunition meant to engage people at close rage with extreme accuracy. They have armor and shields that are meant to buy them that extra second of time they might need make the life-or-death call of weather or not to pull the trigger on a target.

They do this every day, for a living. And most of the time, they do it well.

Chances are, you don't.

Now, I'm not saying that an armed teacher doesn't have merit. Hunkered down in your classroom, you would have the option to drawn down on and kill anyone who tried to force their way in. There would be time to hear him coming, time to aim, time to shout warning, time to take cover. Tactically, a man with a pistol hidden in a room is the type of nightmare that a fully equipped SWAT team dreads going after. It is ground of your choosing, on your terms. The odds are heavily in your favor.

Personally, I believe that allowing teachers with concealed carry permits to have their weapons on school grounds is an argument that should be discussed further.

But my point here is that the knee-jerk, heroic image of a fellow teacher storming out into the hallway, concealed weapon in hand, to actively track down and stop a school shooter is unrealistic.

“Where were the police?”

Now, I am NOT, in any way shape for form, accusing, or even implying that the law enforcement agencies of the town were lax in their duties in any way.

That being said, we need to look at where they were, where they weren't, how long it took them to respond to the situation, and then ask ourselves “could they have changed the course of events” and if so, “how?”

And I don't ask that first question lightly. Not knowing anything about the details of the shooting right now, I honestly don't know if a cop could have done anything to have stopped the shooting. As a former armed security office myself, I am fully aware of how fast things can happen. There were many times in my four year career where a fight or argument was started, blows were thrown, and then it was over and people walked away in a matter of seconds. By the time I got there, the people left were spectators who knew little more than I did.

And I'm NOT saying that is the case here, I don't know. I just want to steer away from the knee-jerk mindset that says “a cop is at the school; everything will be fine”. There have been several incidents where police officers were forced to retreat to cover when outgunned by a more aggressive opponent with better positioning. Even having a cop on site might not have stopped this.

But we can look at the facts, ask logical questions, and make logical, factual decisions about how to go forward.

Okay, I'm done.

No, I didn't answer any questions, or at least I didn't try to, anyway. 

No, I didn't say we needed to train every teacher how to soot.

And no, I didn't say we needed to get rid of guns outright.

What I am saying is that if we don't look at this objectively in the days, weeks and months to come, we stand to loose valuable, factual information that might well serve to stop something like this from happening again, or at least help to.

But if we don't stop, if we don't look, if we don't put our emotions aside just for a little bit and think about this logically, then we run the very real risk of not learning anything. In that environment, we degenerate back to two camps; one screaming to "Save our children", and another shouting back, just as loud, “come and take them from out cold dead hands!

Realistically, I don't think we really win either way there.