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Tim Blagg

Blagg: Violence now a disturbing norm

June 14, 2014

June 14, 2014

The good news is that the statistics for all types of violent gun deaths in the U.S. have been essentially flat since about 2000, following a sharp drop since the 1990s, when such deaths peaked. There were about 17,000 murders committed in 1993 using firearms, compared with some 8,855 in 2012.

The bad news — and it’s very bad news — is that the fatal shooting in an Oregon school last Tuesday was the 31st firearms attack at a U.S. school since the start of the year. And the frequency of attacks has picked up since the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., where 20 first-graders and six adults were gunned down.

In the 18 months since that tragedy, 41 deaths have occurred in 62 documented incidents at U.S. schools. In the 18 months before that attack, there were 17 deaths in 17 incidents.

What’s going on?

For one thing, there is a definite “copycat” element to this type of violence, whether it’s gun-related or not.

For example, back in the 1980s and 1990s, there were at least 10 shooting incidents that occurred at U.S. post offices, leading to the term “going postal.” In 1991, a fired postal worker in suburban Detroit killed three people and wounded six in a post office before taking his own life.

But more recently, few post office shootings have occurred.

Certainly, one factor is increased security at postal facilities (which also increased after 9/11 and several fatal attacks using anthrax), but the “wave” of attacks simply waned.

“I don’t know why they have decreased,” Postal Inspection Service spokeswoman Stacia Crane told a newspaper recently. “The economy changes. People change.”

Garen Wintemute, director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program, hesitates to brand such serial events as copycat crimes, but he said shootings tend to feed off themselves.

“The more we are all aware of them, the easier it is for one of us to do the next one,” he said.

And these sorts of surges are not limited to guns. Back in 2008, for example, police agencies in England and Wales reported that more than 350 people were victims of knife assaults every day. There were some 130,000 attacks involving knives — including 231 attempted murders — in a single year.

Recently, knife attacks on schools in China left at least 25 dead and some 115 injured, and in Murrysville, Pa., a 16-year-old student armed with two knives injured 20 teenagers and one adult — two critically — back in April.

There seems to be no doubt that unhappy or unbalanced people get their ideas from watching the news or popular media, and then “act out” those scenarios. Stories about attacks on schools lead to more attacks on schools — until the balance shifts and incidents become less common.

Locally, the short-term answer is to improve school and public building security to the point that any would-be attacker faces hurdles high enough to dissuade them.

Security is, of course, expensive, unsettling and inconvenient — but that is the price we have to pay to keep our children safe.

The long-term answers are harder to come by, and even less palatable. Tougher gun laws, increased funding for mental health treatment, increased vigilance on the part of teachers and staff, increased options for families worried about a troubled relative ... all are part of the solution, and all have their own negative impacts.

Should we be forcing the mentally ill to take medication? Should we be removing teenagers who indulge in violent games and fantasies from school? Should we make it illegal for anyone with a history of drug or alcohol abuse to own a firearm?

All have been suggested, and all have troublesome legal ramifications.

The other day, President Obama, speaking about the latest school shooting, said, “So the country has to do some soul searching about this. This is becoming the norm, and we take it for granted in ways that, as a parent, are terrifying to me.”

It’s terrifying to all of us ... and, while that “soul searching” goes on, we need to make sure that the necessary school security measures are taken and enforced. That will take money and decisive moves by local school boards and administrations.

Is your town taking action? If not, why not?

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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