In the aftermath of last Friday morning's massacre at an Aurora Colorado cinema, everybody wants to know how we might prevent the occurrence of future mass killings in public places. The fact that the murderer chose to get revenge in a crowded theater makes members of the public feel very insecure. After all, individuals go to the movies to be entertained or enlightened, not to be gunned down in cold blood.
The massacre in Aurora was designed to get even not with any particular individuals -- a girlfriend, a boss and coworkers, classmates -- but with people in general. The killer apparently hated all of humankind. Otherwise, he might have shot to death only the professors on his Ph.D. committee who, in June, apparently had determined him to be academically unqualified. Or, he might have attempted to take the lives of a few neighbors or police officers, not dozens of moviegoers.
Prevention is a difficult if not impossible objective. Metal detectors have been less than effective in eliminating the threat of rampage shooters in our middle and high schools. A law enforcement presence in cinemas might make theatergoers feel more secure, but would hardly scare off a determined mass killer. It certainly didn't avert the Aurora disaster: Already assigned to control the crowds at the midnight premiere, police arrived at the crime scene only 60 to 90 seconds after the killer had opened fire -- 60 to 90 seconds too late. Or, if a particular cinema presents an obstacle, the killer can always choose an alternative venue -- another cinema, a university lecture hall, a symphony hall, a rock concert, or a ball field. There is really no way that we can make all of our buildings -- our cinemas, shopping malls, companies, schools and colleges -- into safe havens.
Moreover, getting guns legally is, for most mass killers, no problem at all -- there are at least 200 million handguns on the streets and numerous rifles as well. Not unlike most mass murderers, the killer in the Aurora cinema reportedly lacked a criminal record, and so was able legally to purchase firearms and ammunition. Even with the enactment of strict gun control laws, the killer could have substituted explosives. In fact, he did exactly that in booby-trapping his apartment. In April 1995, Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, taking the lives of 168 man, women, and children. Unabomber Ted Kaczynski stayed on the loose for 17 years, sending his letter-bombs through the mail to unsuspecting victims. When a killer's aim is to maximize the body count, a bomb can be as effective as a semi-automatic firearm.
By contrast, explosives would not suit those youthful gang members who prefer to carry small caliber handguns in order to protect their territory, turf, or drug markets. This is where we should be placing our gun control efforts -- on getting the weapons out of the hands of 17 year old boys who cannot shoot straight and are willing to gun down anyone who disrespects them. Similarly, those killers who seek selectively to get even with bosses or spouses would probably not bomb their victims. They blame particular individuals for their miseries and are not interested in harming anyone else. By contrast, those who take lives in order to amass the largest possible body count in a cinema or shopping mall could just as easily use explosives to accomplish their purpose.
The mother of the accused 24-year-old killer in Aurora was not surprised when informed that her son was a mass killer. She must have known him as a troubled and angry young man. Of course, after the fact, his evil nature became clear. To those who knew him at school and at home as a shy but smart student, they were apparently not so obvious beforehand. And that is one of the problems associated with predicting a mass murder. Hindsight is 20/20; it is very easy to see the warning signs and red flags in the rear view mirror, not so easy to recognize them somewhere down the road ahead. We might recognize that someone is depressed or frustrated, but not that they intend to open fire on dozens of strangers.
The Aurora massacre was extremely rare. Most mass murders occur in families, workplaces, and schools, overall accounting for some 150-200 deaths a year. Only 16% of these -- approximately four or five episodes annually -- are committed in shopping malls, cinemas, and other public places. Of course, we should do what we can to limit the number of such tragic events, no matter how unusual they happen to be. At the same time, we should never forget about the 15,000 single-victim murders -- gang killings, domestic violence, workplace homicide, and the like -- that occur yearly in the United States and everyday reduce the quality of our lives.
Jack Levin is the Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Northeastern University in Boston and the author of Serial Killers and Sadistic Murderers: Up Close and Personal.