Two years after the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School, some things have changed, but much—particularly misinformation—has remained the same. Sandy Hook Elementary School is no more; it has been demolished. This is a common, if illogical response to jarring events. Perhaps by obliterating the place, we can obliterate the memories, exorcise whatever ghosts hide in its darkest recesses. As generations pass, memories fade. Unfortunately, it isn’t so easy to obliterate misconceptions, even lies about events. Particularly when there is a narrative and people are invested in perpetuating it, truth and fact become secondary. They are always barriers to understanding greater and more important “truths” . . .
So I present this brief article, not only to dispel the ghosts of Sandy Hook, but because the deadly potential demonstrated by the Peshawar massacre freshly haunts those of us concerned about school safety. Hopefully, it will contribute not to a ‘social justice’, anti-Second Amendment narrative, but a better understanding of fact and the realistic, daily threats we face due to our choice–thus far–to live in a representative republic.
I will not engage in debate with various conspiracy theorists, but rely on fact, particularly the report issued on November 25, 2013 the Danbury Judicial District State’s Attorney, Stephen J. Sedensky III. A PDF of that document is available here.
A summary of the incident from that report:
On the morning of December 14, 2012, the shooter, age 20, heavily armed, went to Sandy Hook Elementary School (SHES) in Newtown, where he shot his way into the locked school building with a Bushmaster Model XM15-E2S rifle. He then shot and killed the principal and school psychologist as they were in the north hallway of the school responding to the noise of the shooter coming into the school. The shooter also shot and injured two other staff members who were also in the hallway.
The shooter then went into the main office, apparently did not see the staff who were hiding there, and returned to the hallway.
After leaving the main office, the shooter then went down the same hallway in which he had just killed two people and entered first grade classrooms 8 and 10, the order in which is unknown. While in those rooms, he killed the two adults in each room, fifteen children in classroom 8 and five in classroom 10. All of the killings were done with the Bushmaster rifle.
He then took his own life with a single shot from a Glock 20, 10mm pistol in classroom 10.
Prior to going to the school, the shooter used a .22 caliber Savage Mark II rifle to shoot and kill his mother in her bed at the home where they lived at 36 Yagonanda Street in Newtown.
Much speculation has been made about the firearms used in the shooting, and a group of surviving relatives have filed a lawsuit against Bushmaster. These are the facts:
The following weapons were recovered in the course of this investigation: (1) A Bushmaster Model XM15-E2s semi-automatic rifle, found in the same classroom as the shooter’s body. All of the 5.56 mm shell casings from the school that were tested were found to have been fired from this rifle. (2) A Glock 20, 10mm semi-automatic pistol found near the shooter’s body and determined to have been the source of the self-inflicted gunshot wound by which he took his own life. (3) a Sig Sauer P226, 9 mm semi-automatic pistol found on the shooter’s person. There is no evidence this weapon had been fired. (4) a Izhmash Saiga-12, 12 gauge semi-automatic shotgun found in the shooter’s car in the parking lot outside the school, and which was secured in the vehicle’s trunk by police responding to the scene. There is no evidence this weapon had been fired. (5) a Savage Mark II [.22LR caliber] rifle found at 36 Yagonanda Street on the floor of the master bedroom near the bed where the body of the shooter’s mother was found. This rifle also was found to have fired the four bullets recovered during the autopsy of the shooter’s mother.
All of the firearms were legally purchased by the shooter’s mother. Additionally, ammunition of the types found had been purchased by the mother in the past, and there is no evidence that the ammunition was purchased by anyone else, including the shooter.
Whether the shooter had accomplices, and whether he could have been discovered and stopped prior to the attack has been the subject of much speculation and many conspiracy theories. From the report:
At the date of this writing, there is no evidence to suggest that anyone other than the shooter was aware of or involved in the planning and execution of the crimes that were committed on December 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School and 36 Yogananda Street. From the time an unknown male was encountered by the Newtown police outside of the school during the initial response, until well after the staff and children had been evacuated, the thought that there may have been more than one shooter was a condition all responding law enforcement worked under as they cleared the school. Individuals located in the wooded areas surrounding the school as the searches and evacuations were taking place were initially treated as suspect and handled accordingly (including being handcuffed) until their identity could be determined. The circumstances surrounding al of these individuals were fully investigated and revealed no additional shooters. DNA testing of evidence recovered from both the school and 36 Yogananda Street also revealed no potential accessories or co-conspirators.
The obvious question that remains is: ‘Why did the shooter murder twenty-seven people, including twenty children?’ Unfortunately, that question may never be answered conclusively [emphasis mine], despite the collection of extensive background information on the shooter through a multitude of interviews and other sources. The evidence clearly shows that the shooter planned his actions, including the taking of his own life, but there is no clear indication why he did so, or why he targeted Sandy Hook Elementary School.
It is know that the shooter had significant mental health issues that affected his ability to live a normal life and interact with others, even those to whom he should have been close. As an adult he did not recognize or help himself deal with those issues. What contribution this made to the shootings, if any, is unknown as those mental health professionals who saw him did not see anything that would have predicted his future behavior [emphasis mine]. He had a familiarity with and access to firearms and ammunition and an obsession with mass murders, in particular the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. Investigators however, have not discovered any evidence that the shooter voiced or gave any indication to others that he intended to commit such a crime himself.
THE TIME FRAME:
The time frame, too has been a matter of constant speculation. The facts, however, reveal one inescapable truth: the police will virtually never have any active role in stopping school shooters or saving lives. They will arrive in time only to coordinate medical care and to collect evidence and write reports.
Keep in mind that the killer began his assault at 0930. It took five minutes and 39 seconds for the first 911 call to reach the police and 27 seconds after that for the first radio call to officers on the street. They weren’t aware of the incident until six minutes and six seconds after the attack began:
9:35:39 – First 911 call to Newtown Police Department is received.
9:36:06 – Newtown Police Department dispatcher broadcasts that there is a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
9:37:38 – Connecticut State Police are dispatched to SHES for active shooter.
9:38:50 – CSP are informed that SHES is in lockdown.
9:39:00 – First Newtown police officer arrives behind SHES on Crestwood Rd.
9:39:13 – Two more Newtown officers arrive at SHES and park on the driveway near the ball field. Gunshots are heard in the background.
9:39:34 – Newtown Officer encounters unknown male running along the east side of the SHES with something in his hand.
9:40:03 – Last gunshot is heard. This is believed to be the final suicide shot from the shooter in classroom 10.
9:41:07 – Information is relayed as to the location of the last known gunshots heard within SHES, the front of the building.
9:41:24 – Newtown officer has unknown male prone on ground, starting information relay regarding possibly more than one shooter.
9:42:39 – Newtown officer calls out the license plate of the shooter’s car.
9:44:47 – Newtown officers enter SHES.
9:46:23 – CSP arrive at SHES.
9:46:48 – CSP enter SHES.
As the gravity of the situation became known, local, state and federal agencies responded to the scene to assist.
This time frame reveals precisely the kind of police behavior–-and limitations–-one expects in active shooter situations. At about 0930, the killer began shooting his way into the locked school. It took only a few seconds and several rounds of ammunition to breach the glass pane near the front door of the school. Despite the fact that the school secretary had a video monitor of the front door area at her desk (this was the only view the school’s video system was capable of displaying), no one called 911 until 9:35:39, five minutes into the attack. They were hiding from the killer–who briefly entered the office–until then. By then, the principal, school psychologist, and two other staff members had been killed or wounded, and the killer had already begun killing children in classroom 8 (green) or 10 (red), probably 8 first and 10 last. The exact sequence is unknown, but the killer shot himself in classroom 10.
The first Newtown officer didn’t arrive until 9:39.00, nine minutes into the attack, and two more arrived 13 seconds later. They did not immediately enter the school, in fact, they would not enter until 9:44:47, nearly 15 minutes after the attack began and nearly six minutes after the first officer arrived. By then, the killer was dead, having shot himself at 9:40:03. He limited himself to ten minutes of murder, but could have had at least five more minutes if he chose, and then might have added a few police officers to his body count. Connecticut State Patrol officers did not enter the building until 9:46:48, two minutes after Newtown officers and nearly 17 minutes after the attack began.
The killer fired eight rounds to shoot his way into the building and 16 in the lobby area, at least five of those killed two people and wounded two others. Eleven bullet holes were found in furniture and walls. In the area of a window in classroom 10 there were at least nine bullet holes. Forty-nine expended rounds of 5.56mm brass were recovered from classroom 10. At least five of those rounds struck three vehicles in the parking lot. In classroom 8, eighty rounds of expended brass were found (the killer’s body was found in classroom 10).
The killer obviously did not intend to run out of ammunition. Two-hundred-fifty-three live rounds were found on his body: one-hundred-sixteen 9mm rounds, sixty-one 5.56mm rounds, seventy-five 10mm rounds and one shotgun shell.
One live 5.56mm round was found on the floor of classroom 8, suggesting the killer had a momentary malfunction which he was able to clear, or perhaps he clumsily ejected it when changing magazines.
THE SCHOOL BUILDING:
Sandy Hook Elementary School was a common, one-story, brick elementary school in every respect. Built in 1954, it was not designed for security as most schools are not today, though it did have some security upgrades common in contemporary schools. The main entrance featured two full glass doors with a large glass window immediately adjacent them (to the right).
The doors had a remotely controlled electronic lock activated by school secretaries in the office. As with all school doors, crash bars were inside to allow people inside the building to get out in case of fire. A video camera watched the front door and a call box was affixed near the door. The video feed was not recordable, and displayed only on three monitors on the desks of secretaries in the office. The report does not specifically speak to this issue, but the fact of the three monitors and the physical layout of the school suggests that not all of the secretaries had a direct line of sight to the front doors.
The killer shot out the glass window next to the doors. He stepped through the large hole in the window his bullets made, though he could easily have chosen to shoot the glass doors and press the crash bars or merely step through.
From the lobby area, the killer had a clear view down two hallways, the west hallway directly in front of him and the north hallway immediately to his left. The north hallway, in which most of the shooting occurred, was 8.5 feet wide and 8 feet high. All classroom doors were key locked from the outside/hall side only. There were no locking mechanisms inside the classrooms. All doors were wood with a circular window in the upper half of each door. Each classroom had a non-locking closet and a restroom with an interior lock. Both classrooms involved had a phone that could be used to communicate with the office and the building had a common, centralized PA system for announcements that did not allow two-way communication.
Like virtually all school buildings, gaining entry presents only a momentary problem for a school shooter. Virtually any school door can be breached in seconds by breaking a window in or near the door and activating a crash bar, or by simply prying a door open with nothing more dangerous or high-tech than a crowbar. In this case, the killer expended a few rounds of ammunition to achieve entry, an act that took no more than 5-10 seconds.
Once inside, the killer had an unrestricted view down two long, narrow hallways. Anyone in those hallways had no cover or concealment and could be easily shot. This was the case with the principal, Dawn Hochsprung and the school psychologist, Mary Sherlach. Both stepped into the north hallway from the conference room (yellow) in response to the shooting and were likely immediately shot and killed.
In short order, two other teachers stepped into or partially into the same hallway and were shot and wounded, immediately retreating back into their rooms. The two victims closest to the killer–Hochspring and Sherlach–were immediately fatally struck, while the two others, one substantially farther away, did not suffer mortal wounds. One, in fact, was hit only in the foot, which suggests the killer’s marksmanship was more random than sure.
After shooting these four staff members, the killer immediately entered either classroom 10 (red) or classroom 8 (green). It’s possible he entered classroom 8 first, and finishing there, entered classroom 10 where he soon shot himself. To do otherwise would have required him to first enter classroom 10, then 8, then return to 10 to kill himself. This does, however, remain possible.
Because the classroom doors were unlocked, the killer needed only to walk in. Even locked, however, the classroom doors could have been easily breached by the methods I’ve previously mentioned.
Once inside each classroom, the killer could have discovered anyone hiding inside the closets by simply opening the doors, and the bathroom doors–though lockable from the inside–could have been easily breached, or he could have wounded or killed people inside by firing through the door.
The officers did what they could, but the two most important factors in police response to school attacks thwarted them: time and distance. The first 911 call wasn’t received until five minutes and 39 seconds after the killer began his attack, and the first radio call to officers wasn’t sent for another 27 seconds, six minutes and six seconds after the attack began. By then, the shooter had killed many.
The first Newtown officer arrived within three minutes and 21 seconds of receiving the first radio call, which might initially seem to be a blazing fast response. By the standards of school shootings, it actually is. However, that arrival was actually nine minutes after the attack began. Officers didn’t enter the building until eight minutes and 41 seconds after receiving the first radio call, some 14 minutes and forty seven seconds after the attack began. By then, all of the children and adults shot (with two exceptions) were dead or dying and the killer shot himself four minutes and 44 seconds earlier.
Any school shooter anywhere can expect similarly favorable circumstances. The report does not suggest even general changes in law, security or procedure that would have altered the outcome of the Sandy Hook attack or that would aid the victims in any future attack. Surely that was not the purpose of the report, but the fact remains that its author could suggest little–-particularly if political correctness was a concern–-to help.
The attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School was very much like most such attacks. It took relatively little time, the shooter killed himself on his own timetable, the police had no active role in stopping the killer or saving lives, and the death toll was determined solely by the whims and marksmanship of a madman.
MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES
Properly written involuntary commitment (IC) laws can be effective in some cases, if consistently and reasonably enforced. However, the reality that such laws would not have identified or in any way hindered the killer is obvious. In fact, such laws would not have been of use in stopping virtually any of the school shooters in American history. The killer, for example, was examined and tested by psychologists for years. More recently, he was known to be odd and socially deficient, but there were apparently no signs of what he intended and no indications of dangerous mental illness. Hindsight is, of course, always infallible.
There is, in some states, room for improvement in IC laws and in training those that will apply them, but no one should mistake them for an ultimate solution. Absent giving the police absolutely dictatorial powers, no statute can ever allow the involuntary commitment of anyone who is merely odd, socially awkward, or behaving unconventionally, even strangely, regardless of how uncomfortable they may make others feel.
At Sandy Hook Elementary, there were many points in the killer’s assault where armed staff could have stopped him, or at the least, forced him to retreat. They would have had the advantages of superior numbers, and knowledge of the building.
Arming willing school staff–-no one should be forced to be armed against their will–-is the only policy that can not only deter, but stop school attacks when and where they occur. Anything less indicates a willingness on the part of state legislators and school administrators to accept some level of injury and death when a school attack occurs.
The police exist everywhere, yet they do not deter school attacks. As Sandy Hook and virtually every other contemporary attack clearly indicates, they will have little or no role in stopping school attacks. Knowing this and doing nothing to address it comprises willing acceptance of the injuries and deaths of some number of children and teachers.
When an armed staff policy is properly done, no one will know who is armed or where. A school district must publicize the fact that they encourage their staff to be armed and that many are. They must also publicize the fact that they will never reveal who is armed, their numbers or where they work. This has the effect of providing deterrence for every school, even if no one in that building is armed. Anyone contemplating an attack will have to assume that people in every building are armed and able to resist them, and signs to that effect should be prominently posted at every school. This is the advantage of concealed carry everywhere. This factor alone will make it highly likely that any potential shooter will go where they are more likely to be able to act out their preferred scenario.
If an armed killer is approaching the classroom of your child, are you truly satisfied with run and hide? Are you truly comfortable with your child being forced to defend their life in a desperate charge against an armed, homicidal madman with no weapon more deadly than a school book, ruler or cell phone?
The odds are on the side of most children; this is cold comfort. Statistically, only a tiny portion of the American public will likely ever be exposed to the horrors of a school attack. I’m sure the police, school officials and parents of Newtown, Connecticut believed the odds were on their side until 0930 on 12-14-12. The odds will always fall against someone, and there is no way to know when or where. We do, however, know that it will happen to someone, and that when it does, they will be as poorly able to save lives as the staff of Sandy Hook Elementary School.
We fill schools with fire extinguishers knowing the odds are they will never be used. Should we do less when the means of potential death are bullets and bombs rather than fire? So far, for most American schools, the answer is yes.
A memorial has replaced Sandy Hook elementary, but a truly lasting legacy would be effective, nation-wide preparedness. Let every would-be school shooter from this day forward be certain that an attack on any school will be certain to result in his death before he can harm a soul, and if he is foolish enough to attack anyway, let him meet the overwhelming and effective fire of armed, trained and prepared teachers. Let it be his lifeless body in a school hallway rather than the bodies of brave but unarmed teachers–and little children.