War Gaming Columbine


"I am sick and tired of war. It's glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell."

- William Tecumseh Sherman.


Dave Grossman, in his book On Killing, suggests a psychology of lethal conflict. Grossman is a former Ranger. His book is focused primarily on military conflict. Still, the model he develops fits the mass murder suicide pattern. People have a normal resistance to killing. Most people don't. Before Korea, most soldiers in combat refused to fire in anger. Most of the fighting and killing was done by a very few. With Korea and especially Vietnam, modern military trainers learned to break down this inhibition against killing. The soldiers are taught to obey authority. They are taught to distance themselves morally from the enemy. They are conditioned, going through the motions of killing under high stress conditions. As a result, when placed under stressed, the troops kill. This results in a vastly more effective fighting force. It also results in vast increases in post traumatic shock syndrome among veterans.

Grossman is very concerned that the modern media is duplicating much of the military training. Media violence and in particular first person shooter video games might reduce the natural respect for life. The Columbine incident confirms Grossman's thesis. The tapes made by the Columbine killers are good examples of group absolution and distancing the enemy. The shooters were psyching themselves, convincing each other of their superiority and that the other kids deserved death. Both shooters were arcade game players. Repeatedly performing the act of killing in simulation, in training, is considered valid conditioning to kill.

Once the incident starts, Grossman lists three phases. The first is reflexive. One sees a threat or target, and acts without thought. The second is a period of thrill. One has power. One is in control. It is a form of high. The third phase is depression. When the high breaks down, guilt and horror follow.

On Killing is based primarily on Grossman's experience as a soldier. Academics have suggested similar drives based on animal behavior studies. The Hunting Hypothesis, On Aggression, The Moral Animal and The Selfish Gene suggest how evolution effects behavior. From an evolutionary perspective, Grossman's observed pattern makes sense. When confronted with sudden violence, one must instantly react. During conflict, enthusiasm and release from fear is a survival trait. The reasons for the depression phase was well described by Robert E. Lee. "It is well that war is so terrible - we shouldn't grow too fond of it." Excessive violence is not cost effective to the species. There are valid behavioral reasons for the horror felt by soldiers after combat.

At Columbine, this was the suicidal phase. This might be anticipated. In a situation such as Columbine, if one is not going to move in early, one will likely be of no use.

Before the shooters entered the school, a sheriff's deputy exchanged fire with them. In his report, he expressed valid concern about hitting civilians. With benefit of twenty twenty hindsight, there is a concern about not ending the incident early. The Deputy was aware of this. He still withheld fire, choosing instead to establish a perimeter as doctrine demanded.

The only person who has a right to judge the deputy is the deputy. No one who wasn't there, who wasn't going to have to live with the consequences, has a right to second guess. However, if one is going to carry a gun and a badge, one must think through such situations. If one thinks one is dealing with a mass murder suicide situation, might the normal rules of engagement change?

There is one last lesson learned. Some of the early SWAT team members arrived without their full equipment, the Kevlar armor and bullet resistant shields. This is understandable, once. If one is going to deal with such situations and count on having one's equipment available, part of the planning and doctrine must involve making sure the equipment will be available.

This is with full benefit of twenty twenty hindsight. It should also be noted that mass murder suicide is extremely rare. One can't base one's training and doctrine on a situation that might never be encountered in a long career. Under the vast majority of circumstances, the Columbine perimeter and patience approach would be absolutely correct. I have war gamed out many situations where the SWAT tactics were optimal. Still, no plan lasts longer than first contact with the enemy. There are times when everything falls apart. You find yourself responding, reacting, rather than executing one's own plans and doctrines. When rolling dice and pushing little tin figures around a table top, it becomes clearly obvious that sitting around on the perimeter and doing nothing won't cut it. The professionals knew this too, on the scene, and at the time. Still, even when it is clear that established plans and doctrines aren't working, it is nearly impossible to create a new doctrine on the fly. Grossman emphasizes that under stress, the logical forebrain shuts down, and the animal emotional drives take over. One reverts to doctrine. If you don't repeatedly train to do the correct thing while under stress, one will not do the right thing under stress.

If there is a need for pressure in response to a mass murder, to close the perimeter, to protect the people, this is not a call for Hollywood frontal assaults. If one is going to deal effectively with Columbine like situations, some degree of infantry tactics might be trained for. At minimum, some officers cover while others advance. Once contact is established at one point, hull down, and have others approach from other directions. Some pressure seems advisable, but there is no call for stupidity.

This is the tactical problem. We now switch back to law. To make our children safe from repeats of the Columbine situation, it is proposed to pass laws such that the law abiding may not carry weapons in or near schools.

The Columbine shooters violated many laws. If one is ignoring the punishment from multiple murders, is one more weapons violation charge going to be a deterrent? If one intends to escape by suicide, is the threat of punishment real? If one is going to protect lives, is there not a need to enforce the many gun laws violated by the Columbine shooters long before they get onto school property?

John Lott, in his book More Guns Less Crime, presented statistics that mass murder homicides are 85% less likely in states with conceal carry shall issue laws. Why? From the shooter's perspective, the important part of a mass murder suicide is the suicide. If there is a possibility that anyone might be carrying a concealed weapon, the perpetrator is no longer in control. He is no longer in a target rich risk poor environment. Thus, in conceal carry shall issue states, while there is a small surge in incedents immediately after the change in law, there are vastly fewer mass murder suicides.

Probability that the ten states that adopted concealed-handgun laws during the 1977-1992 period experienced deaths or injuries from a shooting spree in a public place. Lott warns that the drop to absolutely no shooting sprees that occured in these 10 states is an optimistic result. He prefers "85% drop."

Thus, the major effect of banning weapons from the vicinity of schools is to absolutely guarantee the shooter a target rich risk poor arcade environment.

It is the teacher's role to teach, not to protect the kids. I am not going to advocate turning schools into defensive installations. Still, if we are not going to protect the kids, might we at least not absolutely guarantee the perpetrators an ideal arcade environment? Might we at least put some doubt or hesitancy in their thinking?

Finally, the right to keep and bear arms was intended as a right for the law-abiding individual to protect himself and his community. When the government does choose to eliminate the possibility of self-defense, if it is guaranteeing the shooters a target rich risk poor arcade environment, the state assumes responsibility to provide protection. If the government forbids the law abiding adult occupants of schools self defense, they had best deliver government protection. No watching from the perimeter. No "I was busy on the other side of town." No "Just following doctrine." No "Sorry, I forgot my Kevlar." Most especially, no "The state has passed laws that you can't sue the state."

And, Mr. Bradley, no talk that gun bans are common sense.

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On Violence in America 2

War Gaming Columbine

Regulating the Militia

War Gaming Columbine 2