David Hines (hradzka) wrote,
David Hines

Newtown: a tactical assessment

I'm going to talk about the Newtown, Connecticut murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in two posts. This is the first one. In this one, I'll talk about the murders themselves, from a tactical viewpoint. Another time, I'll talk about the things people are proposing we do about them. For now, though, the important thing is to talk about tactics. I write about mass shootings from a tactical standpoint, because that's a crucial operational level for those who, God forbid, find themselves at the scene of a murderous attack.

In the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary, there are two sets of tactics to consider: the attacker's, and the defenders'. I'm going to spend much more time on the latter than on the former, because from a tactical view the perpetrator did not do anything complicated or intelligent. That is not necessarily a function of the fact that the late Newtown perp was reportedly gravely mentally ill. The surviving Aurora perp is, by all reports, gravely mentally ill, but he is also a very, very intelligent dude, and his murder operation was extremely well-planned. That the bomb trap at the Aurora perp's apartment didn't get tripped is a miracle, or we'd have been talking about way more dead people there. By contrast, the Newtown perp did not do anything particularly clever. He broke in and made his way through the school shooting people, mostly children. The police showed up twenty minutes later; on seeing their approach, the perpetrator committed suicide.

The murders were committed using a Bushmaster AR-15, in .223; he also carried two handguns, reportedly a 10mm Glock and a 9mm SIG Sauer, but used only the Glock, and only on himself. Another long gun, a shotgun, was left in his car. The firearms belonged to the perp's mother, who apparently had been preparing to place the perpetrator in a mental institution. He murdered her before his killing spree; I don't know which firearm he used for that. Police reported that he had attempted to buy a firearm before, but had been turned down in a background check. It's unclear why he was a prohibited person -- age, perhaps. So he stole the guns from his mother. It's not clear how, or if, the weapons were secured, but you'd think that if they weren't then stealing one would have been the first thing that he did, and he wouldn't have tried to buy his own gun at all. There's more to learn here.

Much has been made of the perpetrator's use of the AR-15, and a lot of people are saying that it was the reason for the high body count; this is the rationale behind Senator Feinstein's proposal of a new "assault weapons" ban. My review of previous mass shootings suggests that the major factors affecting body count are not so much armaments as tactics. It's not about what they're using as much as it is how they're using it and who the intended victims are.

All else being equal, IMHO the single biggest determinant of fatalities in a mass shooting seems to be whether the perpetrator shoots victims multiple times. Perpetrators who shoot a victim once and move on can leave a surprising number of survivors. Perpetrators shooting victims who are already down and wounded max out the body count. That's what the Newtown perp did. It's what the VA Tech perp did, too, and he didn't have an AR-15. He had two pistols, one of which was in .22LR.

The other, probably even more crucial, reason that the body count was so high at Newtown was victim selection: who they are, where they are found, how they are arrayed in space, what resources are available to them.The perpetrator selected a target population whose movement was restricted (the classrooms apparently each had one exit, though some had bathrooms) and who fell into two groups: 1) a large number of people who were too physically and mentally immature to mount a defense 2) a smaller number of physically and mentally mature people whose capacity to react was going to mostly be taken up with taking care of group #1. In the face of these details, it is not surprising that the body count was so high. The surprise, given the vulnerability of the victims and the fact that police response took around fifteen minutes, is that the body count was not much higher.

It could have been. So why wasn't it?

For the answer to that question, we have to look at the defensive tactics employed. The defenders at Sandy Hook met with varying levels of success. Let's look at what they did, and see what worked and what didn't. This is not a criticism of them, but if we're going to practice security drills we should make sure they're good ones, and it's important to learn lessons from what has gone before.

Bear in mind the restrictions of the scenario and of the potential victims. There were not a lot of strong options here. There are really only three responses to an attempted mass killing: run away, hide, or jump the gunman. By running away, I mean "get outside of the kill zone." Hard to do in a school, given that classrooms have one exit and that opens onto a central hallway. Hiding leaves you within the kill zone, ideally in a secure location. This is what most of the survivors did. Some of them hid well. Others were lucky.

There is also the possibility of attack. More on that in a moment.

The first defense was the locked front door. One thing that's often overlooked is that Sandy Hook had a security strategy. At 9:30 AM, the school's doors were locked from the inside. That was a good step. If it had worked, the interior of the school would have been rendered a secure zone. It didn't work, because the perpetrator shot his way in. Note that he did not shoot his way through the door. Shooting a door or a lock open is more for the movies than for real life; typically, cops or soldiers breaching a door with a firearm will use a shotgun with slug rounds, not a rifle, and they will shoot in the area of the bolt, not on the lock itself. This guy tried it with padlocks, and his results give you a pretty good idea. The perp had a shotgun, but he had left it in the car. There was a glass window beside the door. He shot that, reached in, and opened the door from the inside. (Lesson #1: *do not put windows beside secure doors.* People willing to kill do not shy at breaking a window.)

Dawn Hochsprung, the principal, and Mary Sherlach, the school psychologist, left a faculty meeting to investigate. By some reports, they chose strategy #3 and tried to jump the gunman. I don't know if that's correct or not; Natalie Hammond, the vice-principal, was in the meeting room and survived, but she has not yet given a public interview. If they did attack, it was a brave thing to try. They didn't know what they would be facing; the perpetrator knew exactly what he could expect. These defenders left an area under their control and entered an area under the perpetrator's control. He was ready for them. (Lesson #2: *when possible, control circumstances of an attack.* It is entirely understandable why they felt they could not retreat to strike on better ground, if they had time to consider such an action.)

The perpetrator tried to get in the meeting room, but Hammond barred the door. He fired through the door, wounding her. He still could not get the door open, so continued to a first-grade classroom, where he killed substitute teacher Lauren Rousseau and all students except one girl. (That girl played dead, and was *very* lucky.)

Rousseau's classroom saw no defensive action. Either they were completely surprised, or were frozen in shock, or lacked options available to other classrooms. They huddled together and were shot. Other teachers stood in front of their students, and were shot, along with the students. First-grade teacher Victoria Leigh Soto hid her students in closets and cupboards and confronted the perpetrator alone. Several students could not stand to remain in hiding and tried to make a break for it; they were shot and killed, as was Soto, but other students who remained hidden survived. Soto's tactics -- and the time the first killings gave her to conceive and act on them -- made a difference. Fourteen children were murdered in Rousseau's classroom; six died in Soto's. (Lesson #3: *Tactics matter, but if they're not ingrained people will need time to create or adapt them.*)

The perpetrator was still roaming, but that's where the killing stopped. Everyone was hiding and blocking the killer's path to them, unless they were escaping the building, or running around alerting others to the killing and warning them to stay hidden or evacuate. A nurse and a secretary hid in a closet. Two librarians hid children in a secure area the school used in lockdown drills -- yes, the school had lockdown drills -- but discovered the secure area's door didn't lock, so they went into a storage room and barricaded the door. Another first-grade teacher took her students into a bathroom, and barricaded the door. A music teacher went into a supply closet with her students, and barricaded the door. The perpetrator banged on that door to no avail. And that's where things stayed. When the perpetrator saw police coming, he committed suicide using the 10mm pistol.

All told, the barricades probably saved more than thirty children's lives.

Here's my big takeaway from Sandy Hook: if you can't get out of the killing zone, and you don't have weapons with which to engage the perpetrator, *barricading yourself into a secure area works.* It worked pretty well at Virginia Tech -- at least one classroom kept the perpetrator completely out there -- and though the horrific body count in that first classroom hides it, given that most of the defenders were children the barricading tactic worked *amazingly* well at Sandy Hook. Circumstances pretty much dictated a turtling response, and after the shock and horror of the first classroom the defenders did remarkably well. It helped that they were security-minded and had had lockdown drills. Dawn Hochsprung deserves a lot of credit for that. If not for that glass window next to the locked front door, the perpetrator would have been stuck outside. The bad news: there was a glass window that offered easy breaking and access, and once the outer perimeter was breached the defenders had to improvise.

There have been a lot of suggestions for policy in the wake of this massacre. I'll talk more about this later, but one thing does readily spring to mind that does not involve guns at all: strong, securable, classroom doors that can be locked or (if not) open inward and can be barricaded could save lives in a lockdown situation. (Fire code might have something to say about the latter -- outward opening might be required.) In a fire, you want people out of the building quickly; in a mass shooting, main thoroughfares in the building are dangerous, and you want people to be clear and safe until the perpetrator is downed. Going to a central location for a central lockdown takes time and poses hazards when there is an active threat; being able to turn a classroom into a secure location by closing a door is faster.

One additional note: lunatic theories aside, there may yet be more to the story, as police requested and were granted sealing of the case's search warrants for an additional 90 days. Given that the perpetrator is dead, I'm curious as to why. It could just be tamping down on the media circus, or they might think someone had known the perpetrator was planning something.

Originally posted on my DW. | comment count unavailable people have commented there. | Do so yourself, if you like.
Tags: guns, news

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