Posted 9/27/14 (updated 12/16/14, 1/25/15, 2/11/15)


Men are gunning down their spouses and children. Is anyone paying notice?

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. A recent FBI report analyzing assaults by “active shooters” between 2000 and 2013 identified 160 events in which 486 persons were killed and 557 were wounded. (These figures include nine law enforcement officers killed and 28 wounded.) Two of the most significant episodes occurred in 2012: the theater killings in Aurora, Colorado, with 12 dead and 58 wounded, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, with 27 dead and two wounded.

     To be included incidents had to involve a “mass casualty,” meaning at least three deaths. In an effort to limit the study to “active shooter” incidents – an ill-defined category at best – the FBI excluded killings connected with gang or drug crime and those stemming from “contained” residential and domestic disputes. If nothing else, these measures greatly limited the sample size. In all, the report included only seven lethal, multi-victim shooting events that occurred solely within residences, an average of less than one a year.

     As we know, episodes of lethal domestic violence, including those that meet the “three or more dead” threshold, are far more frequent. A quick-and-dirty Google search of family killings with at least three casualties revealed at least six such episodes in 2014 alone, resulting in a total of 32 deaths, 27 by gunfire (one incident did not involve firearms.) Twenty-two victims were children, ranging from infants and toddlers to youths in their teens. Unsurprisingly, each assailant was a male. Four were fathers, and one was a grandfather. Two shooters were arrested, three committed suicide, and one died of an apparent heart attack.

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     Here are the grim details:

  • February 2, Chicago. An apparent dispute with his 17-year old son led Michael Worsham, 43, to gun down the young man. He then shot and killed his wife and their 15-year old daughter. A stepson, 14, and his five-year old nephew managed to get away. Worsham, a school security guard with a valid gun card, ultimately collapsed and died, possibly of a heart attack (he apparently had cardiac issues.) No motive was immediately established.
  • May 7, Florida. Darrin Campbell, 49, a respected media executive, shot and killed his wife and two children, ages 16 and 18, and set fire to their upscale rental home. He then killed himself. Campbell, who was apparently intoxicated when he died, had purchased the Glock .40 pistol used in the killings and, more recently, a large quantity of fireworks, in both instances legally. Campbell was reportedly arrears in property taxes and had recently requested leave from his employer, but so far neither friends, family nor police have offered a specific motive.
  • July 9, Texas. Ronald Lee Haskell, 33, was gunning for his ex-wife when he burst into the home of her sister and tied up the only person present, a 15-year old girl. When the rest of the family arrived Haskell demanded to know the whereabouts of his former spouse, and when they wouldn’t tell him he opened fire, killing a husband, his wife, and four children (the 15-year old survived.) Police chased down Haskell, who gave up without a struggle. Haskell had an extensive history of violence and domestic abuse. He was facing a restraining order recently filed by his mother, whom he tied up because she had contacted his ex-wife.
  • July 26, Maine. Joel Smith, 33, used a shotgun to kill his wife and three children, ages four to twelve, in the modest apartment where they lived. He then committed suicide. Officers reported no prior contacts with the family but said that the Smiths were having “issues” about finances. These “issues” appear serious, as on the night of the murders Smith’s wife told a friend that her husband had pointed a gun at his head and threatened to kill himself.
  • September 3, South Carolina. In the only mass killing that didn’t involve a gun, ex-con Timothy Ray Jones Jr., 32, strangled his five young children, ages one to eight, placed their bodies in garbage bags and dumped them by the side of a road. Nearly a week later Jones was pulled over by police for driving under the influence of synthetic marijuana. Officers found drugs, blood and bleach in the vehicle. Jones’ children had been reported missing by his estranged wife, and Jones soon confessed that he killed them. Jones Had gained custody of the children after a “messy” separation, and retained custody despite concerns by social workers who visited his home. Weeks earlier, in an encounter with police, he told officers that his kids were planning to kill him.
  • September 16, Florida. Don Charles Spirit, 51, telephoned police and said he intended to harm himself and his family. By the time that officers arrived at Spirit’s rural home his 28-year old daughter and her six children, ages two months to 11 years, had been shot dead. Spirit then committed suicide. This wasn’t his first lethal involvement with firearms. In 2001 he shot and killed his 8-year old grandson in what was billed as a hunting accident. Due to a prior felony marijuana conviction he was convicted of being a felon with a firearm and drew a three-year prison term.
  • [Late addition] December 15, Pennsylvania. In a rampage that took him to three homes, Bradley W. Stone, 35, a former Marine who served in the Gulf War murdered his ex-wife and five of her relatives, including her mother, grandmother, sister, the sister’s husband and their 14-year old daughter. Except for the girl, whom he stabbed to death, Stone, who suffered from PTSD, killed his victims with a .40 caliber pistol and possibly a 9mm. pistol (he owned both).  Stone also severely stabbed the girl’s brother. He then committed suicide. Stone and his ex-wife were in a bitter custody dispute over their two daughters, ages 5 and 8. They were unharmed.
  • [Late addition] January 24, 2015, New York City. Jonathan Walker, 34, a nightclub bouncer and security guard, shot and killed his 7-year old daughter, the girl’s 31-year old mother (they lived together but were not married) and her mother, 62. He also critically wounded his older daughter, 12; she called police after being shot in the head. Walker then drove to a remote area and committed suicide. “What I did I cannot come back from,” he told his brother in a late night phone call.
  • [Late addition] February 7, 2015, Douglas County, Georgia. A quarrel over child support and taxes led an angry ex-husband to storm the home where his ex-wife lived with her boyfriend. Cedric Prather, 33, shot and killed his ex-wife, their seven-year old daughter and nine-year old son, and the boyfriend. Two of the ex-wife’s children, a 15-year old girl and seven-year old boy, were wounded. Prather then killed himself.

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     Why do men slaughter their families? Firearms availability is presumably a factor. But it’s not just the presence of guns. Violence may have genetic underpinnings, but there is no gene for being an “active shooter.” Like other behaviors, gun-slinging and murder are learned, if by nothing else, then by example. And when it comes to such examples the U.S. is a uniquely fertile ground. Four years ago, in “Say Something,” we bemoaned the epidemic of shootings by so-called “ordinary” people. Here’s what we suggested:

    Let’s use the White House as a bully pulpit for a national campaign to remind everyone – gun owners, their friends, family members and co-workers – that guns and anger are a lethal combination. “Friends don’t let [angry] friends pack guns.” “If your [angry] friend has a gun, say something.” Take out ads in print and on TV, put up billboards, place posters at gun stores and firing ranges.  It’s something worth considering.

     It’s still worth considering.

UPDATE (10/10/19): Wisonsin’s Supreme Court turned away a lawsuit against Armslist, an online website that puts together private gun sellers and gun buyers, for facilitating a gun purchase by Daniel Haughton, whom a restraining order had made ineligible to buy a gun under state law. In 2013 Haughton used a gun he got through the service to murder his wife and two of her coworkers.

UPDATE (7/23/19): A national study that compared levels of household firearms ownership with gun homicide reveals a significant relationship between more ownership and more domestic homicides but none between ownership level and non-domestic homicides. The recently released 2016 BJS survey of prison inmates reports that ninety percent of those who used a gun in their crime did not buy it at retail. Forty-three percent got it from a street source; six percent stole it.

UPDATE (9/14/18): Using what Smith & Wesson bills as the “most powerful production revolver in the world today [with a] massive .500 S&W Magnum cartridge - 2600 ft/lb. muzzle energy” a Bakersfield (CA) man shot and killed his estranged wife, the co-worker with which she was allegedly having an affair and three other persons. He then took his own life as police closed in.

UPDATE (8/13/18): A rural California man facing spousal abuse charges shot and killed three of his four young children then committed suicide. A court had barred him from owning a gun. He was also facing charges for failing to register as a sex offender.

UPDATE (10/16/16): Citing a Federal law that grants gun makers and dealers immunity from the consequences of gun misuse, a judge dismissed the lawsuit filed by relatives of the Sandy Hook victims. According to the ruling, the law’s “negative entrustment” exception did not apply, as Congress had implicitly authorized the civilian possession of firearms such as the AR-15 rifle used by the shooter.

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FBI report on active shooter incidents

Posted 6/2/14


Good police work could have prevented a massacre

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. During the past decade a wave of mass shootings has drawn attention to the threat posed by the armed and mentally ill. Federal law prohibits firearms possession by persons who have been adjudicated to be mentally defective. But adjudication is controlled by State laws, and most require proof, before someone can be detained, that they pose an imminent physical risk to themselves or others. Absent demonstrably violent behavior, that’s a tough standard to meet. So in practice, mental issues are usually only taken up in court after a crime has already occurred.

     So much for prevention!

     It’s usually up to police to collect and present evidence of dangerousness. When Santa Barbara (Calif.) sheriff’s deputies knocked on Elliot Rodger’s apartment door on April 30, the 22-year old Isla Vista resident and sometime college student was not an unknown commodity. He had come to official attention twice before, once as the victim or instigator of a minor brawl, and again as the complainant in a petty theft. On this occasion the circumstances were different. Alerted by Mr. Rodger’s parents that their son, who had a history of psychological issues, might be experiencing an emotional crisis, state mental health authorities alerted police. Several officers promptly conducted a “welfare check.” After reportedly spending ten minutes with Mr. Rodger they left.

     Three weeks later Elliot Rodger would become a mass killer, stabbing three students to death, then gunning down three others and wounding thirteen. He left behind a thick manifesto excoriating the many co-eds who had spurned his advances. Yet according to Santa Barbara County sheriff Bill Brown, the deputies who spoke with Rodger found him in good mettle, with a “very convincing story” that persuaded them he did not pose a threat.

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     Rodger himself would have disagreed. In his manifesto he wrote that had deputies entered the apartment, he would have surely been arrested. Aside from his as-yet incomplete rant, which professed his intention to commit mass murder, he had three high-powered pistols, a large quantity of ammunition and numerous ammunition magazines.

     But the officers stayed outside. According to Sheriff Brown, they had found no legitimate reason to pursue the matter. After all, Rodger had his rights.

     California requires that all gun sales, including private transactions, go through a dealer and be recorded with the state. A ten-day waiting period is also in effect. Computerized decades ago, the “Automated Firearms System” (AFS) allows peace officers to instantaneously determine if someone legally purchased a handgun in California by entering their name and birthdate into any police terminal. (As of this year perpetual, centralized records of long gun transfers will also be kept.) Had the sheriff’s dispatcher or one of the deputies bothered to check, they would have immediately discovered that Mr. Rodger had been amassing pistols since turning 21, the minimum legal age for buying a handgun.

     Now comes some informed speculation. To someone who spent his career in law enforcement, it seems inconceivable that an officer who knew that Mr. Rodger had bought three handguns in quick succession would not press his inquiries and ask to see the weapons, and if told “no” to cajole and insist, in the way that cops do every day when dealing with recalcitrant citizens. This, as we know, didn’t happen, as neither the dispatcher nor the responding officers had checked to see whether Mr. Rodger had guns.

     This failure to do some very basic fact-gathering is plainly obvious to any law enforcement professional. One assumes that in the future sheriff’s dispatchers will run AFS checks so that deputies are properly informed. Yet Sheriff Brown’s comments are not reassuring. True enough, dealing with the mentally ill is not simple. And no one wants cops to overstep. But when the sheriff of Santa Barbara County puts off his officers’ failure to act to the complexities of the factual and legal environment, he is being disingenuous. Street cops are not unfamiliar with the mentally ill, and fully expect them to dissemble. Any reasonably competent officer who knew that Rodger had a small arsenal would have been legally justified to press his inquiries beyond the front steps, and would have felt morally compelled to do so. Even if Mr. Rodger didn’t cooperate, minimal investigation would have yielded plenty of cause (among other things, ominous YouTube postings) to search his apartment and detain him for mental evaluation.

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     Now, days after the tragedy, with calls for more tightly regulating gun sales, lowering the legal threshold of dangerousness, and even creating mental health teams to respond with deputies, it seems that the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department has artfully sidestepped the real culprit: shoddy policing. As cops well know, in the real world of limited time and resources there is no substitute for doing a quality job. When a chief law enforcement officer deflects blame by attributing a preventable tragedy to the supposedly greater flaws of the system, he’s essentially given up. Hopefully his subordinates won’t follow suit.

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