Posted 5/16/22


Pretending to regulate has consequences

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. “He didn’t stand out — because if he did, I would’ve never sold him the gun.” That’s what the Endicott, New York gun dealer said about the youth who bought a rifle at his store in January.

     It wasn’t an ordinary rifle. After passing the required background check, Payton Gendron, 18, walked out with a Bushmaster XM-15, an AR-15 style assault weapon that fires the .223 caliber cartridge. As we’ve often pointed out, these immensely powerful projectiles can inflict fatal wounds nearly anywhere they strike (“Going Ballistic”). Some States, including California and New York, have enacted so-called “assault weapons bans” that supposedly tone things down. These “solutions” are ridiculously half-hearted. For example, to limit ammunition capacity, New York laws restrict the XM-15 and its brethren to fixed, ten-round ammunition magazines. But as the dealer pointed out, “any gun can be easily modified if you really want to do it.” And that’s what Gendron reportedly did, obtaining a kit by mail-order that, after a bit of installation, allowed the weapon to accept removable, high-capacity magazines, thus turning it back into a true implement of war.

     Gendron resided with his parents and siblings in Conklin, a southern New York town of about 5,000 residents. On Friday, May 13 he got in his car and made the two-hundred-plus mile drive to Buffalo. Along with the XM-15, he brought along a Savage rifle, which he got as a birthday gift from his parents two years earlier, and a shotgun. (We saw a photo of the birthday celebration, including the gun box, online.)

Click here for the complete collection of gun control essays

     On arrival Gendron promptly cased the store. He was back the next afternoon. Carrying the XM-15, Gendron exited his car and began firing. He shot four persons on his way into Tops, killing three. On entering he encountered the security guard, Aaron Salter, Jr., a retired Buffalo cop. Mr. Salter fired his handgun, but the bullet bounced off his assailant’s body armor. Gendron shot and killed Mr. Salter. He then went on to murder another six persons and wound two. When confronted by police Gendron put the gun to his head. But he ultimately surrendered.

     Gendron was inarguably consumed by racial animus. His many media posts included an online “manifesto” that espouses white supremacy, touts racist “replacement theory” and praises prior massacres. Having apparently long prepared for what he considered to be an inevitable event, Gendron set out his murderous intentions in stunning detail, from shooting the security guard whom he expected to run across to murdering Black shoppers. And as it turned out, all but two of the persons he shot were indeed Black.

     Gendron used a helmet-mounted camera to stream the slaughter on Twitch. Although the video was quickly taken down, copies wound up on Twitter. We’ve viewed the two-minute-plus clip. Far too grisly to post, it graphically depicts several shootings. Authorities announced that “positive identification of many of the victims has been delayed by the severity of their wounds.” And that the wounds were highly severe – that, after all, is what assault rifles are intended for – is clearly evident from the toll of ten dead and three wounded.

     So what’s the solution? As we mentioned in “A Stitch in Time,” early intervention is obviously essential. Many jurisdictions allow police and family members to seek judicial orders that direct troubled persons to give up their guns (“Red Flag” I and II). When issued, these prohibitions can be entered in databases that gun dealers must check before transferring firearms. Still, a qualified someone must take the initiative and expend the necessary time and effort to seek an order. And agreeable judge must be present on the other end. It’s an intensive process, and results aren’t guaranteed.

     It’s been suggested that monitoring social media could identify likely killers in advance (see, for example, “When a ‘Dope’ Can’t be ‘Roped’”). Of course, time is of the essence. And the sheer volume of postings can make for an overwhelming task. Artificial intelligence measures can supposedly help cull the wheat from the chaff. But using A.I. in an unfocused fashion raises serious concerns about privacy.

     Sometimes, though, we become aware of problematic individuals, such as the three characters profiled in “Preventing Mass Murder”, before they strike. While Gendron was much younger than Bowers, Sayoc or Beierle, like them he was not an ordinary sort. Described by a former classmate as “a little bit of an outcast,” Gendron turned up in “a full hazmat suit” when classes resumed post-pandemic. More significantly, as his high-school days came to an end, Gendron ran his mouth in a way that led teachers to call in the cops. On him.

     How did that come about? Students had been asked to discuss their post-graduation plans. There are several versions of what Gendron said when his turn came up. In one, he supposedly announced that he longed to commit a murder-suicide. In another, that “he wanted to do a shooting, either at a graduation ceremony, or sometime after.” Whether it was his personality, or his delivery, or (most likely) a combination of the two, Gendron’s comments didn’t come across as the “joke” he would later insist was intended. State troopers responded and took him in for an involuntary mental health evaluation.

     In your writer’s “career” as a student and, much later, as a college instructor, nothing like that ever happened. Not even close. But that assumedly rare event happened to Gendron. After spending a day and a half in the hospital, he was released. Best we can tell, nothing further was done, and he graduated on schedule. And about a year later he spent nearly a grand on his XM-15.

     We made our attitude about assault weapons quite clear in “Ban the Damned Things!” But it’s also “quite clear” that not even California, whose gun laws are supposedly the strictest in the nation, is ready to take these unusually lethal weapons out of circulation. Apparently, neither are the Feds. In fact, a Ninth Circuit panel recently ruled that California’s prohibition on the sale of semi-automatic rifles to persons under 21 violates the Second Amendment. So we simply keep pretending. Instead of addressing the underlying problem – the lethality of the projectiles fired by assault rifles – we place half-hearted limits on magazine capacity and prohibit hand grips and such. And when young men such as Gendron, and Nikolas Cruz (he murdered seventeen with an AR-15 type gun), and Adam Lanza (he murdered twenty-six with an AR-15 type gun), and Patrick Crusius (he killed twenty-three and wounded an equal number with an AK-style rifle) laugh at these “restrictions” and commit their unspeakable deeds, we shrug our shoulders and comment about the, um, “rarity” of the events.

Be sure to check out our homepage and sign up for our newsletter

     Neither Cruz nor Lanza were supposedly motivated by race. Crusius, though, had posted extensive hateful racial comments online (his scorn was directed at Mexican immigrants.) All three clearly suffered from severe psychological problems. According to his lawyers, Crusius, who still awaits trial, had been mentally disabled throughout high school. Still, none of these characters were ever involuntarily committed. Just like Gendron, each remained legally qualified to buy and possess guns. Crusius and Cruz reportedly bought theirs at retail (Lanza used his mother’s rifle.)

     We suspect that in the end, Gendron’s obsession about race – and, likely, Crusius’ – will be understood not necessarily as the cause of the massacres but as a reflection of the shooters’ deep-seated mental problems. That’s not to excuse their murderous acts but to highlight the immense difficulty of effectively regulating the acquisition and possession of firearms, let alone assault rifles. As long as we continue to allow these highly lethal weapons to be sold, ill-intentioned persons will continue to acquire and misuse them. It’s guaranteed.

UPDATES (scroll)

6/25/22  Passed in the wake of recent massacres, the “Bipartisan Safer Communities Act” was signed into law. It enhances background checks to include juvenile records, helps fund State “Red Flag Laws” and mental health programs, includes “boyfriends” in the definition of domestic partners who may be barred from having guns, and specifically prohibits “straw” purchases (i.e. buying guns on behalf of unqualified persons). It does not create waiting periods or ban assault weapons.

6/21/22  New York thought it had a “better idea” when it responded to the Buffalo massacre with a law that banned sale of “bullet-resistant soft body armor” to ordinary citizens. Problem is, the most bullet-resistant armor isn’t “soft” - it  contains hard plates that can stop high-energy projectiles such as those fired by assault rifles. They’re apparently still OK. So is bringing in the banned kind from other States. Legislators protested that they were working hurriedly. “We’ll try to make this law better.”

6/13/22  Three dead and four wounded. That’s the toll from an early morning “party” where a well-known rapper had performed for a gathering of teens. It happened in Los Angeles’ fraught Boyle Heights district. Neighbors, who said police had been called about prior “parties” at the same place, report hearing two bursts of gunfire. But “who is a suspect and who is a victim” is as yet unknown.

6/13/22  Impulse control is a function of the prefrontal cortex, which isn’t fully developed until one’s mid-twenties. But eighteen-year olds can buy rifles. Some academics suggest that young men who feel “emasculated,” who have been “bullied, or ignored, or didn’t have the dating life or popularity they wanted” may turn to mass shootings as a way to act out their frustrations with a “masculine” solution. Seven States have raised the purchase age for semi-auto rifles to 21, same as for handguns, and the House recently passed a Federal measure to that effect. But its prospects in the Senate seem poor.

6/6/22  Another weekend of violence beset America. Early Saturday, a shooting in a Phoenix strip mall killed a 14-year old girl and wounded eight others. That evening several shooters fired into a crowd in a downtown Philadelphia entertainment area, leaving three dead and eleven wounded. Multiple shooters opened fire early Sunday morning outside a Chattanooga nightclub. Three persons were killed and fourteen were wounded; three others were struck by vehicles while fleeing. And about the same time, a shooting in Saginaw (MI) killed three and wounded two.

Erie County fired the Buffalo 9-1-1 dispatcher who reportedly hung up on a Tops employee during the massacre because the caller’s hushed tone made her difficult to hear, and she refused to speak more loudly. Dispatcher Sheila Ayers claims there is more than “one side of the story” and accused the employee, an assistant office manager, of changing her account “multiple times.” (See 5/20 update.)

6/3/22  In a major address, President Joe Biden argued for the restoration of the lapsed Federal assault weapons ban. He also pressed the House to pass a bill that would raise the minimum age to buy “assault-style” weapons to twenty-one. An approved House measure, which is thought to have a poor chance in the Senate, requires that buyers of semi-automatic weapons be twenty-one. But the Senate seems more disposed to help States bolster school security and mental health and implement “Red Flag” laws.

6/2/22  Two doctors, an assistant and a patient were shot and killed at a Tulsa medical complex by a gunman armed with an AR-15 style rifle and a .40 caliber pistol. Michael Louis, 45, a resident of Muskogee, was apparently enraged that recent back surgery had left him in pain. He had bought both weapons legally; the rifle, on the same day as his rampage. Louis committed suicide.

6/1/22  According to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines mass shootings as those where four or more persons other than the shooter are wounded or killed, there were fifteen mass shootings in twelve States during the 2022 Memorial Day weekend (May 28-30) leaving nine dead and 73 wounded. Ten were wounded in a single incident in downtown Charleston (SC), where a police officer was injured by glass fragments when rounds shattered his car’s windows. There were eight mass shootings during the Memorial day weekend in 2021, with eight dead and 46 wounded, and thirteen in 2020, with nine dead and 55 wounded.

5/28/22  “It was the wrong decision, period.” That’s how Texas DPS Director Steven C. McCraw feels about what turned out to be an hour-long delay before officers stormed the gunman who massacred nineteen students and two teachers at an Uvalde elementary school. His sentiments were seconded by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who was “absolutely livid” after hearing accounts of children who called 9-1-1 begging for police to respond. Yet two of the first officers on scene had been grazed by the shooter’s bullets, which pierced a door and struck them in the hallway.

5/27/22  Uvalde (TX) police are being criticized for failing to persistently confront Salvador Ramos after he began his rampage at Robb Elementary school. Ramos, who was carrying a rifle and a bag of ammunition, fired at two bystanders as he walked to the school. He climbed a fence, fired more rounds, and entered the building through an unlocked door. Less than five minutes later several police officers arrived and went inside. Ramos opened fire and they backed off. Officers then focused on evacuating students. A half-hour later tactical teams went in and exchanged fire with Ramos, killing him.

In two recent mass killings - one at a Buffalo market, the other in a Texas elementary school - the shooters used “Gen Z” apps, including Snapchat, Instagram, Discord, Yubo and Twitch to communicate and share their intentions. These platforms are designed from the ground up for privacy, and messages and images exchanged within their boundaries can prove impossible for outsiders to monitor.

5/26/22  An “active shooter” is defined as “one or more individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.” The FBI’s 2021 “Active Shooter Incidents” report indicates there were 61 such incidents in 2021, with 103 persons killed and 140 wounded other than the shooter. The toll was the highest in five years and up sharply from 2020, when there were forty shootings, causing 38 deaths and leaving 126 wounded. Twelve incidents in 2021 and five in 2020 met the “mass killing” definition, meaning three or more deaths other than the shooter.

5/25/22  On May 24, in Uvalde, Texas, Salvador Ramos, 18, shot and wounded his grandmother. He then walked into an elementary school with an AR-15 style rifle and opened fire, killing nineteen students and two teachers. Ramos was shot dead by police. He  legally purchased two assault-style rifles and a supply of ammunition days earlier, shortly after turning eighteen. Described as a troubled youth, Ramos had reportedly posted photos of his guns online and a suggestion that “kids should watch out.”

5/20/22  A Buffalo 9-1-1 dispatcher with eight years experience has been suspended and faces termination for reportedly hanging up on one of the TOPS employees who called in during the massacre. An assistant office manager said her voice was hushed because she feared being overheard by the shooter. But the dispatcher insisted she speak up, then hung up when she didn’t.  “...Out of nervousness, my phone fell out of my hand, she said something I couldn’t make out, and then the phone hung up.”

5/19/22  In response to the Buffalo massacre, New York Governor Kathy Hochul issued an executive order directing that State Police seek an extreme risk protection order barring persons from gun possession “when there is probable cause to believe the respondent is likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to himself, herself, or others.” She also directed that State Police form a counterterrorism team that would, among other things, analyze social media posts for potential threats.

5/18/22  Payton Gendron was friendless and lonely in high school. Other students thought him “socially awkward and nerdy” and avoided him. He didn’t talk much, and when he did “it was about isolation, rejection and desperation.” Gendron learned his racist views online. He became consumed with computer games and was fascinated by guns. He struggled to keep his parents unaware that he had dropped out of college, had bought guns and was readying an attack. And a half-hour before it began, he invited other Discord users into his chat room to view his plans, and to watch. Apparently, fifteen did.

David Wenwei Chou, 68, opened fire with two handguns during a banquet of Taiwanese parishioners at a Laguna Woods, Calif. church on May 15, killing one person and wounding five. Although he said he did it because of anger at Taiwan, Chou was a deeply troubled person. His wife had left him and moved away. Impoverished and unable to pay rent, he had been evicted from his apartment. New tenants found “horrible pictures” of Chou posing with a gun, including one at a memorial to a mass shooting. “I just don’t care about my life anymore” he said. A beating he suffered years earlier had also left its toll.

5/17/22   Buffalo shooter Payton Gendron began posting his plans and intentions in November 2021 on Discord, an online chat application. His screen name was Jimboboiii. One message explained that he avoided losing his gun rights after being taken in for the mental health check by insisting that his “murder-suicide” comment was a joke. But it wasn’t - “I wrote that down because that’s what I was planning to do.” Gendron also wrote that he made an advance visit to Tops to check it out and had a “close call” with the guard, who became suspicious about his multiple entrances and exits to the store.

An NIJ study of 172 mass shooters between 1966-2019 reveals that most were deeply troubled persons and often in “a state of crisis” when they committed their acts. Most were employees or students of the institutions they targeted, used lawfully purchased handguns, and “engaged in leaking their plans before opening fire.” NIJ’s data source was the Violence Project database of mass shootings.

Did you enjoy this post?  Be sure to explore the homepage and topical index!

Home   Top   Permalink     Print/Save     Feedback     


Washington Post op-ed about ballistics


Gun Massacres special topic

Cops v. Assault Weapons     When a Dope Can’t be Roped     Going Ballistic     Preventing Mass Murder

Ban the Damned Things!     Red Flag (I)  (II)     Again, Kids Die     Massacre Control

A Ban in Name Only     A Stitch in Time     A Matter of Life and Death     Say Something

Disturbed Person+Gun=Killer; Disturbed Person+Assault Rifle=Mass Murderer