On the Shooting of Laquan McDonald

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

I was vaguely aware that the Chicago police had shot a black teenager last year and hadn’t released the video.

Nothing at all happens until five minutes in, when the car arrives at the scene:

Eric Raymond talks us through the shooting of Laquan McDonald:

The key portion of the video starts at about 5:19. The blade is visible in McDonald’s right hand; he draws it and brandishes it at 5:25 while facing slightly to the right of a police car that has him in its headlights. At 5:30 you can see that an officer has lined up a pistol on him.

At 5:32 he begins to turn towards the officers. One shoots immediately; he spins and goes down. At that point the officers go out of frame, but we can see at least one dust puff from an incoming bullet at 5:35. We see him either trying to get up off the ground at 5:36 or having a convulsion that simulates the motion; his head and shoulders rise slightly. As late as 5:38 his hands seem to be still moving.

We know from the autopsy that two bullets hit him when he was up and another 14 when he was down (or 15; accounts are inconsistent, and some may be counting at least one round that clearly missed and caused the dust puff).

Now let’s consider this from the responder’s point of view.

The first thing to be clear on is that McDonald was behaving in a crazily aggressive way when he died. You don’t pull a knife and brandish it in the presence of two cop cars if you’re thinking at all sanely.

If I had been a cop on the scene I would immediately have thought “angel dust”, and in fact the autopsy revealed that McDonald was high on PCP. This drug induces violence, freak strength, and insensitivity to pain.

This is a situation that amply justifies drawing a weapon and preparing to shoot. From the video, McDonald was well inside the 21-foot close-engagement limit – he could have rushed an officer with that knife before the officer could draw on him and trust me that this is not a chance to take with someone you suspect might be on PCP.

If you are any of the cops you are going to be adrenaline-dumping by now. This is a dangerous situation even with your gun drawn; the thug could charge you, take several bullets and still stab you fatally before he goes down. It’s happened often enough before.

Now, he angles slightly away from the group of cops, but they have to be thinking that if he shows any sign of charging they must shoot before he kills them.

I want to impress on my readers that this was a completely justified reaction. Everything the police have visibly done up to this point is textbook procedure for this situation, including what happens next: he turns towards them and Van Dyke, the cop now charged with murder, shoots.

We are still in unquestionable legal and ethical territory until McDonald goes down. What the police have done so far – those first two bullets – is correct.

The next correct thing to do would have been to stop firing for long enough to assess whether McDonald was still a threat. One way this could have gone is: Van Dyke stops shooting, McDonald levers himself off the ground, Van Dyke resumes shooting until McDonald is down again. That would still have been a “good shoot” for which Van Dyke would be neither legally nor morally culpable.

But that does not appear to be what happened. It appears that Van Dyke kept firing continuously at McDonald on the ground.


On the plain evidence of this video, what we have here is a criminally negligent homicide; manslaughter or possibly second-degree murder.

And if it is true that other cops conspired to cover it up, they should be prosecuted too. I can understand their reasoning – why let a cop who made a simple mistake under stress be ruined by the death of a drug-addict lowlife with a knife in his hand? But it was still wrong, because that habit of blue omerta covers up too much.

The Unintended Consequences of Recording the Police

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

Greg Ellifritz discusses the unintended consequences of recording the police:

As citizens record officers with increasing frequency, what do you think the officers are likely to do?  If there’s a high probability that no matter what an officer does (good or bad) will end up on YouTube in a video critical of police, cops will simply stop working.  You see, cops are rarely disciplined for NOT doing something.  They get in trouble when they ACT, particularly when the action the officer takes turns out badly or has some undesirable political ramifications.  The easiest way to prevent that is for the officer to stop doing ANYTHING that has the potential of being videotaped.  The officer can drive slowly to calls of violence in progress (claiming that he would be putting the public at risk if he drove any faster), arriving just in time to write a stellar report without catching the criminal or stopping the crime in progress.  People don’t videotape cops writing reports.  That’s not exciting.  It’s when the cops are interacting with criminals that the cell phones come out.  A simple solution to avoid being taped would be to AVOID INTERACTING WITH CRIMINALS.  How do you think that would affect long term crime statistics?  Would it be a net positive or net negative for society if cops stopped arresting people breaking the law?

Since it’s obvious that a crime in progress isn’t the only thing that will cause people to break out the cameras, cops will start avoiding interactions with citizens as well. I could have easily driven past the man flagging me down for help. If I was ever questioned about it by supervisors (unlikely), I could always claim that I didn’t see the man or that I was trying to catch up to a traffic violator. I could claim I was en route to another more important call. There could be any number of valid reasons why I didn’t stop for help.

Driving past a person flagging me down for help would ensure that I don’t get videotaped. Avoiding all citizen contact would ensure that my face doesn’t end up on YouTube. I could sit all day in a parking lot doing nothing and virtually ensure that I don’t get taped. The worst thing that would happen is that I might get some kind of reprimand for lack of “productivity.” A written reprimand is a far better option than having my face on a negative YouTube video that goes viral.

So if cops stop arresting criminals and go out of their way to avoid having any type of contact with citizens, would society be a better place? If the goal of the folks with the video cameras is social reform, that’s what they’ll get. But the reform that will happen won’t be a positive one. That makes me think that maybe these folks filming the cops don’t really want social reform. Maybe they want a world where criminals go unchallenged. Maybe they place their own fame and notoriety above the goal of living in a better society. If personal notoriety and unchecked criminal aggression is your goal, then by all means keep filming cops who are loaning their cell phones to stranded construction workers.

The truly sad aspect of where this is heading is the long term effect that it will have on the ability to hire quality police candidates. If I was a conscientious and intelligent person, why would I even consider being a police officer as a career when I know that whatever I do, good or bad, will end up on a video sharing site with a negative spin? Why go through the hassle? Quality candidates will have better career options that don’t involve their unintended starring role in the next viral video.

How Gun Traffickers Get Around State Gun Laws

Saturday, November 14th, 2015

The New York Times is shocked — shocked! —  that gun traffickers get around state gun laws by buying guns one state over — and get around federal laws by not buying them legally at all:

Many guns follow a complex path from the original sale to the underground market. Most guns are originally bought from retail stores, but people who can’t pass a background check typically obtain guns from friends, family or illegal dealers.

According to an anonymous survey of inmates in Cook County, Ill., covering 135 guns they had access to, only two had been purchased directly from a gun store. Many inmates reported obtaining guns from friends who had bought them legally and then reported them stolen, or from locals who had brought the guns from out of state.

A Kind of Security Blanket

Saturday, October 31st, 2015

The strongest clue that someone is planning a mass killing, Randall Collins argues, is a ritualized hidden arsenal:

Most of the characteristics of mass killers — low status isolates, bully victims, school failures, gun owners, players of violent games, even persons who talk or write about fantasies of revenge — are far too widespread in the population to accurately predict who will actually perpetrate a massacre. A much stronger clue, I suggest, is amassing an arsenal of weapons, which become the center of an obsessive ritual; the arsenal is not just a practical step towards the massacre, but has a motivating effect that deepens the spiral of clandestine plotting into a private world impervious to normal social restraints and moral feelings.

School shooters and other rampage killers generally amass an arsenal of weapons, bringing far more to the shooting site than they actually use or need. Michael Carneal brought a total of 8 guns, wrapped up in a unwieldy bundle as well as in his backpack: a 30-30 rifle, four .22 caliber rifles, 2 shotguns, and a pistol, and a many boxes of ammunition; but he used only the pistol. The pair of 11- and 13-year old boys who killed 5 and wounded 10 on a school playground in Jonesboro, Arkansas in 1998 carried 7 pistols, 3 rifles, and a large amount of ammunition, of which they fired 30 shots.

The two shooters at Columbine HS carried a semi-automatic handgun, a carbine, two sawed-off shotguns, and almost 100 home-made bombs; they fired 96 shots from the carbine, 55 from the handgun, and 25 from one of the shotguns; their magazines held 240 rounds, of which they still had about 100 rounds, plus 90 of the bombs, when they committed suicide. In the first 20 minutes of their rampage, they killed 13 students and teachers and wounded 21. Then their emotional energy seemed to run out — they even laughed sardonically that the thrill of killing was gone. They left 34 students unharmed out of 56 who were hiding under desks in the school library, and merely taunted other students while they wandered the halls firing aimless shots, before shooting themselves 25 minutes later, synchronizing their last action with a chant: “One, two, three!”

Holmes, the Aurora killer, carried a shotgun, an automated assault rifle, and 2 handguns; previously he spent 4 months amassing equipment in his apartment, including multiple ammunition magazines and 6000 rounds, of which he used only a small part. He also constructed 30 explosives out of aerial fireworks, refilling them with chemicals, a task that must have taken many days.

Brievik had 4 guns, 2 of which he took to the island. He spent two years acquiring the weapons, since guns are hard to get in Europe, and Norwegian regulations are strict. Nevertheless he persevered through the official steps for a hunting license and undergoing training at a police-approved shooting club to get a pistol permit. To create a massive car bomb (which he used in the first phase of his attack, at a government building in Oslo), he spent several years acquiring a remote farm as a front for buying fertilizer and chemicals. He was busy in his hidden backstage, video-game training, writing propaganda, and making a fake police uniform and identification. On the island, he used his police persona to assemble the youths, ostensibly to announce precautions, before starting to shoot them at close range. He brought over 400 rounds with him, fired 186, and still had over half remaining after fatally shooting 67 persons and wounding 33. He too seemed to waver towards the end of his 70-minute shooting spree, making several phone calls offering to give himself up (at 40 minutes and 60 minutes), but then resuming shooting until the police finally arrived.

The stockpile of weapons is symbolic overkill. These guns are for showing off — both to intimidate others, but mainly to impress oneself. They are the sacred objects of the private backstage cult that builds up the rampager’s obsessive motivation to the massacre. Once at the sticking point their emotional energy never seems to carry them far enough to use all their weapons. Whether they bring all their weapons to the massacre or not, their primary significance has been during the build-up; i.e. the guns they bring are from the focus of their cult activities — they are a kind of security blanket.

To be clear about the diagnosis: I am not saying that anyone who collects guns is a potential mass killer. The crucial signs are: first, the guns are kept secret, part of a deep backstage. In contrast, most gun owners are quite open about them; they may be involved in a cult of guns but it is a public cult, visible as a political stance, or a well-advertized pastime such as hunting or target shooting. (Abigail Kohn, Shooters: Myths and Realities of America’s Gun Cultures.) It is the hidden arsenal that is dangerous — psychologically dangerous. Second, the rampage killer amasses a large, unrealistic collection of weapons as far as their actual use is concerned. This symbolic aspect sets them off from other kinds of criminal users of guns.

On the Spring Valley High Incident

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

Education Realist shares his thoughs on the Spring Valley High incident:

So the Spring Valley High School incident is yet another case of a teenager treating a cop like a teacher. This is, as always, a terrible idea.


Reports say that the student initiated the event by refusing to turn over a cell phone — also offered up is refusal to stop chewing gum, which I find unlikely. However, it’s clear the student was refusing several direct orders that began with the teacher and moved up through the administrator and the cop.

Defiance is a big deal in high school. It must not be tolerated. Tolerating open defiance is what leads to hopelessness, to out of control classrooms, to kids wandering around the halls, to screaming fights on a routine basis. Some teachers care about dress code, others about swearing, still others get bothered by tardies. But most teachers enforce, and most administrators support, a strong, absolute bulwark against outright defiance as an essential discipline element.

Let me put it this way: an angry student tells me to f*** off or worse, I’m likely to shrug it off if peace is restored. Get an apology later when things have settled. But if that student refuses to hand me a cell phone, or change seats, or put food away, I tell him he’ll be removed from class if he doesn’t comply. No compliance, I call the supervisor and have the kid removed. Instantly. Not something I spend more than 30 seconds of class time on, including writing up a referral.

At that point, the student will occasionally leave the classroom without waiting for the supervisor, which changes the charge from “defiance” to “leaving class without permission”. The rest of the time the supervisor comes, the kid leaves, comes back the next day, and next time I tell them to do something, they do it. Overwhelmingly, though, the kids just hand me the phone, put away the food, change seatswhen I ask, every so often pleading for a second chance which every so often I give. Otherwise, the incident is over. Just today I had three phones in my pocket for just one class, and four lunches on the table that had to wait until advisory was over because I don’t like eating in my classroom.

We have a school resource officer (SRO), but I’d call a supervisor for defiance, and I’ve never heard of a kid refusing to go with a supervisor. If there was a refusal, at a certain point the supervisor would call an administrator, and it’s conceivable, I guess, that the administrator could authorize the SRO to step in. So assuming I couldn’t have talked this student down, I would have done what the teacher did, and called for someone else to take over — and long after I did something that should have been no big deal, this catastrophe could conceivably have happened.

I ask you, readers, to consider the recalcitrance required to defy three or four levels of authority, to hold up a class for at least 10-15 minutes, to refuse even to leave the classroom to discuss whatever outrage the student feels warrants this level of disruption.

Then I ask you to consider what would happen if students constantly defied orders (couched as requests, of course) to turn over a cell phone, or change seats, or stop combing their hair, or put the food away. If every time a student defied an order, a long drawn-out battle going through three levels of authority ensued. School would rapidly become unmanageable.

So you have two choices at that point: let madness prevail, or be unflinching with open defiance. Students have to understand that defiance is worse than compliance, that once defiance has occurred, complying with a supervisor is a step up from being turned over to an administrator, which is way, way better than being turned over to a cop. (Note that all of this assumes that the parents aren’t a fear factor.)

Some schools can’t avoid the insanity. Their students simply don’t fear the outcomes enough, and unlike charters, they are bound by federal and state laws to educate all children. If the schools suspend too many kids, the feds will come in and force you into a voluntary agreement. This is when desperate times lead to desperate measures like restorative justice, where each incident leads to an endless yammer about feeeeeeeeelings as teachers play therapist and tell their kids to circle up.

A Slow-Motion, Ever-Evolving Riot

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

Perhaps we should see the school-shooting epidemic as a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot:

What explains a person or a group of people doing things that seem at odds with who they are or what they think is right? Granovetter took riots as one of his main examples, because a riot is a case of destructive violence that involves a great number of otherwise quite normal people who would not usually be disposed to violence.

Most previous explanations had focussed on explaining how someone’s beliefs might be altered in the moment. An early theory was that a crowd cast a kind of intoxicating spell over its participants. Then the argument shifted to the idea that rioters might be rational actors: maybe at the moment a riot was beginning people changed their beliefs. They saw what was at stake and recalculated their estimations of the costs and benefits of taking part.

But Granovetter thought it was a mistake to focus on the decision-making processes of each rioter in isolation. In his view, a riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds — which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them. In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero — instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that — and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.

Granovetter was most taken by the situations in which people did things for social reasons that went against everything they believed as individuals. “Most did not think it ‘right’ to commit illegal acts or even particularly want to do so,” he wrote, about the findings of a study of delinquent boys. “But group interaction was such that none could admit this without loss of status; in our terms, their threshold for stealing cars is low because daring masculine acts bring status, and reluctance to join, once others have, carries the high cost of being labeled a sissy.” You can’t just look at an individual’s norms and motives. You need to look at the group.

His argument has a second implication. We misleadingly use the word “copycat” to describe contagious behavior — implying that new participants in an epidemic act in a manner identical to the source of their infection. But rioters are not homogeneous. If a riot evolves as it spreads, starting with the hotheaded rock thrower and ending with the upstanding citizen, then rioters are a profoundly heterogeneous group.

Finally, Granovetter’s model suggests that riots are sometimes more than spontaneous outbursts. If they evolve, it means they have depth and length and a history. Granovetter thought that the threshold hypothesis could be used to describe everything from elections to strikes, and even matters as prosaic as how people decide it’s time to leave a party. He was writing in 1978, long before teen-age boys made a habit of wandering through their high schools with assault rifles. But what if the way to explain the school-shooting epidemic is to go back and use the Granovetterian model — to think of it as a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot, in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before?


But the riot has now engulfed the boys who were once content to play with chemistry sets in the basement. The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.

South Carolina Toddler Shoots Grandmother in Car

Monday, October 26th, 2015

A two-year-old South Carolina boy found a gun in the car he was riding in and shot his grandmother in the back:

According to police, officers were called to the 1100-block of Stanley Drive Sunday afternoon around 1:24 p.m.

Officers met with a woman who says she picked up her great-nephew and was driving him around, with his grandmother in the passenger seat.

While she was driving, the young boy found a .357 revolver in the pouch on the back of the passenger seat. He then accidentally shot his 40-year-old grandmother through the passenger seat.


“It was in a pouch behind the passenger seat, somehow the child reached in and got ahold of it, that’s something our detectives are working on today,” Bollinger said.

Who would leave a loaded revolver in the pouch behind the passenger seat? With a little boy back there?

I don’t know, but I will note that the 40-year-old grandmother was in the passenger seat of an orange Camaro — and the two-year-old, in the moving car, apparently was not in a car seat, or belted-in, for that matter. Hmm…

Naturally Boing Boing illustrates the problem of toddlers shooting people with photos of middle-class white children receiving responsible gun-safety training, like this girl holding an airsoft pistol, with her finger off the trigger:

A man shows a girl how to hold an airsoft gun during the NRA Youth Day at the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Houston, Texas

A Not-So-Skeptical Look at Gun Control

Monday, October 19th, 2015

Michael Shermer drops his usual skepticism to argue that we’re better at killing Americans than our enemies are:

If your gut tells you that mass public shootings are alarmingly common, your gut’s right.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines a mass murder as four or more deaths during a single incident with no distinct time period between killings. By this definition, according to Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, between 1980 and 2010 there were an average of 20 mass murders per year, or an average of one every 2.6 weeks.

I would expect a skeptic to point out that those are really small numbers in a population of over 300 million, with 15,000 homicides per year.

If we could easily stop the hundred or so deaths per year by previously law-abiding young men who are legally sane but alienated, that would be wonderful, but that leaves the other 99.3 percent of homicides by common criminals.

This is the least skeptical argument though:

In other words, the fantasy many of us have of facing down an intruder with a firearm is belied by the fact that a gun is 22 times more likely to be used in a criminal assault, an accidental death or injury, a suicide attempt or a homicide than it is for self-defense.

Guns aren’t randomly sprinkled amongst the population. They’re owned, illegally, by common criminals, they’re bought by suicidal men, and they’re owned by a third of ordinary Americans — who range from extremely conscientious to extremely negligent, with most in between.

Gun ownership isn’t the cause of gun-homicides, gun-suicides, or gun-accidents, and buying a gun does not mean that the gun is likely to be used in a criminal assault, etc. It depends on who is buying the gun and what the buyer’s intentions are.

For most owners, a gun has a negligible chance of going on to be a part of a homicide, suicide, or accidental death.

In the other direction, is a firearm useful for self-defense? Not if you accept Shermer’s straw man:

If you own a gun and keep it safely locked up and unloaded with the ammunition somewhere else (recommended by gun safety experts), do you really think that, in the event of a break-in, you could get to your gun, find your ammo and load it, engage the intruder, accurately aim and kill him, all before he takes your things? If you do, you’ve been watching too many movies. Go to a firing range and try shooting a handgun. It isn’t easy to do. It requires regular training.

If a gun is going to be out of your control, you keep it unloaded, etc. If it is going to be in your control — say, in your holster — you keep it loaded. If it’s going to be somewhere in between — say, on your nightstand — you can keep in an in-between state of readiness — say, unloaded, but with a loaded magazine in reach, or in a quick-opening safe.

A well-practiced shooter can load a magazine and be ready to shoot in a couple seconds.

Shooting a handgun quickly and accurately does take practice — and tens of thousands of shooters do practice regularly. But even “naive” shooters can shoot quickly and accurately across a room.

I’m appalled by the inverted skepticism of this claim:

A 2009 study corroborated these findings. Conducted by epidemiologists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and published in the American Journal of Public Health, it found that, on average, people with a gun are 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not possessing a gun.

Perhaps people who are likely to be shot in an assault choose to go get a gun?

Not Held in High Esteem

Saturday, October 17th, 2015

The Kenyan authorities are not held in high esteem:

News of the [Westgate mall] assault was beginning to spread via frantic phones calls, texts, and WhatsApp messages. Westgate is in the heart of a Kenyan-Indian part of the city, and the close-knit community there knew better than to rely on the authorities to send help. Instead, the call went out to the community’s own licensed gun holders, who were organized into self-appointed armed neighborhood watch units.

Harish Patel, a member of an outfit calling itself the Krisna Squad, was returning home from a morning spent volunteering at the nearby Hindu crematorium when he received a distress call: There was a robbery at the Nakumatt store in Westgate, with shooting going on. A couple of minutes later, the 43-year-old was within sight of the mall. He patted the pistol he wore on his hip and grabbed the spare magazine he kept in his car.

On the western side of town, Abdul Haji was in a business meeting at the Yaya Centre, another Nairobi shopping mall. The 38-year-old bitumen trader was sipping an Americano when his white iPhone chirruped. It was a text message from his brother: “Trapped in Westgate. Terrorist attack. Pray for me.”

Abdul abandoned the business meeting and rushed to his silver SUV in the basement. As he sped toward Westgate, swerving around cars and over sidewalks to cut through the traffic, he ran through a mental checklist: He had his gun, as always, a Ceska 9mm, but no spare magazine and no body armor.

He reached Westgate minutes after Nura and Harish.


When Abdul, an ethnic-Somali Kenyan who is Muslim, arrived carrying a pistol, Harish got in his face, shouting. Abdul pulled out his gun license ID and calmed Harish down.

Nura was the first to go up the ramp toward the rooftop car park, spurred on by shame at the cowardice of his police colleagues rather than the desire to be a hero. The carnage in the car park was horrifying. There was a mess of bodies in the corner, more scattered beneath the open-sided marquees, and still others poked out from beneath and between cars. Nura thought he was spearheading a rescue mission, but all he could see were bodies and blood. It looked like a slaughterhouse. Nura noticed some movement and stopped, suddenly realizing how he must appear: an ethic-Somali man in civilian clothes, clutching an AK-47. “I am the police,” he shouted in English. “I’m the good guy!”


The crowd outside Westgate was growing, but with no sign of any official or organized security response. Instead, an ad hoc volunteer rescue mission had begun to take shape, comprising a motley crew of uniformed, plainclothes, and off-duty police and licensed civilian gun holders. From the rooftop car park, they could hear shooting inside and could tell it was not coming from the mall’s upper levels. Nura led the way with Abdul and Harish and two plainclothes armed officers: two Muslims, a Hindu, and two Christians. All Kenyans.

Imagine driving to the scene of a terrorist attack, armed with a pistol, against AKs and grenades. No thank you.

By the way, I mentioned that the authorities aren’t held in high esteem:

Most of the at least 67 people who were killed at Westgate died in the first hour of the attack, before any rescue effort had even begun. Kenyan security forces did not launch their operation until 4:00 p.m., by which time it was already too late: Most of those who would escape had already escaped; most of those who would be wounded had already been struck; and most of those who would die were already dead. It is likely that many of the victims bled to death in the slow hours between the start of the attack and the arrival of help.

A special police unit trained in counterterrorism operations, known as the Recce Squad, eventually entered from the rooftop car park. Kenyan soldiers entered from the ground floor. Neither group was in communication with the other. Soon afterwards, there was a shootout on the first floor between the Recce Squad and the soldiers, in which the police unit’s commander was killed and another two officers were wounded. The remaining Recce Squad members pulled out of the operation in disgust, and the army, too, withdrew.

After the friendly fire incident, Westgate became a military operation. Armored personnel carriers with heavy machine guns patrolled in front of the mall; soldiers with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades moved in and out; and sporadic gunfire and explosions echoed from within. On Sunday, Kenya’s interior minister claimed that there were as many as 15 attackers and that the siege was ongoing. By that time, however, the mall was mostly under the army’s control. On Monday, a rocket fired by the Kenyan army collapsed the back of the mall, dropping the rooftop car park into the basement, pancaking the room where the terrorists had taken shelter and throwing a thick plume of smoke into the Nairobi sky. The fire burned for days. Parked cars with full fuel tanks fell into the gaping hole and exploded like bombs.


Before and after blowing up the mall, the Kenyan army looted shops, broke open safes, and emptied tills. The looting was captured on closed-circuit television cameras and reported by business owners after they returned to the mall and found their shops ransacked and stock missing. A public inquiry into the disastrously ineffective security response was promised but never delivered. Somehow, Kenya’s interior minister managed to cling to his job for another 15 months. The army chief retired this spring, with full honors.

Welcome to Kenya!

Probably Just a Robbery

Friday, October 16th, 2015

When the Westgate mall attack kicked off, a fruit and vegetable supplier tried to get people to flee:

Looking over the balustrade and down into the atrium, Sandeep saw people running. He dropped his shopping and joined others rushing for the exit. “Move out! Move out! We’re under attack!” he shouted as he raced for the door. Sandeep made straight for the children’s cookery competition, shouting at people to run. One of the organizers told him to calm down, saying it was probably just a robbery and would be over soon.

So, with grenades exploding, AKs firing, and people screaming, there’s no need to run away, because it’s probably just a robbery? Welcome to Kenya?

What really happened at Kenya’s Westgate Mall

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

Tristan McConnell explains what really happened at Kenya’s Westgate Mall two years ago:

Far from a dramatic three-day standoff, the assault on the Westgate Mall lasted only a few hours, almost all of it taking place before Kenyan security forces even entered the building. When they finally did, it was only to shoot at one another before going on an armed looting spree that resulted in the collapse of the rear of the building, destroyed with a rocket-propelled grenade. And there were only four gunmen, all of whom were buried in the rubble, along with much of the forensic evidence.

During the roughly three-and-a-half hours that the killers were loose in the mall, there was virtually no organized government response. But while Kenyan officials prevaricated, an unlikely coalition of licensed civilian gun owners and brave, resourceful individual police officers took it upon themselves to mount a rescue effort. Pieced together over 10 months from more than three dozen interviews with survivors, first responders, security officers, and investigators, the following account brings their story to life for the first time since the horrific terrorist attack occurred exactly two years ago.

Weapons Man shares some lessons learned:

Afterward, the intelligence services find out they should have seen it coming, but oops.

The rescue that matters is self-rescue and self-started civilian rescue. The cavalry only comes in time in Hollywood.

Most untrained people are passive even in the face of certain death.

Talking to terrorists doesn’t work. The guys who stood up to remonstrate with the terrorists would agree, except they’re all dead.

In the imagined “gun-free zone,” even the most inept miscreant with a gun is king. We’ve seen ten clowns with rifles tie all Bombay in knots for days, and here’s a mass-casualty (and mass-headline-producing, the terrs’ metric) event caused by four shooters with minimal training and basic equipment.

Kenya’s policy of issuing concealed carry licenses to trusted individuals worked to the benefit of all here. Contrary to popular expectation, the licensees worked well with each other and with the police. We hope Kenya will consider expanding the policy.

An ad-hoc, self-organized response right here right now, is not only “not necessarily bad,” but might be a lot better than the perfect, coordinated SWAT raid an hour from now. (And as we’ve seen, the raid was not perfect and coordinated).

Once your forces are on scene, there is no more reason for delay — only excuses and pretexts. To be sure, the murders of those people at the Westgate Mall were on the heads of as-Shabaab, but a significant number of the dead would have been surviving wounded with speedy and resolute action, which was lacking.

The time to make sure your radios are interoperable is before the attack. If you haven’t done that, and Kenyans hadn’t, you can pretty much guarantee they won’t be, and they weren’t.

Finally: don’t expect the security forces to investigate themselves after a cock-up of this magnitude. After the initial raid at Waco, the ATF leaders of the raid shredded their raid plan and lawyered up. After the final incendiary attack, the FBI destroyed mountains of evidence. So it should surprise no-one that the promised investigation of the Westgate attack has never materialized in Kenya. It won’t, and if it does, it will be an empty whitewash.

One of the licensed concealed-carriers in the photos is literally wearing a vest with an IDPA patch:

Security officers secure an area inside Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi
International Defensive Pistol Association indeed.

How Spree Killers Differ From “Normal” Criminals

Friday, October 9th, 2015

Weapons Man enumerates how spree killers differ from “normal” criminals:

We’re not big fans of scare quotes, but criminal behavior is by definition deviant. and so criminals are only “normal” by reference to other criminals. After looking at thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of criminal gun acquisitions, certain things stand out about, say, your typical murderer versus these going-postal types.

  1. For a career criminal, a homicide or homicides is not an entry level crime, but a culmination of a life of increasing legal deviancy.
  2. Ergo, most murderers have one of more prior felonies, permanent restraining orders (or equivalent), or other disqualifying entries on their records, and can’t buy guns in shops.
  3. Criminals take the path of least resistance to an even greater extent than the normal exemplar of Homo sapiens. Therefore, they go for firearms the same place you might go to for, say, lawn care advice, to their normal informal social networks.
  4. Most crime guns are acquired by purchase or barter from friends or family. Criminals’ girlfriends are a particularly fruitful source; except for some pockets of check-kiting and insurance fraud, they tend not to be as criminal as their men.
  5. Before being acquired by their ultimate criminal who will lose them when murdered, at a crime scene, or in a police search, the bulk of crime guns circulate for some time in a black market.
  6. Our best guesstimate is that about 80% of murder weapons come from this black market, about 15-18% are straw-purchased to order for criminals (although seldom with a specific planned crime in mind), and the balance are stolen to order or acquired by the end-user criminal directly from the thieves.
  7. ATF’s median time-to-crime figures for most states support this analysis. We’ll look into this in depth below.

Meanwhile, the spree killer is a different animal entirely.

  1. Murderers are, in the main, career criminals. Spree killers have seldom been in serious legal trouble. (Lots of them were weird or creeped people out, but the vast majority of weirdos never kill anybody, so weird is not a useful indicator any more than buying a gun is).
  2. Murders are conventionally the nexus between something inconsequential and a violent person with poor impulse control. The spree killer plans his attack for months or years.
  3. The goal of a conventional murderer is to kill somebody. The goal of a spree killer is to make a statement, often stated as, “get on TV.” In this, he’s more like a terrorist.
  4. Murderers tend to be, let’s not sugar-coat this, stupid. They let rage or an ill-thought-out “perfect crime” lead them into a path which never ends well for them, although they don’t usually wind up as dead as their victims — just locked up. Spree killers may be just as full of rage as your average PO’d crack dealer, but they tend to be above average in intelligence. Many of them are smarter than the cops pursuing them and the reporters writing about them, not that intelligence makes them good people. They are likely to be systematic and plan their crimes for a long time (often, for maximum media impact). It’s commonplace for cops to find plans, spreadsheets, and statements of admiration for previous spree killers, after the fact. Spree killers frequently write self-important manifestoes. For an example of planning, some of them waited out state waiting periods for firearms.
  5. Murderers usually act in the heat of the moment, spree killers plan their crimes in detail, often fantasizing in obsessive detail (based on movies, video games, and the media reporting on the others they emulate).
  6. Murderers expect, however unrealistically, to get away with their crimes. Spree killers have no such illusions and usually plan to kill themselves when confronted by police or armed resistance.
  7. A “regular” murderer is less likely to be socially isolated, so he can do things like have a girlfriend straw-purchase a firearm for him, or acquire one through criminal associates who (however unwisely) trust him. A spree killer is isolated, even in the midst of family, workplace, or school, and never has a girlfriend or anybody who trusts him that much. So he has to keep his nose clean, legally, and acquire his weapon legally; or, as in two of the Times’s cases above, he steals them from someone he knows who owns them — in one case, his father; in the other, his mother, after murdering her with four shots to the head from a .22.

Mass Murderers Fit Profile

Sunday, October 4th, 2015

When we look at the alienated angry young men who go on killing sprees, we have to accept that many non-murderers fit the profile, too, as the New York Times recognizes:

“The big problem is that the kind of pattern that describes them describes tens of thousands of Americans — even people who write awful things on Facebook or the Internet,” said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University who has studied and written about mass murderers. “We can’t round up all the people who scare us.”


Those who study these types of mass murderers have found that they are almost always male (all but two of the 160 cases isolated by Dr. Duwe). Most are single, separated or divorced. The majority are white. With the exception of student shooters at high schools or lower schools, they are usually older than the typical murderer, often in their 30s or 40s.

They vary in ideology. They generally have bought their guns legally. Many had evidence of mental illness, particularly those who carried out random mass killings. But others did not, and most people with mental illness are not violent.

“They’re depressed,” Dr. Fox said. “They’re not out of touch with reality. They don’t hear voices. They don’t think the people they’re shooting are gophers.”

They do not fit in. Their most comfortable companion is themselves. According to Dr. Fox, mass killers tend to be “people in social isolation with a lack of support systems to help them through hard times and give them a reality check.”

“They have a history of frustration,” he went on. “They externalize blame. Nothing is ever their fault. They blame other people even if other people aren’t to blame. They see themselves as good guys mistreated by others.”

Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine, said these individuals often feel they do not belong, yet frequently live in “smaller town settings where belonging really matters.”


Research does show that people with serious mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder, pose a modestly higher risk of violence. But most people who are mentally ill are not violent.

Dr. Swanson of Duke said studies indicated that only 7 percent of people with a diagnosed mental illnesses might do anything violent in a year, “and that is something as minor as pushing or shoving somebody.”

With many of the killers, the signs are of anger and disappointment and solitude.

“Sure, you’ve got these risk factors, but they also describe thousands of people who are never going to commit a mass shooting,” Dr. Swanson said. “You can’t go out and round up all the alienated angry young men.”

For every alienated angry young man who goes on to kill people, there are thousands who won’t.

Interestingly, the New York Times does not do the same math on the other key ingredient in a mass shooting, the gun.

There are roughly 300 million guns in the US, and roughly 10,000 gun homicides per year.

So, for every gun that goes on to kill people, there are tens of thousands that won’t. For every gun that goes on to kill large numbers of strangers, there are millions that won’t. (Annually.)

Oregon Shooter Had Many Guns

Saturday, October 3rd, 2015

The Oregon shooter had many guns:

Six weapons were found at the scene of the shooting at Umpqua Community College, while another seven were found at the suspect’s apartment, said Celinez Nunez, assistant special agent in charge for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Seattle.

In addition, authorities found a flak jacket with steel plates and five ammunition magazines at the scene of the mass shooting, she said. The weapons were purchased by Mr. Mercer and relatives, from federal firearms licensed sellers over the past three years, said Ms. Nunez, who clarified that they had purchased 14 in all, but traded one back in buying another.

Plenty of people collect guns without killing anyone, of course.

Records showed Mr. Mercer lived in Torrance, Calif., before moving to Oregon in 2013. He was one of five students listed in the 2009 graduating class of the Switzer Learning Center, a school for students with autism, emotional issues and other learning disabilities, according to a published notice in the Torrance newspaper, The Daily Breeze.

Neighbors at an apartment complex in Torrance where Mr. Mercer and his mother had lived told reporters that he liked to shoot firearms.

“Every day I’d come home from school, I’d see Chris, shaved head, combat boots, camo pants and a plain brown or white shirt,” neighbor Bryan Clay told NBC4 in Los Angeles. “He kept to himself.”

Who helps a young man with autism, emotional issues or other learning disabilities acquire weapons?

Mass shootings are senseless but not mysterious.

South African Rape Study

Friday, October 2nd, 2015

A new survey says more than 1 in 3 men admit to rape:

A 2010 study led by the government-funded Medical Research Foundation says that in Gauteng province, home to South Africa’s most populous city of Johannesburg, more than 37 percent of men said they had raped a woman. Nearly 7 percent of the 487 men surveyed said they had participated in a gang rape.

More than 51 percent of the 511 women interviewed said they’d experienced violence from men, and 78 percent of men said they’d committed violence against women.

A quarter of the women interviewed said they’d been raped, but the study says only one in 25 rapes are reported to police.

A survey by the same organization in 2008 found that 28 percent of men in Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces said they had raped a woman or girl. Of the men who had committed rape, one third did not feel guilty, said Rachel Jewkes, a lead researcher on both studies.

Two-thirds of the men surveyed in that study said they raped because of a sense of sexual entitlement. Other popular motivating factors included a desire to punish women who rejected or angered them, and raping out of boredom, Jewkes said.

Naturally, this is all a legacy of Apartheid.