Sandy Hook Is a Warning of Worse Shootings To Come

Science, technology, and life.
Dec. 18 2012 9:47 AM

The Volume Killers

What happened at Sandy Hook in 10 minutes tells you what a high-speed shooter could do with more time.

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Twenty-seven wooden angels commemorating the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting.

Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

According to police in Newtown, Conn., Adam Lanza blasted his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday with three semi-automatic weapons, numerous 30-round magazines, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. He killed 20 children and six adults. But that isn’t the chilling number. The chilling number is how long it took him to inflict this carnage: just 10 minutes.

Officials haven’t said exactly how many bullets Lanza used. But from information they’ve leaked or released so far, you can do a rough calculation. According to the Hartford Courant’s sources, Lanza fired at least three 30-round magazines. Wayne Carver, Connecticut’s chief medical examiner, says Lanza pumped three to 11 bullets into each of the seven children Carver examined. If you average that rate across the 20 dead kids, it adds up to 140 bullets. That’s not counting the six rounds Lanza used to blow open the front doors, or any of the bullets he spent on teachers. We’re already talking more than 150 shots. And we haven’t even started counting the misses.

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Let’s say Lanza fired 200 rounds. That’s 20 per minute, or one every three seconds. And that’s not accounting for the time he spent moving from room to room. At one point, the Courant reports, six kids tried to flee a classroom he had entered. Lanza mowed them all down, which is hard to do unless your weapon is very fast.

Lanza’s death toll puts him third on the list of the worst school massacres in history. I’ve been studying those massacres for the last couple of days, and I’ve noticed something disturbing. The perpetrators at the top of the list—those who killed the most students and teachers—didn’t take more time to commit their crimes. They took less.

Look at the killers who caused 10 or more fatalities. They’re the top 14 on the list. No. 6 on the list, Charles Whitman, spent 96 minutes in a tower at the University of Texas, picking off his victims with a sniper rifle. Nobody’s sure how many bullets he fired. No. 7, Tim Kretschmer, used 112 rounds during a three-hour spree. No. 8, Marc Lepine, reportedly started with 100 rounds and had 60 left after his 20-minute rampage. No. 9, the team of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, spent 188 rounds during their 47-minute assault on Columbine High School. No. 10, Farda Gadirov, took 15 minutes to kill his victims; he was found with 71 unspent bullets, but nobody seems to know how many he discharged. No. 11, Wellington Menezes de Oliveira, fired 60 shots or so in 20 minutes. Nos. 12 and 13, Bai Ningyang and Walter Seifert, didn’t use firearms, but No. 15 did: Matti Saari took about 90 minutes to expend nearly 200 rounds.

On average, these killers fired a little more than two bullets per minute. If you read narrative reports about their crimes, you’ll find that many of them methodically hunted and terrorized their victims. In a sick way, they were leisure killers.

The top five guys on the list are a different story. No. 1, Andrew Philip Kehoe, murdered 38 children with an explosive blast. No. 2, Seung-Hui Cho, killed 30 people in 11 minutes at Virginia Tech, using 174 rounds. No. 3, Lanza, killed 20 kids and six adults in 10 minutes, using what we’ve ballparked as 200 rounds. No. 4, Thomas Hamilton, murdered 16 children and a teacher at Dunblane Primary School in Scotland by firing 105 rounds in three to four minutes. No. 5, Robert Steinhauser, dispatched 13 teachers, two students, and a cop with 71 rounds in 10 minutes.

For these five, the math looks different. The shooters fired, on average, slightly more than 17 rounds per minute. (I’m setting aside Kehoe, whose 38 simultaneous casualties would inflate the kill rate.) These men weren’t looking for drawn-out terror. They were trying to inflict as much lethal damage as possible. They were volume killers. They racked up grotesque body counts not through superior accuracy or by having more time, but by spraying more metal. The 10 or 11 bullets Lanza pumped into some of his victims tells you all you need to know.

Leisure killers are a complex problem. They need to be identified earlier, treated or incarcerated, and kept away from weapons. What I want to highlight here is the volume killers. They inflict, on average, more than twice as many fatalities per attack as the leisure killers do. And they accomplish this primarily by shooting faster. We need to disrupt them and slow them down.

If we don’t, the toll from mass murders could grow much worse. When you see Newtown, Dunblane, and Virginia Tech atop the table of school shootings, they look as though they’re the worst-case scenarios. They aren't. Lanza, carrying hundreds of rounds, was interrupted by first responders after 10 minutes. Cho, armed with nearly 400 rounds, was halted by police after 11 minutes. Hamilton, carrying more than 700 rounds, shot himself, for unknown reasons, within four minutes. What if they hadn’t been stopped? What if they’d had the same time the leisure killers got? How many kids would have left Dunblane or Sandy Hook alive?

I don’t have a ready solution to this problem. We could restrict magazines to a modest capacity so that shooters would at least have to reload or change weapons, giving their prey a chance. We could restrict the factory-set rate of fire and hope that not every bad guy figures out how to upgrade it. We could train and arm more security officers or citizens to intervene, possibly limiting the damage. But one way or another, we’d better start moving. Because Sandy Hook, for all its horror, wasn’t the worst thing a monster could do to a building full of children. It was just a bloodier warning.

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