This morning the nation woke up to yet another tragic mass shooting. Many are dead and many are wounded - their lives changed forever. Others will have to deal with "Survivor's guilt" - as they wonder why they survived and their loved ones died. Words cannot express how horrible this incident is.
At this point we do not know if this is an act of terror conducted in cooperation with a foreign organization or if it is simply the act of a brilliant, but warped mind. These answers will come in time. Here's what we know at this point:
This theater chain has a "no guns allowed" policy. Obviously, this man had no problem ignoring this policy. However, this policy did ensure that the only guns in the theater were in the hands of a madman. Indeed the vast majority of these incidents happen in "gun free zones" - because the shooters do not want their victims to be able to shoot back. Banning guns and then providing little to no enforcement effective disarms people who pose little to no threat in exchange for no benefit makes no sense. It is, however, politically correct.
Could an armed and trained citizen or off duty police officer have made a difference in this situation? Maybe. To have neutralized the threat, they would have to have been sharp enough to have picked up on the fact that he was wearing body armor and good enough to have hit him in the head. This may have been easier then one would think because reports are that he was standing still as he was shooting. It is more likely that if an armed citizen had engaged the shooter they would have been killed - but based on other incidents where this has actually happened they would have bought time for many others to escape.
Many years ago, Israel was faced with a major problem with mass shootings - in spite of strict gun control laws. Typically the first people shot were the armed and uniformed security. They were able to stop the shootings by increasing the number of armed citizens (25% of adult citizens have CCW permits). Gunmen were quickly engaged and usually killed. The shootings stopped. Unfortunately, the terrorists simply began to use bombs - as apparently this terrorist did as well.
Hospital spokespeople are describing "blast injuries" consistent with a bomb or bombs. It may very well be that many people were not killed with firearms, but with explosives. As this is written, authorities are in the process of disarming "sophisticated explosive devices" at the suspect's home. Ironically it may be a blessing that this individual used firearms instead of a much larger bomb capable of killing most in the theater in an instant. Early reports are that the suspect has a hard science background that gave him the skills to build such devices.
In addition, there are service members among the casualties. This is a military town, and it may very well be that this is a terrorist attack aimed at our military and their families. Striking at soft target in town is much, much easier than conducting an "on base" attack.
How can such incident be prevented?
Sadly, the short answer is that they cannot be prevented 100% of the time. The experience in Israel shows that training and arming more civiians can help - as can real security where people are checked for weapons and the area is checked for hidden weapons. "No guns allowed" signs accomplish absolutely nothing positive and probably increase the chances that a mass shooting will take place.
The long answer is that if these incidents are to be prevented, the focus must be on the human beings who perpretrate such acts. Evil is very real and lives in he hearts of mankind - not in inaminate objects. Better screening of people in the mental health system can help - as can efforts to detect "lone wolf" terrorists. Police can and should make sure that people presenting with major mental health issues are evaluated by mental health professionals - the shooter in Rep. Giffords shooting had nearly 20 contacts with law enforcement all of which involved some kind of bizarre behavior. No one sent him in for evaluation. Time will tell if this was the case here - but his mother's comment that "they have the right person" may indicate something along these lines.
Most of all, we all need to keep our eyes open and report anything out of the ordinary. The human factor is more difficult to control, but it is the only way to reduce the death toll.