Human Nature

Speed Kills

What’s the lesson of the Connecticut school massacre? The faster the weapon, the higher the body count.

People react to a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012

Photo by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sandy Hook school shooting.

This morning, a madman attacked more than 20 children at an elementary school in China. As of this writing, there are no reported fatalities.

A few hours later, a madman attacked an elementary school in Connecticut. As of this writing, 20 of those kids are dead.

The difference? The weapon. The madman in China had a knife. The madman in Connecticut, according to police, had a semi-automatic assault rifle, two semi-automatic handguns, and multiple 30-round magazines.*

Look up the worst school massacres in history, and you’ll see the pattern. Madmen are everywhere. They strike without regard to gun laws, mental health care, or the national rate of churchgoing. They’ve slaughtered children in every country you’d think might have been spared: Scotland, Germany, Canada, Brazil, Finland, Japan. They’ve falsified every pet political theory about what kind of culture or medical system or firearms legislation prevents mass murder.

But one pattern holds true: The faster the weapon, the higher the body count. It’s not politics. It’s logistics. If you stick a knife in your first victim, it takes time to move on to your second. You might need two stabs or more to finish off the first kid. By then, the other kids have begun to flee. Soon, the cops will be here. How much time do you have? At some point, it’s time to off yourself. And all you managed to kill were two lousy kids because the only weapon you had was a kitchen knife.

Google “knife control” and you’ll find legions of gun-control skeptics comparing U.S. firearm attacks to Chinese knife attacks. In the past two years, there’s been an epidemic of knife attacks on Chinese schools. Some of them show up on Wikipedia’s list of school massacres. But none crack the top 10 because the body counts never rise above single digits. It’s just too hard to kill that many people, even little kids, with a knife.

Guns do more damage. Look down the list and you’ll see gun after gun after gun. But not all guns are equal. I’ve gone through the 25 worst massacres on the chart, and nearly every shooter had a semi-automatic weapon. The one exception was a guy who had speedloaders and a bandolier so he could keep firing. High-capacity magazines are another common factor. All these patterns converge on a common lesson: Speed kills. Madness pulls the trigger, but the rate of fire drives the body count.

It’s not all about guns, either. The worst Chinese school massacre by a knife-wielding madman wasn’t caused by the knife. The perpetrator used the knife to scare the kids and make them retreat to the back of a classroom. Then he locked them inside and killed them by starting a fire. Right below him on the list is a guy in Germany who killed one victim with a lance and the rest with a flamethrower that ignited a classroom. Knives and lances take too long. It’s more efficient to kill everyone at once.  That’s what the record-holder did: He wiped out more than 40 victims with a series of bombs.

I wish we could pass a magic law that would stop madmen from killing our children. We can’t. There will always be angry lunatics. There will always be knives and shotguns and gasoline. I don’t think banning guns will make the problem go away. We don’t need another all-or-nothing war between pro-gun and anti-gun ideologues. What we need is a frank, precise, constructive conversation about the problem of high-speed weapons. You don’t need rapid-fire weapons to hunt or defend your home. Cops don’t need them to shoot down bad guys. And while it’s true that passing a law against them won’t eliminate them, that’s not an argument against legislation. It’s an argument for going beyond legislation. The community of gun sellers and enthusiasts must act collectively to track and control the technology of mass murder.

Every child who died in that school in Connecticut today was precious. To lose even one young life in such a senseless way is a gut-wrenching tragedy. But this I know: It didn’t have to be 20.

Update, 4:45 p.m., Dec. 16: This article has been revised to reflect the latest information on the weapons involved. At an afternoon press conference on Dec. 16, Lt. Paul Vance of the Connecticut State Police announced: “The weapon that was utilized most of the time during this horrific crime was identified as a Bushmaster AR-15 assault-type weapon. It had high-capacity magazines, and in addition to that, the subject had in his possession a Glock 10 millimeter, a Sig Sauer 9 millimeter. Both weapons, all weapons, had multiple magazines and additional ammunition.” Vance said the fourth weapon found at the scene was a shotgun recovered from the shooter’s car. When asked whether the handguns were used in any of the killings, the only person whom Vance identified as having been shot with either handgun was the shooter. Vance said the shooter had “multiple high-capacity magazines” for all his weapons, with “approximately 30 rounds per magazine,” adding up to “hundreds of bullets.” Vance also said that police knew how many shell casings had been recovered but that he didn’t have the exact number to report to the media. (Return to the updated sentence.)

William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: