Wracked by emotion, students attending the STEM school vigil plead, “What happened at STEM is awful, but it’s not a statistic.”
Tragically, awfully, in the long-term another set of statistics is exactly what STEM will become.
Students were right to condemn the immediate, mechanical call for gun control at their vigil. Politicians and special interest groups on both sides of the debate have become so accustomed to mass shootings that they have developed playbooks for real-time responses.
Those playbooks often leave little time for actual human emotion, fear, mourning and grief.
Soon — too soon — time will march on, tears will dry and STEM will recede into the ocean of American school shootings. It will become one more counting stat for news media. That is the moment we are all now trapped in, a country where the sheer number of mass shootings allows for statistical comparisons and analysis.
Some of the numbers are simply staggering, including nearly a quarter million school children present during school shootings since Columbine. Some numbers are nuanced, such as the difference between “active-shooter” scenarios and targeted attacks, gang shootings and suicides.
Some demonstrate just what an outlier America is among its peers, with 57 times more school shootings than all other G7 countries combined in May 2018, though that rate has almost certainly climbed since.
Then there is the sobering epidemiological data that the frequency of mass school shootings “has increased with accelerating pace since 1966.” Gun violence in schools is literally a sickness that ravages our country in the same way cancer ravages the human body.
Like the study of any other disease, cold, hard data must trump fear, ignorance and anecdotal evidence. To that end, STEM may provide statistics that help mitigate future loss of life and curb death tolls.
That will be a very uncomfortable process for many. It requires analysis of responses such as “run, hide, fight.” It mandates review of school safety measures such as doors that lock from inside classrooms. It requires that we re-evaluate the role and training of school security officers. Under-funded mental health programs must be addressed.
And it means having a real conversation about the deadliest weapons used in mass shootings.
As nauseating as the thought is, STEM could have been far worse. Kendrick Castillo’s heroics saved lives, but the killers’ choice of weapons likely played a role as well. They broke into a locked gun cabinet, stole weapons and used handguns to fire at their fellow students.
What they did not use was a semi-automatic AR-15 type rifle.
That data point will surely be reviewed and hotly debated. It’s unclear if the shooters simply did not have ready access to one — an unused rifle was found in their car, though the type has yet to be identified — or actively chose to use only handguns. Certainly, the 18-year-old killer could have purchased an AR-15 under Colorado law.
Regardless, the comparative carnage at STEM pales next to mass deaths seen at Sandy Hook, Parkland, Orlando and Las Vegas where AR-15’s were used. We have been witness to enough instances of evil in the form of mass attacks to make inferences from normal curves; with the exception of one outlier at Virginia Tech, more people die when assailants chose deadlier firearms.
It is sickening to make such comparisons, but the data is both present and compelling. Victims become stats precisely because there are so many. To ignore the data would trivialize not just those already dead and injured, but those who will surely come under attack in the future.
It is a mathematical certainty that another community will experience the same anguish and heartache all over again, probably before the year is out.
We should not need to have data-driven discussions on how to mitigate the loss of life. STEM and the Colorado community should be allowed to mourn and grieve and move on.
But instead, the victims at STEM will be counted, classified and compared. Until we learn from our mistakes and fix our errors, that is the awful truth we have condemned them to.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, healthcare, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq