Lessons from the Clackamas Mall Shooting

585836_31371578The mainstream media is whipping itself into a frenzy this morning after a shooting at a mall in Oregon yesterday. Although the details are fuzzy, current media reports suggest a killer with body armor and a semiautomatic rifle killed two people and wounded a third before taking his own life. Law enforcement response was gratifyingly fast — by some accounts, the first officers on scene arrived in less than two minutes — but by then the incident was already over and the killer lay dead of what sounds to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

I think there are some good lessons that can be learned from this incident, and I’d like to talk about a few of them. As tragic as yesterday’s events were for the victims and their families (and for the family of the killer, a victim of his crime and yet often overlooked), they’d be even more tragic if we didn’t learn anything from them.

  • “Commonsense gun control” won’t make us safer. This phrase seems to be the latest mantra of the anti-gun crowd, an attempt to spin their beliefs as commonsense and those of the millions of law abiding gun owners as irrational. But how would that work here? Background checks wouldn’t have helped, because (according to current news accounts) the killer used a stolen rifle. Waiting periods? Same problem. Bans on high-capacity magazines? Well, it’s unclear how many shots were fired (eyewitness reports put the number anywhere between 10 and 60 or more, a point I’ll come back to) but even a 10-round magazine would have easily been enough for a killer to murder two or three people.
  • Gun-free zones are only free of lawfully owned guns carried by law abiding citizens. The mall where the murder took place, like the sites of most of the other recent firearms-related spree murders, was a posted gun-free zone. While it’s certainly debatable whether a lawfully armed citizen in the mall could have reduced the death toll from 3 to a smaller number, it should be plainly obvious that criminals don’t pay attention to gun-free zones — and in fact, are plausibly likely to target them since they know there’s less chance of meeting armed resistance.
  • Eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable, even when they’re close to the action. This is a reality we have to recognize as armed citizens, since if we have to use our weapons in self-defense, our fate in court may one day rest partly on the testimony of eyewitnesses. In this case, the eyewitness estimates of the number of rounds fired ranged from 10 to “60 or more” in the articles I saw. I doubt the higher estimates, given that in a crowded, “target-rich” environment the casualty count was so low, but it’s certainly clear that the range of estimates means somebody is mistaken.
  • Even citizens who choose not to arm themselves are learning from these attacks. As tragic as the 9/11 attack was, it clearly taught people that submission and compliance to terrorists was a bad plan. Since then, several terror attacks on aircraft were thwarted by the intervention of passengers. I think (and hope) something similar is happening with the recent spate of mass murders in public places: unarmed citizens are learning the lessons we already know about getting loved ones out of the line of fire, disrupting the criminal’s attack, and reacting rather than freezing in the face of an attack. These are good and important lessons, and they’ll make these kinds of attacks harder in the future.

No information has come out yet about the killer’s motives in this attack, but I’d be not at all surprised if he turned out to have a history of mental health issues. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: The problem of people using guns to commit murder is fundamentally a problem with the people, not with the tool. The way to reduce the (already low) incidence of firearms violence isn’t to ban guns – if anything, it’s to increase the availability of mental health services.

But even still, your likelihood of being killed in a gun-related spree killing is vanishingly low, and this is the most important lesson of all. We humans tend to over-estimate the likelihood of unusual risks, and to under-estimate the likelihood of common ones. This is why our culture is much more afraid of terrorists and spree killers with guns than it is of house fires and motor vehicles, even though you are many times more likely to die in a fire or car crash than you are to be a victim of terrorists or a spree killer.

But the majority of our culture doesn’t know about our innate cognitive biases, shaped by thousands of years of evolutionary adaptation to a world that’s become obsolete in just a few centuries. And so many of us continue to live in fear of events we’re unlikely ever to face, and to talk about “commonsense gun control” without realizing that “common sense” is rooted in our intuitive understanding of the world – and our intuitive understanding is often wrong.

What do you think? I welcome your thoughts in the comments.

Photo credit: stock.xchng (by tome213)


  1. daric gutzwiller says:

    Well writen and well thought out, great points.

  2. “But the majority of our culture doesn’t know about our innate cognitive biases, shaped by thousands of years of evolutionary adaptation to a world that’s become obsolete in just a few centuries. ”

    I’d like to understand better what you mean by this.

    Technology has indeed changed and expanded, but human nature is the same now as it has always been… and always will be. The expression of that nature varies greatly from one individual to another, and our culture, etc. has a great influence on it, but the basic instincts and drives remain unchanged.

    What parts of the will to survive and defend oneself/family have become obsolete?

    • “basic instincts and drives remain unchanged.”

      Yes, that’s true. What I mean is that our brains evolved to be very good at pattern recognition. Tasks like “the grass is matted over there and last time we saw that there was a lion nearby, so watch out for lions” are things our brains do very well. But we now live in a world where many of us – especially in urban and suburban environments – are forced to deal with two-legged predators whose behavior is rarely so rational. And we live in a world with much more complexity, and where the interrelationships between things aren’t so clear. The pattern recognition mechanisms of our brains don’t work so well when there’s not a discernible pattern, or when the pattern that’s actually present fails to match our preconceptions. That’s where things like confirmation bias and learned helplessness come from, for example.

      If you’re interested in what I’m talking about, I really like the book “You Are Not So Smart” by David McRaney.

      I don’t think our basic drive to protect ourselves and our families has changed. Far from it. But I think that those cognitive biases and mental traps arise in part because we’re evolutionarily adapted toward pattern recognition, and so we don’t do as well with situations where there isn’t a clearly discernible patten.

      • I’ve not read the book, though I’ll look at it.

        But I disagree. Our pattern recognition always changes with changing situations. My situational awareness was honed to a high degree when I lived in So. California, but had to change drastically when I moved to rural Wyoming. My experiences changed my expectations, but my habit of observing my surroundings and making judgments about the relative risks simply had to grow to include new things. And that included watching out for lions here! 🙂

        Any person who cares to develop situational awareness will do quite well assessing and avoiding risks wherever they are if they make the effort to learn to SEE what is around them. Observation of patterns and appropriate response are LEARNED, no matter where or when a person lives.

        The lack of desire to learn that (or lack of understanding the necessity) isn’t evolutionary, it’s a matter of indoctrinated helplessness and absence of personal responsibility. Those folks continue to have the basic instinct to survive, of course, but their responses to it are usually not appropriate and often involve real threats to others, as well as actually increasing the risk for themselves at times.

        It is arguable whether or not we live in a safer world either. The threats and risks are very different, and differ from one place to another, but they will always be present. Those who learn to assess and respond appropriately will have a better chance to survive and defend themselves.

      • “Those who learn to assess and respond appropriately will have a better chance to survive and defend themselves.”

        On that, I absolutely agree. As to the other, I think the main thing is that, for a variety of reasons, human beings don’t always perceive or assess accurately – and aren’t always good at recognizing the biases that creep into our cognitive and perceptual processes. Why that is so is more a matter for the neurobiology crowd, I think. The important thing is to recognize and be aware of our cognitive biases, because that seems to be the best inoculation against them.

        Do check out David’s book, though – I think you’ll find it interesting.

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