Generally, two factors constitute a public shooting. First, the incidence of a shooting must have occurred in a public setting such as a school, theater, courthouse, market, or any place that is open to the public as a place of leisure or a place of work. Second, a public shooting involves single or multiple shooters who generally do not have specific targets outside the boundaries of the selected public area. In other words, their goal is to shoot individuals within this public setting without specific targets picked out ahead of time. The occurrence of such a situation does not necessarily have to result fatalities in order to be considered a public shooting. The ethical issues surrounding public shootings are numerous, including those faced by legislatures, police, the media, and mental health professionals in dealing with the occurrence and aftermath of a public shooting.
History of Public Shootings
Public shootings have occurred throughout the history of the United States. Much of what has been documented on the subject dates back to the 1966 shooting that occurred at the University of Texas at Austin. In this case a former student, Charles Whitman, cordoned himself off on the 28th floor of the campus clock tower and fired indiscriminately at individuals in the area. In all, there were 16 individuals killed and 32 injured. After this incident the governor of Texas appointed a task force to examine the incident, the victims, and the shooter to try and explain how it had happened.
The United States saw a spate of shootings in the 1980s that included the San Ysidro, California, McDonalds shooting in 1984 and the U.S. Post Office shooting in Edmond, Oklahoma, in 1986. The 1990s had numerous occurrences of public shootings including the Luby’s Cafeteria shooting in 1991, the Long Island Rail Road shootings of 1993, and the Fairchild Air Force base shooting in 1994. In 1999 the decade saw its worst public shooting in terms of casualties in Columbine, Colorado. On April 20, 1999, two students at Columbine High School entered the school, killing 10 students and two faculty members before turning their weapons on themselves. The aftermath of the incident led to a change in gun control measures and police tactics. In terms of gun control legislation, high-capacity magazines were outlawed for importation in the United States. In regard to police tactics, the immediate action rapid deployment tactic was created in order to better deal with active shooters who pose an immediate and life-threatening risk to public safety; first responders, typically regular police officers, are trained to actively confront a developing high-risk crisis. This is the opposite of first responders first cordoning off the crisis zone and then waiting for specialized special response units to lead a resolution. For example, police responding to the Columbine shootings used the standard tactic the day of the shooting, which included surrounding the building, setting up a perimeter, and containing the damage while waiting for the special weapons and tactics team to arrive to deal with the active shooters.
The 2000s also saw numerous occurrences of public shootings including the Beltway Snipers in 2002, Virginia Tech in 2007, the Kirkwood City Council shooting in 2008, the Binghamton New York shooting of 2008, and the Fort Hood shooting in 2009. More recent occurrences of public shootings include the 2011 Tucson political rally shooting; the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting; and the 2012 Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting.
High-profile shootings receive prominent media coverage and arouse interest in gun control laws and other measures intended to prevent future occurrences of similar tragedies. Mental health reform, police tactics and responses, and the effects of media coverage of these events are subjects of debate. In particular, school shootings such as those at Columbine, Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, and Virginia Tech each offer differing ethical issues.
Gun Control Laws
One of the most discussed ethical issues pertaining to public shootings is gun control. Proponents of gun control advocate for stricter legislation aimed at limiting the use and availability of certain types of firearms and increased background and psychological testing for those who wish to purchase firearms. The issue of whether the availability of certain types of weapons, such as high-powered semiautomatic rifles and handguns, high-capacity magazines, and high-damage ammunition, should be restricted is often debated.
The rationale behind the argument for more strict control of guns is that limiting ownership of firearms to professionals and those who are capable of properly handling them will result in a decrease in the occurrence of firearm-related deaths, both accidental and purposeful. In regard to the control of certain types of firearms and ammunition, gun control advocates argue that there is no need for civilians to own high-powered semiautomatic rifles or handguns and that these types of firearms should be restricted to only military or governmental use. Among groups that advocate for gun control are several different camps whose suggestions and ideas for the control of firearms vary. While some call for smaller reforms to laws that are already in place, others call for the complete illegalization of firearms for professionals, such as government workers, as well as private citizens, in order to quell gun violence.
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Those against gun control legislation argue that it is the natural right of every citizen to own, carry, and operate a firearm regardless of the type. There is some disagreement among opponents of gun control as to what limits, if any, are allowable under the Constitution or would be effective in reducing gun violence.
In most states a special permit and registration is required to own or carry a firearm in public. Most laws focus on discouraging unadvisable gun purchases, such as requiring waiting periods for purchased firearms. Mandatory in-depth background checks, including mental health status or a prior criminal record, are a legislative attempt to inhibit the availability of firearms to potentially violent individuals. Opponents, however, argue that regardless of the availability of weapons for law-abiding citizens, there will always be an underground market for firearms from which those who wish to use firearms for illegal purposes can purchase. Simply put, with or without gun control laws, there will always be a way for weapons to be obtained whether legally or illegally, and gun control laws simply hurt law-abiding citizens who wish to purchase and own firearms.
A second ethical issue relates to how the media cover the occurrences of public shootings. Some would argue that covering public shootings extensively increases the amount of fear the general public has when, in general, these types of shootings happen less frequently than other types of crime. There is also the idea of the media taking advantage of these situations in order to increase ratings or viewers. Some groups, such as victims rights advocates, argue that tragedies such as public shootings should garner a level of respect and privacy for victims of the incident and that the media should cover these incidents lightly. On the reverse side of the argument, media personnel argue that the First Amendment, which states that the government cannot interfere with the ability to express opinions or news through the use of the media, protects the right of a free press to inform the public of newsworthy stories. While there is a professional code of conduct for journalists, some groups, such as Global Media Ethics, argue that there needs to be a universal ethical code in place to deal with certain sensitive topics or occurrences such as public shootings.
The release of information, such as the identity of the shooter or shooters’ or of the victims of a public shooting, offers a unique ethical dilemma for the media. After the occurrence of a public shooting, media coverage surrounding the incident is usually high. In regard to the Virginia Tech shooting, the perpetrator sent numerous videos, letters, and pictures to various news outlets before the shooting. These were aired on the day of the shooting, having been overlooked by the news media when they arrived several days earlier. The media were criticized for publishing the letters and displaying the videos of the gunman’s rants about the university and its students, which was seen as glorifying the point he wanted to get across.
The media must confront a number of ethical issues when covering public shootings. In providing quick, detailed, and compelling coverage, journalists must decide whether and when to release the names and pictures of victims. In discovering sensitive information about victims or perpetrators, ethical considerations must be weighed against commercial interests in deciding whether to publish such details. A public shooting is usually intended by the shooter to convey a message; in making the shooter’s message public, the media risk being seen as fulfilling the shooter’s mission, thereby encouraging future attacks by violent individuals with a similar motive.
The main ethical issues with police response revolve around three central issues: response time, informing the public of what is going on, and taking the appropriate steps when threats or tips are reported. Some, such as police advocacy groups, argue that police response should be immediate and in full force regardless of the severity of the issue. Protection of those involved is the most important aspect of this issue to those who are for an immediate response. Others argue that police response time and force should match the level of seriousness of the situation. The rationale behind this lies with the idea of creating panic. If a large police presence is summoned for a smaller-scale situation, this could increase panic among individuals in the community, potentially worsening the situation.
Another issue in regard to the role of police in the occurrence of a public shooting is balancing what and how much to tell members of the general public and the time line to do so. From the viewpoint of government representatives who are dealing with the occurrence of a public shooting, any information they release to the public as well as when this information is released is important. Information details, such as the location of the shooting, weapons used, the shooter’s or shooters’ identities, victim or victims’ names, or information about the officials involved in the investigation or response to the public shooting, pose unique ethical dilemmas.
In regard to the location of the shooting, how police release information could be crucial. For example, releasing information about the location of the occurrence could attract the presence of media or the general public, who may be interested or simply want to help. This could complicate the ongoing situation or make it difficult for rescue officials to do their jobs.
This same notion also can be applied to releasing information about weapons used and the shooter’s identity. Releasing this information too early could cause a backlash against anyone with a similar name. For example, when Connecticut police released the shooter’s name in the Sandy Hook school shooting, media flooded Newtown looking for relatives or friends of the shooter. Such attention may be unwelcome by those affected, as well as stressful to private citizens who may have not been involved in the situation at all.
In regard to releasing information about victims or individuals involved in the shooting, releasing information too early could be damaging emotionally to the families of the victims. Most local, state, and federal police agencies have safeguards in place to keep victims’ names from being released before family or the next of kin is contacted.
How police respond to tips or threats is another ethical issue pertaining to public shootings. In the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, the university’s administration and police force were criticized for their response time and relaying of information to the students and faculty. This demonstrates the conundrum that the authorities have when dealing with a public shooting. Police and civilian advocacy groups generally argue for an immediate response, while others err on the side of caution when it comes to the possibility of creating or adding to the panic. In the case of Virginia Tech, authorities and the campus administration had been given tips about the gunman before the attack happened. However, by the time the authorities acted on these tips it was too late. Some student and parent advocacy groups argue that the administration should have conveyed this information as soon as they had received it.
Mental Health and the Right to Inform
Another ethical issue pertaining to public shootings involves situations in which the shooter has had mental health issues and was being treated by a mental health professional. Mental health professionals, including psychologists, counselors, and psychiatrists, are bound by an ethical code to report any behavior or expressed interest a patient has regarding self-harm or harm to others. The ethical issue in these situations is how psychologists, counselors, or psychologists should balance the confidential information of their patients with the public’s safety.
In the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting, as well as the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting, the gunmen had mental health issues and were under the care of a mental health physician. In both cases the mental health physicians were criticized for not informing authorities about these individuals. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, however, protects the rights of patients and any information collected and administered from a mental health professional, and the point at which a patient’s interests constitute an actual threat is not necessarily clear.
- Beeghley, Leonard. Homicide: A Sociological Explanation. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
- Duwe, Grant. Mass Murder in the United States: A History. Jefferson, NC: McFaraland, 2007.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation. Behavioral Analysis Unit. National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. “Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspective for Investigators.” http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/serial-murder/serial-murder-july-2008-pdf (Accessed January 2013).
- Newman, Katherine, Cybelle Fox, Wendy Roth, Jal Metha, and David Harding. Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. New York: Basic Books, 2004.
- Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). “SPJ Code of Ethics.” http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp (Accessed January 2013).
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