Like mass murders by other means, mass shootings are not a new phenomenon, in America or anywhere else, but up until about the 1960s, such atrocities were usually if not always carried out for some rational if evil purpose. On February 14, 1929, seven men were machine gunned to death in Chicago. Although this caused outrage, the St Valentine's Day Massacre was a simple case of mobsters murdering others during the Prohibition Era.
Mass shootings are a different kettle of fish, they are spree killings, acts committed by an individual - or on occasion more than one person - for reasons totally unrelated to material gain or revenge (except perhaps on society as a whole).
Although he was not the first, in America or anywhere, the August 1966 killing spree of Charles Whitman
can be said to have heralded in this new type of atrocity. As a boy, Whitman distinguished himself by becoming the youngest eagle scout in America; his crime 13 years later became known as the Texas Tower (or Clock Tower) Massacre. The 25 year old engineering student and former US Marine began by murdering his mother and then his wife, stabbing them both. Then, later that morning, he drove to the University of Texas, Austin where he battered a receptionist around the head. She died in hospital from her injuries. Ensconced in the clock tower, he began firing at random. He shot and killed 13 people and injured 32 others before he was himself shot and killed by two police officers.
Whitman seemed to have everything going for him: an all-American kid, good looking with a high IQ, then it all went wrong. After being thrown out of the Marines, he went back to university. Then, on August 1, 1966, he exploded. As well as at least one film, Whitman's crime inspired the John/Taupin song Ticking
, and the frivolous ditty The Ballad Of Charles Whitman
, by Kinky Friedman.
Charles Whitman wrote a series of notes explaining what he had done and why he did it (the first two murders). The only explanation Brenda Spencer could give for her shooting spree was that she didn't like Mondays. When he heard that phrase, Bob Geldof wrote a song that became an absolutely massive hit
, although the actual incident was nothing to sing about. The best
thing that can be said about it is that only two people were killed, both of them died heroes.
Brenda Spencer was a 16 year old girl who lived across the road from the Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, California. Her Dad gave her a rifle for Christmas - as most fathers would do - and on Monday, January 29, 1979, she sat in her front window and opened fire on a group of young kids on their way to school. The school principal and janitor were both killed, but if not for their actions, there would have been many more deaths. Eleven pupils were injured. She barricaded herself in her home, but eventually surrendered to the police. Brenda Spencer was tried as an adult, and is still in prison today.
Other American mass shootings include Columbine, which is arguably still the most notorious, because of the young age of the perpetrators: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who murdered 12 students and a teacher before committing suicide. The Washington Sniper was not one but two people, although their crimes were spread over a three week period in 2002. Ten people were murdered by John Allen Muhammad and his young sidekick Lee Boyd Malvo.
Muhammad was executed by lethal injection on November 10, 2009. Malvo was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
Last year saw Jared Loughner
shoot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and a number of other people, at a political meeting at Tucson, Arizona. Although Giffords survived, six of his other victims didn't. At the time of writing, Loughner is in limbo, but it seems likely that he will eventually be found unfit to plead.
The most tragic victim of that day was 9 year old Christina Taylor Green, who was born September 11, 2001.
There is a saying that what happens in America today, happens here, in Britain, tomorrow. That was true of rock 'n' roll - they gave us Chuck Berry
; we gave them the Beatles
. It has also been true of mass shootings and spree killings, though fortunately there have been far fewer, due both to the smaller population and the no-gun culture. The worst such shooting happened in Scotland. Before Andrew Murray
made the Wimbledon tennis final this year, Dunblane had two claims to fame/infamy. The first was an 18th Century battle
; the second was the March 1996 massacre
of 16 primary school children and a teacher followed by the suicide of the perpetrator, Thomas Hamilton. At the time, the 8 year old Murray was in the school, and could easily have been a victim; his mother actually knew Hamilton slightly, although understandably he doesn't like to talk about this today.
Although other countries have seen such mass shootings, America remains the world capital of this particularly horrific and senseless type of crime. At first glance, most of these incidents seem to have little in common. A closer look reveals that the perpetrators are angry at the world, or in some cases seeking a bizarre form of fame or recognition. There appears to be a medical explanation for Whitman's behaviour, something he must have realised himself because he requested in his suicide note that an autopsy be performed. He wrote this after murdering his mother and then his wife but before driving to the university; clearly he realised too that one way or another he had only hours to live.
The untried Jared Loughner appears to be away with the fairies, but Thomas Hamilton was an angry man rather than a mad one, with the caveat that no one who does what he did can truly be considered sane.
In spite of the problems Mankind faces due to the banks, environmental despoliation, and other troubles of our own making, it is a truism that in real terms we have never been richer, and ordinary people enjoy better health, more leisure and many other things that most people couldn't dream of even a hundred years ago. Yet in this modern world we all seem to be going a little mad, and crimes such as road rage, once unheard of, are now part of the norm.
There has been little research carried out in this area, but there is plenty of scope for it. We have Alcoholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, support groups for people who suffer from eating disorders, and so on. Perhaps we need something for potential mass shooters? The Samaritans doesn't seem quite to fit that bill.