Triple Terror In Texas
Texas has been hit hard by tragedy lately. In just over a week, there were three horrific incidents that topped the national news. Last week, I wrote about the mass murder in Cleveland, Texas, my old hometown. This past weekend, another gunman took eight lives before being killed himself at an outlet mall in Allen, Texas, a Dallas suburb, and another eight were killed when a car slammed into a group of pedestrians in the border town of Brownsville.
The three incidents, although all tragic, were also very different. The differences underscore the problems with preventing such random violence.
The mall shooting was yet another example of what has become all too common. The gunman opened fire apparently at random killing eight and injuring seven before being dispatched by responding police officers.
Following familiar themes from recent spree murders, the perpetrator was armed with what is described as an “AR-15 style rifle” and other weapons on his person, along with five other guns in his car, and had a history of mental problems. Mauricio Garcia, 33, served three months in the army in 2008 per the Washington Post. He was dismissed from the army for an unspecified mental health issue. CNN reports he later worked as a security guard and received firearms training for that role. Authorities are investigating Garcia’s alleged white supremacist and neo-Nazi ties as well, but do not believe that he had accomplices at this time.
Garcia seems to have had recent problems as well. One of his neighbors told NBC News, “He tried to acknowledge us but seemed a little off. He wasn’t somebody you could carry a conversation with.”
In contrast, the Cleveland murders appear to have been spontaneous and targeted. The perpetrator in that incident, Francisco Oropesa, also using an AR-15, retaliated against a family that had complained about his late-night target practice.
The similarities are superficial at best. An AR-15 was used in both cases, but focusing on the weapon ignores the fact that Garcia had an arsenal in his car. Both men were Hispanic (or at least had Hispanic names), but Oropesa was an illegal immigrant and Garcia was apparently a Texas native or at least a long-time resident. While there are hints of mental illness in the case of Garcia, the only evidence of problems with Oropesa is his tendency to shoot his rifle late at night. Garcia’s motive was apparently to inflict as much pain as possible and then commit suicide by cop while Oropesa obviously valued his life and freedom.
The third incident didn’t use guns at all. On Sunday morning, 34-year-old George Alvarez ran a red light, rolled his Range Rover, and plowed into a group of pedestrians. killing eight and injuring another 10. Alvarez reportedly tried to flee the scene but was stopped by others. Video shows the victims lined up at a bus stop, many of them sitting on the curb, moments before the SUV barrels into the crowd.
It isn’t known whether Alvarez intentionally targeted the crowd or whether the incident was a horrible accident. What we do know is that Alvarez has a long rap sheep that includes several counts of assault and that he was not cooperative with police. While the incident may not have been intentional, in recent years motor vehicles have been used as weapons both in the US and abroad.
Three awful incidents and the only real common denominator seems to be the three troubled men who carried them out, leaving a total of 23 dead in their wake.
The big question is what can be done to prevent similar incidents in the future. Even if we exclude the Brownsville car crash from consideration, the answer is still not easy. That’s especially true since the public is still lacking a lot of information on all three perpetrators.
The most obvious answer is to take troubled and violent people off the streets, but that is easier said than done. Maybe Alvarez should have been behind bars, but Oropesa had been deported multiple times and kept turning up like a bad penny. Garcia seems to have had mental problems but his record and personality still allowed him to pass security officer training (although it isn’t clear when he last worked in security). I would be surprised if drugs, alcohol, and/or mental illness weren’t at play in the Brownsville and Cleveland incidents, but the information is just not there to confirm or deny that speculation at this point.
Problems with the strategy of taking violent people off the streets are prison overcrowding and the difficulty in committing people to mental institutions involuntarily. If more people are locked away, then more innocent people will be locked away, which is another tragedy in itself. There are many arguments against locking people up for a long time, and a lot of those reasons are very valid. Maybe we need to lock more people up or maybe we need to be more picky about who to confine.
Many of my readers believe that banning AR-15s is at least part of the answer. I disagree. There really is no evidence that either of the two shootings would not have happened or been as deadly without AR-15s. We know that Garcia had a multitude of other weapons at hand and Oropesa might also have just as easily used a different type of rifle in his crimes if his AR wasn’t available.
It has been just under a year since I wrote about the Violence Project in the wake of another Texas spree murder in Uvalde. An analysis of the data on spree murders found that “semiautomatic assault weapons” were used by less than a third of rampage killers. Handguns were the most popular choice. Remember that one of the deadliest spree killings was the Virginia Tech rampage in 2007 where the killer used semi-automatic pistols.
We can be confident that even if we did ban AR-15s, spree killers would just switch to another type of weapon. Considering the political capital that would have to be expended to ban “assault rifles” in general or AR-15s in particular, the effort would be better focused elsewhere.
An example of the futility of the idea of further restrictions on AR-15s is the report from the Associated Press that a Republican-led committee in the Texas House advanced a bill to raise the minimum age to purchase an AR-15 from 18 to 21. We don’t know where Garcia and Oropesa got their guns, but we do know that they were 33 and 38 respectively. The bill would have changed nothing.
What would have changed things? I can think of only two possibilities. One is locking away the people with violent criminal records and the second is preventing people with criminal records and histories of mental illness from buying guns.
We’ve discussed the first option and its difficulties, but there are several ways to accomplish the second. Good background checks that include mental health information are a valuable tool in reducing gun violence. At this point, it’s impossible to say whether it would have made a difference in Allen or Cleveland.
The Rand Corporation has data on these and other proposals for combatting gun violence. These include waiting periods, which may reduce suicides and gun violence while also possibly helping to prevent straw purchases, but they seem unlikely to have helped in either of these incidents. Oropesa had his gun for quite a while and there is evidence from other spree murders that the perpetrators often plan their attacks far in advance.
Personally, I think that red flag laws are a promising idea for keeping guns out of the hands of the violently mentally ill, but evidence to support that is scarce so far. Part of the problem is that enforcement can be spotty for the controversial laws and if people don’t report the red flags, there can be no enforcement.
The bad news is that mass shootings can be difficult to stop. The good news is that despite the headlines, your odds of being involved in a spree killing are still extremely low. You can improve your chances by maintaining situational awareness.
An FBI study found that spree killers go through several phases of planning, preparation, and acquisition before their attacks. If others can spot and report their behavior, attacks can be stopped before they start.
Some red flags that everyone should be alert for include:
- Violent fantasies
- Uncontrolled anger
- Loner or social misfit
- Fascination with weapons and fighting
- Imitation of other famous murderers
If you see something, say something, especially if multiple red flags are present. Who to talk to can range from police to officials at your place of work or school. Human Resources or security would be a good place to start.
If the worst does happen, remember the mantra: Run, hide, fight. [Watch an excellent video on survival strategies here. ]
If possible, run to safety and call 911.
If running isn’t possible, hide. Silence your phone, turn off lights, lock doors, and try to stay quiet and out of sight.
If the first two alternatives don’t work, you may have to fight. Consider what you can use for a weapon. Most of us don’t carry guns on a regular basis, but fire extinguishers, sharp objects like scissors, and blunt objects like chairs, bottles, and computers are some common items that can be used as weapons. None of these has very good odds against an active shooter, so this should be the last option.
I’m not a person who says that prayer is useless, but we can and should take action while we pray. That can range from political action to becoming more aware of own surroundings.
Be cautious, be alert, and be ready, but don’t be paranoid.
MY PROSTATE CANCER BLOG has a new installment. This post features strategies for preparing yourself for a health emergency. This is the last of the initial tranche of posts that I had planned, but I will add further updates as my story unfolds. Thanks to everyone who read, shared, and contributed. Read it here.