The news from Oregon was grim enough in isolation — nine people shot dead at a community college. For many Americans it was all the sadder as a reminder of how frequent, how depressingly routine, mass shootings have become — in malls, at churches, and so often at schools and colleges.
In Loveland, Colo., an elementary school principal mused wistfully on how security precautions now preoccupied her staff, including adults-only evacuation drills that exempt the students in order not to traumatize them.
“It’s a sad indicator of our world right now that we have to have a plan,” said Michelle Malvey.
In Washington, U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania said he went into his office and wept on hearing of the Oregon tragedy, thinking, “Here we go again.”
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A school security expert in Texas advised Americans to brace for recurrences.
“This is the equivalent of: We know the tsunami is coming, and we’re trying to get to higher ground,” said Greg Crane.
Details remained scant about why a 26-year-old walked into a classroom Thursday at Umpqua Community College and opened fire. But enough was known to trigger outrage and profound frustration that a new place name — Roseburg, Ore. — had been added to a list that includes Newtown, Littleton, Charleston and many more scarred communities.
“We are the only advanced country on earth that sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months,” a visibly frustrated President Barack Obama said in a televised address hours after the Oregon rampage.
“Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine, my response here at this podium ends up being routine, the conversation in the aftermath of it. We’ve become numb to this.”
James Tucker, 70, the co-owner of an antique store in Sycamore, Ill., about 70 miles west of Chicago, said Obama’s comments underscored his view that what happened in Oregon will happen again and again — something he didn’t think possible when children in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., were killed in 2012.
“You thought Sandy Hook would be a watershed at the time, but it turns out it wasn’t,” he said. “Nothing changed.”
Except, he said, some things have changed.
“You do start to worry about things that might be a target,” he said. “We go to the Lyric Opera in Chicago and I walk in there and I think, ‘What if somebody tried to make a statement.’ What better place. It’s a fleeting thought, but you do think about it now.”
The reality is that mass shootings in the U.S. are rare and such attacks account for a tiny fraction of the more than 31,000 people killed by gun shots annually, said Grant Duwe, a criminologist with the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
Mass murders — in which four or more people are killed — are 0.2 percent of U.S. homicides, Duwe said. That figure includes episodes of extreme violence within families or during robberies or other crimes.
Mass shootings at schools and other public settings average just four a year, but the rate has increased 26 percent in the last decade, said Duwe, author of “Mass Murder in the United States: A History.”
“What’s different since the mid-2000s is the regularity with which these cases have occurred, that there really hasn’t been any letup,” Duwe said. “These are usually incidents where people didn’t know the shooter, essentially they are innocent victims, and I think a lot of people feel like this could’ve been me, could’ve been my child, my spouse, my parents.”
For psychologists, the shootings have provided a sobering case study of how people respond to repeated trauma.
“There’s a certain degree of sadness about going through this protocol that’s evolved because we’ve had so much practice,” said psychology professor Charles Figley of Tulane University.
With each recurrence, Figley said, there’s initial shock.
“And then we think, ‘What if it happens again?’ ” he said. “Remarkably and sadly, every time it happens, we’re practicing on more quickly taking a deep breath and moving on to other things.”
That’s the case for Steven Goncalves, a bread franchise owner from Cumberland, R.I.
“I’m not shell-shocked by any of these anymore,” he said. “Me and my wife will discuss it at times and say: ‘What’s going to be the next place? We’ve had schools, we’ve had the movie theaters, we’ve had the churches, where’s the next place?’
“When you first heard about these 10 or 12 years ago, you’d almost get a sick feeling in your stomach, ‘Oh, my God, it’s horrible.’ Now it’s like, ‘Again, again, again, here we go, another one,’ ” he said.
The Oregon shooting got Greg Crane thinking back to the “duck and cover” drills of his childhood that sent him and classmates under their desks in the naive belief that it might save them from a nuclear attack.
That Cold War threat was always abstract. But Crane — who left a career as a police officer in a Dallas suburb to train school administrators how to respond to an active shooter — says time has convinced him such shootings are the modern equivalent of the tornadoes and fires kids have long prepared for.
“You can hardly say this is abstract anymore and look at where it’s happened,” said Crane, who lives outside San Antonio.
After the 1999 mass shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School, Crane asked his wife, an elementary school principal, what she’d do if an attacker ever came to her building. Hunker down and wait for the police to arrive, she said. No way that was enough, he thought.
So Crane drew up lessons for responding, driving from school to school in a Chevrolet Suburban towing an recreational vehicle, while his wife did paperwork for their fledgling venture in the backseat. Today his company, Alice Training Institute, has more than 50 full-time and part-time employees, and its training is deployed to more than 2,000 school districts.
Michelle Malvey, the principal in Loveland, Colo., says it’s a constant challenge to ensure airtight security at her school while minimizing distress for the students.
The adults in the building want to be prepared, she said. “But you don’t want to traumatize children and their families by overreacting to something that you hope never happens.”
Despite efforts to insulate them, Malvey said even the youngest children at the school learn about the violence that happens elsewhere.
“The feeling of our staff is, ‘This isn’t what I signed up for,’ yet our teachers, like those in Newtown, would do anything they could to save our kids.”
The Rev. Joel Hunter, senior pastor of a megachurch in the Orlando, Fla., said he hopes the Oregon shooting will help galvanize the faith community to do more than pray and mourn.
“We are in danger of becoming desensitized to these events,” he said. “But there’s a growing sense in many of us that we’re reaching a tipping point of needing to address this in some way.”
“Nobody wants to take the Second Amendment away, but on the other hand it’s against the law to have bazookas,” he added. “Where in the middle can we make a difference in the trend that we’re now seeing?”
American society, Hunter said, has become more combative and angry, to a degree that calls for him and other gun-rights supporters to reconsider their stance.
“There has to be a conversation: are there sensible regulations, sensible precautions that all of us could have in mind in the sale of weapons, the access to weapons?” he said.
But John Bloom, 58, a retired mechanical engineer from Tucson, Ariz., was skeptical that tougher gun laws were the answer.
“There’s so many guns out,” he said. “Even if you rounded them up, there’s still going to be a whole black market of guns, and the crazy people will still get their hands on the guns.”
Bloom, interviewed while visiting a history museum in Raleigh, N.C., said the frequency of the mass shootings was “terrible.”
“I feel horrible for the younger generations who have to live with this,” he said. “It’s not us older people. It’s more the younger generations that are going to be fearful to even go to school anymore.”
In Hartford, Conn., 19-year-old Angel Torres said he wasn’t shocked by the Oregon shootings
“I think people are kind of getting used to it,” said Torres, who added that his cousin was shot to death in gang violence in Hartford about seven years ago.
John Nicoletti, a police psychologist in Colorado who has worked with police departments after mass shootings, said he is frustrated by the public’s perception that nothing can be done to curtail them.
“People don’t realize there are a number of success cases, but those are ones you never hear of,” he said. “Every school has a threat assessment protocol. When people broadcast threats, they are being taken seriously. Shootings are prevented every day.”
Murphy, the congressman who wept in his office, is a practicing psychologist. He is frustrated that the recent mass shootings – many by psychologically troubled assailants — have failed to produce more support for a bill of his that would overhaul aspects of the mental health care system in the United States.
“Next week, when we go into session, we will have a moment of silence,” he said. “What we should be doing is taking action.”
In New Orleans, Zee Thornton, 31, expressed uncertainty as to what the solution might be.
“It’s not just gun control. It’s the mental health system. It’s all kinds of things,” she said. “I don’t think there’s an easy fix, so that does make me afraid that it’s just a new part of the American experience. I’m afraid of that.”