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Anatomy of a Mass Murder: a Crib Sheet for the Press

by

Let me start with a completely unfair statement.  Coverage of mass shooting events could and should be much more insightful, factual and analytical.  It is unfair because I cannot be aware of all or most reporting.  Even so, my opinion about coverage is probably fair in the context of what most news consumers see, hear, and read.

First, there appears to be little understanding of weapons; in the alternative there may be the assumption that technical details would detract from reporting.  Second there appears to be little understanding of police training, weaponry, equipment, and tactics.  Third, timelines are rarely presented to the public, even when they are important.

I am not well qualified to address these problems, but am better qualified than the media folks talking to me.  I grew up shooting and used an M-16 as a combat infantryman in Vietnam; since then I have not touched a firearm.

The moment I heard the firing on the videos from Las Vegas, I knew that the weapons could not have been variants of M-16s, AK-47s, or Uzi-type machine pistols.  The rates of fire were too slow.  I suspected grandfathered Browning Automatic Rifles or similar artifacts; the most common World War II BAR variants had slowish rates of fire.  Had I been aware of bump-stocks, I should have considered them likely.  Media outlets should have had experts that could tell them about rates of fire and they should have detailed technicians to slow the tapes and calculate precise rates of fire.

Reporting concerning the actions of law enforcement has been profoundly disappointing: consisting of effusively repeated statements that all were brave and omni-competent and that they saved many lives.  Reporting that I am aware of makes it impossible either to confirm or critique such statements.

Let me provide my gleaning from reporting about Las Vegas, what it enables me to conclude and guess, and what additional questions should be asked.

Shooting started at about 22:08.

It continued for 8, 9, 10, or 11 minutes.  Was there any firing out of the hotel after that period?

Roughly 550 were killed or injured.  The hospital that handled the largest number of victims (but probably fewer of the most critical cases) reported that roughly two-thirds of their patients had gunshot wounds; the remainder mostly had trampling injuries or various contusions.  Assume roughly 400 gunshot victims.  Considering that some victims had multiple wounds and that some bullets hit more than one victim and knowing now that fire from a bump-stock equipped rifle is basically unaimable, I come up with a SWAG that Paddock fired up to 2,000 rounds vaguely toward a mass of people – a mass that thinned over time.

Is the 1:6 ratio of killed to wounded among gunshot victims what would have been expected?  Does it tell us anything? 

Assuming ten minutes of shooting (and law enforcement probably has a very precise timing), he might have fired 200 rounds per minute from weapons with a fully-automatic rate of fire of 400 or a little more.  Two weapons shown in photos of Paddock’s room appear to have one 30-round banana clip and one larger, possibly 40-round, magazine.  Law enforcement knows exactly what he had.  It is reported that 12 of his 23 firearms were bump-stock-equipped. Hence, another SWAG: he reloaded each rifle four times; every ten seconds he emptied one magazine, swapped in a fresh magazine, and was poised to fire a nearby weapon.  This would have required meticulous pre-positioning of weapons and magazines and rigorous practice of his movements, particularly if he was working in the dark.  Law enforcement should already have tried to replicate what Paddock did and correlated it with audio and video recordings to establish a probable effective rate of fire.  They also have collected and counted the brassMy guesses of 2,000 total and 200 per minute may be unachievably high.  What have they concluded about how and how much he fired and how have they done so?  How many weapons malfunctioned and what effect, if any, might malfunctions have had upon what Paddock did?  To be asked soon:  How many retrieved rounds can be tied to each weapon and what does that tell us about patterns in the rate and efficacy of fire during the ten or so minutes?

For the first three days after the shooting, the media I followed seemed to know or care little about a timeline.  This is what I learned:

22:07 or 08 – Firing started.

22:08 – First 911 calls.

Within a minute or two – A 911 call from a 31st-floor Mandalay Bay guest, who reported automatic fire from the room directly overhead.

While firing continued – Officers were telling each other that firing was coming from broken windows high in the Mandalay Bay.

22:18 +/- – Firing stopped.

23:12 – SWAT team blew in the door and found Paddock dead.

This morning – Thursday (the fourth day), the following additional items were reported:

22:17 – Paddock fired 200 rounds into the hotel hall and wounded a hotel security guard.

22:55 – SWAT team arrived outside Paddock’s room.

This evolving timeline leaves many questions that, to my knowledge, have not been asked or answered:

Among first-responding law enforcement, what radio network(s) were they connected to?  How many learned promptly about the source of gunfire?  Those who had good and timely intelligence were in a position to give concert-goers advice on where to take cover and where and when to run (recognizing that they may have worried that there were other shooters firing from different locations).  While it is certain that they saved lives, what can we say about how well they did and what can we learn about what to do better the next time?  In past cases, how rigorous and professional have been our after-action reviews and how strong has been our commitment to learning and disseminating lessons?  I understand that not every lesson should be made public, considering that we may not want future perpetrators to have detailed knowledge of police tactics.

Specifically, was it concluded that the police in Orlando could have saved more lives in the Pulse night club if their response had been quicker and less tentative.  Understand that there may be a tendency to accept effusive praise and not ask tough questions.  And in cases where there is criticism rather than praise, experience tells us that police often do not go out of their way to seek and learn from hard truths.

The latest timeline leaves plenty of questions unanswered?  A few which ought to be asked of the sheriff’s office spokespeople:

Why did it take 38 minutes for police to reach the 32nd floor after they learned exactly where the shooter was?

Did the police have reason to believe or know that there would be no more shooting after 22:18?  If so, what did they know?  If not, why did they proceed so slowly?

Did and how did the hotel notify guests on the 32nd floor (and probably adjacent floors) of danger?  What instructions were given?  What measures were taken by the hotel and/or police to prevent Paddock from proceeding to a stairway or to break into another guest room?  Were elevators selectively or completely disabled?  Where did the 200 rounds fired into the hallway end up?   How many went into other guest rooms?  How many went into the night sky?  Have any been found outside the hotel?  Were any shots fired into Paddock’s room from the hall?  If so, where did they end up?

How many rounds were fired into the Mandalay Bay from outside?  Into Paddock’s suite?  Into other rooms?  Were snipers with night scopes deployed to watch and possibly fire into Paddock’s broken windows?  How quickly?  What were their rules of engagement?  Which of Paddock’s weapons had flash suppressors?

What were the police prepared to do if Paddock resumed firing out the windows?

Did he exhaust his assault rifle ammo?  Is there reason to believe that the security guard(s) brought Paddock’s assault on the concert-goers to an end?  Whether or not this is the case, what can we and the police learn from the hotel’s preparations and the actions of its employees?

It seems clear that first responders – police, firefighters, and EMTs – saved lives.  How many?  How could they have done better?

It seems likely that hotel personnel saved lives.  How many?  How could they have done better?

Reporters, please use this as a crib sheet, ask any or all suggested questions, and add additional questions of your own.

Beyond the scope of this essay but no less important are questions about security planning for major events, about the tracking of firearm and accessory purchasing, and about autopsies of murderers who commit incomprehensible atrocities.

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