11 March 2009


That's what the Germans call it when someone goes on an American-style shooting rampage -- he "runs amok." As if in a mad echo of last night's news from Geneva County, Alabama, where a man killed nine people and himself, a German kid shot up his high school in Wissenden this morning. He chose not to make his stand there, but fled the scene. The polizei caught up with him, and he apparently died in a shootout after taking out two more victims.

The German crime more closely fits the pattern we're used to. The Alabaman doesn't seem to have been interested in making his last stand in some great public space like a school, but went from place to place settling scores or indulging impulses, killing both relatives and random people. Rather than emulate some deviant pattern, he more likely went singularly mad. As for the German, I fear he embodies the globalization of the American pathology, like the Finnish kid (if I remember his nationality correctly) from some months ago who openly admired the Columbine killers. The odd detail about the German story is that the kid, in making his getaway, hijacked a car, but left the driver and passengers in the road unhurt. Perhaps he was replaying the scene where the Terminator merely throws a driver out the door of a truck, saying only "Get out" and not bothering to shoot him. Or maybe his killing frenzy was spent, to be resparked only when the cops closed in.

As it happens, I have in my hand today the Library of America's True Crime anthology of nonfiction writing. The book includes an account of Howard Unruh, whom the editors identify as the first modern "mass murderer." He was a World War II veteran who collected weapons and nursed grudges against his neighbors in Camden, New Jersey. Nearly sixty years ago, on September 6, 1949, Unruh strolled about the neighborhood, going into shops and shooting people. He killed twelve people before running out of ammo and surrendering in a cloud of tear gas. He told police that he had grown tired of neighbors "making derogatory remarks about my character." He has lived to a ripe old age in a mental hospital. Unruh reminds me of the late Alabaman in his combination of targeted and random killings, but we can only go so far in forcing these killers into some theoretical pattern. How do you explain a man going berserk in 1949, long before all the decadent trends in society and culture that people like to blame for modern mass murders? How can you attempt generalized explanations when Unruh alone, in his generation of trained killers, did something on this scale?

All we can note is that none of these people would have done as much damage as they did if they didn't have guns. And for those who suggest that guns are the answer to the problems guns raise, here's a detail from the Unruh story. Frank Engel, a tavern keeper, saw what was going on, grabbed his pistol and went to his apartment window

He saw Unruh pause for a moment in a narrow alley between the cobbler's shop and a little two-story house. He aimed and fired. Unruh stopped for just a second. The bullet had hit, but he did not seem to mind, after the initial brief shock. He headed toward the corner drug store, and Engel did not fire again.

"I wish I had," he said later, "I could have killed him then. I could have put a half-dozen shots into him. I don't know why I didn't do it."

Unruh killed six more people after Engel's intervention. A lot of modern gun enthusiasts offer a lot of big talk about what they'd do if they found themselves in scenes like this, but I suspect most of them would act like Engel -- though I wonder how many would even get one shot off before freezing. As the gun nuts say, "guns don't kill people, people do," and killing people takes a certain mentality, one suspects, that doesn't come naturally to most of us. That's why we try to retroactively psychoanalyze those who do kill. Gun ownership is no guarantee that random people will have either the skill or the courage to intervene effectively when someone runs amok. But if some people can kill more readily than Frank Engel, how close are such folks to turning into Howard Unruhs, killing when they feel like it? Society's imperative should always be to limit the damage such people might do. Encouraging more people to own and carry guns is like telling them to fight fires with gasoline.

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