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Lessons learned aid Aurora response, but were warning signs unheeded?

James Eagan Holmes, the suspected gunman in the deadly Aurora, Colo. movie theater shooting, makes his first court appearance. NBC's Brian Williams, Kate Snow and Mike Taibbi report with TODAY's Savannah Guthrie.


While lessons learned from previous mass shootings may have helped limit the carnage in the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting, it remains unclear whether there were warning signs that might have been missed.  

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Although it is too soon after the tragedy to draw any hard conclusions (unlike the shooting that took but a few minutes, investigations of such events are meticulous, time consuming affairs), it seems likely that lessons learned from similar events might well have reduced the human toll, which currently stands at 12 dead and 58 injured. 

It appears that first responders in Aurora arrived on the scene no more than a minute or two after calls began flooding 911.  That rapid response meant that the suspect was quickly detained, possibly preventing additional casualties. In addition, emergency medical care arrived shortly after, undoubtedly comforting and likely saving many of the wounded.  And in the coming days, counselors and other medical professionals will surely provide support to both the countless physical and emotional victims of the early morning shooting.

Each of these efficient and effective responses is born of past tragedies.  Through similar events close by (Columbine) and far away (the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, India), first responders learned of the need for rapid intervention, securing a perimeter and waiting for specialized units.  Whether it is an active shooter scenario or a Mumbai-style terrorist attack, state, local and federal authorities have modified their tactics and training to fit what has regrettably become a semi-regular occurrence. 

Hard questions remain
But early indications are that some other lessons of the past may be more elusive.  Much focus has of course been on the shooter, and indeed it is critical that his past behavior be closely examined for warning signs that might have been missed.  In some cases, terrorist or non-politically motivated shooters display outward signs of future violence —either through antisocial behavior or obtaining weapons or their precursors — potentially putting officials in a position to disrupt the attack before it happens. As last week’s report on the Fort Hood shooting noted, however, even when such warning signs are present, our ability to identify them properly and take action is mixed. 

Such is surely the case as well for non-terrorism-related violence, as criminologists have long struggled with accurately identifying future criminals. 

That can be a slippery slope. If concerns about “false positives” are discounted, then we are more likely to intervene in the lives of those who show warning signs, but are merely eccentric, not dangerous.

As the nation agonizes over Friday's massacre in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, family and friends are sharing stories and memories of the 12 people who lost their lives. NBC's Savannah Guthrie reports.

In short, although we might be able to improve our ability to spot the next mass shooter or serial killer before the crime is committed, attempting to do so raises numerous legal and ethical questions and likely won’t be easy or particularly effective.  It hasn’t worked in the past and it is unlikely to work in the near future.

One need not be a terrorism expert or criminologist to know that every society has faced criminals and mad men before.  Are there more terrorists or mass murderers today than in the past?  Perhaps.  But what is unquestionably true is that it has become increasingly easy for murderers of any stripe to kill more and more people in one fell swoop.

In some parts of the world, terrorists have had to be innovative to do so.  The 2005 al-Qaida-inspired terrorist attacks in London, for example, used improvised explosive devices composed in large part of concentrated hydrogen peroxide.  Creating these weapons wasn’t excessively difficult, but doing so required some care. More than a few trained terrorists have tried and failed in the past, both in the U.S. (Faizal Shahzad in Times Square in 2009) and the U.K. (the bombers of July 21, 2005).  Early reports also allege that Holmes engaged in such explosives plotting. 

In the U.S., however, counterterrorism officials and police have long since accepted that neither creativity nor immense skill is required for an individual to be an effective mass murderer. The ready availability (either legally or illegally) of semi-automatic weapons with high-capacity magazines makes such killing remarkably easy.  Moreover, given the endless supply of “soft targets” in our open society, it is simply impossible to harden every theater, school and workplace. 

When I served as the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, whenever I was asked, “What keeps you up at night?” I without fail focused on a lone wolf who would be difficult if not impossible to detect and armed to the teeth with deadly firearms.  And while some of my foreign police and security counterparts had similar fears, all were sympathetic to the vastly greater challenges we faced in the U.S., where such weapons are so easily accessible. 

Looking ahead
None of this provides an easy answer.  Would stricter control of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines in the U.S. reduce mass murders?  Perhaps, but the current inventory is so vast that we might only be closing the proverbial barn door. Would an armed moviegoer have been able to stop the Aurora shooter in his tracks?  Again, perhaps, although given his preparations and the mayhem it would surely have been difficult for even a highly trained individual to do much good.  Needless to say, addressing any of these issues is made even more difficult by the political swirl around gun control -- not to mention the very real limitations of our Constitution’s Second Amendment. 

That being said, we must be honest about the challenges we face. We will never identify and stop all of the crazed killers before they strike, whether they are motivated by al-Qaida or something even more mysterious within their heads.  We can detect some through community-focused efforts, but there is no panacea or even anything close.  In addition, while we can reduce the carnage, no system of first responders will make us perfectly safe. 

While the truly committed killers will always find ways to kill, we regrettably live in a society where even the near-spontaneous, untrained individual can bring tragedy to the doorstep of entire communities.  Our freedom -- to live in a non-police state, to have a degree of privacy and most especially to bear arms -- has very real costs.  The destructiveness of certain firearms in the hands of some individuals increases those costs. We must all pay the price -- but none moreso than the victims in Aurora and elsewhere. 

Michael Leiter is a former director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center and NBC News consultant.

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