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Martial Arts Instructor responds to Connecticut Tragedy

posted Dec 15, 2012, 5:30 PM by David Johnson   [ updated Jan 8, 2013, 9:56 PM ]

Over the past few weeks, a number of thoughts have been crystallizing in my head, with the encouragement of current events.

As martial arts instructors, whenever there is a tragic crime committed against children, the parents of our students invariably make a point of thanking us for teaching their kids to defend themselves. With every “thank you”, the burden of what we teach becomes more solid.

The events of the past few weeks are:

  • In New Town, Connecticut, a lone gunman shot up a kindergarten class, killing 27 people

  • Just a few blocks from my home a little girl was brutally murdered by her neighbor,

  • One of my students has started to talk candidly to me about how his teen aged brother treats him

Because of a strip of colored cloth I wear, I am expected to have answers. Instead, I have questions and uncertainty like anyone else. However, it occurs to me as I am writing that my questions and uncertainty focus a bit differently than the general public.

New Town, Connecticut, 2012

I will digress to define a few terms that I will be using through this article. A “hard target” is a place where an attacker can expect to meet heavy resistance and have a difficult time. A “soft target” is a place where an attacker can expect almost no resistance, and what ever resistance there is will be ineffective. For our purposes, a police station would be a hard target, whereas a preschool would be a soft target.   

“Ranged” refers to stuff that happens a long ways away, whereas “melee” refers to stuff that happens when the combatants are able to touch each other. Guns and arrows are examples of ranged weapons, knives, swords, and ones own body are all examples of melee weapons.

Attackers are not trying to challenge their ability. They are trying to cause as much damage as possible for as long as possible. They will not go after a hard target where they would be quickly frustrated and subdued, they will go after a soft target. They will prefer ranged weapons that give them time and distance to react, over melee weapons that keep them entangled with their victims. Just because they are not entirely sane, does not mean they are stupid.

In Connecticut, my question centers not on “why did this happen”, but on “how can we minimize the impact when this happens again”. In other words, I start with the premise that attacks on soft targets are inevitable, if unpredictable, and should be planned for. For me, the question moves almost immediately from the philosophical to the technical.

I am a proponent of the idea that part of the normal training for school teachers should be concealed weapons, with the understanding that they are responsible for the safety of our children that are in their care. Since we cannot predict when and where a nutcase will attack, all teachers need to be prepared and equipped for defense.

From the perspective of a person intent on causing harm, the modern school could not be better designed physically and socially to be the ultimate playground. Once the perimeter is breached, there is nothing to stop the attacker except running out of ammunition. In most classrooms, there is no way for people to escape except through the attacker's line of attack. Whether the mode of attack is a gun, a knife, or bare hands, the result is the same.

Students and teachers are conditioned by the well-intended “zero tolerance” policies to be compliant and not look out for their own safety. As a result, when under stress, they freeze in place and become easier targets.

Ironically, the Harry Potter books offer a general principle for keeping a school safe. The fictional Hogwarts, teaching middle through high school levels, was constructed first and foremost as a fortress with aggressively active defenses, with multiple fallback positions that give defenders familiar with the environment the ability to retreat safely while continuing to defend, and final means of escape should the building be completely taken. While we cannot deploy magical statuary on the school grounds to hammer would-be intruders intent on harm, the principle of aggressive defense in layers is a standard strategy when faced with potentially overwhelming force.

Speaking from a purely technical perspective, in order to prevent tragedies like this one, new schools should be built with layered defenses that can be actively protected. If the “buzz in” lockout is defeated, the next layer should also provide obstacles to the gunman. At every step, when the school is under attack, the building structure should provide obstacles to the attacker and opportunities to the defender. We should be able to evacuate each layer of the structure quickly and with impunity as the attacker advances.

In the mid 1600's, Vauban engineered systems of fortifications that could be easily defended, then abandoned with impunity once their usefulness had ended. Even today, Vauban's fortifications are impressive. His doctrines of defense in layers and detached forts are now considered standard military doctrine. (Example:

The school in question had a lockout system in place, which the gunman was able to defeat rather easily. Once the gunman had defeated the lockout system, the only tools left to defend the students were the bodies of the school staff. The school principal and psychologist both rushed the gunman, and neither succeeded in disarming him. Both died for their courage.

Unlike the movies, possession of a black belt does not mean one can dodge bullets or magically perform gymnastic feats while perfectly targeting an opponents hands to disarm them. Had I been there, the reality is that, even if I could get close enough, at best I would have an optimistic 50/50 chance of disarming the gunman without being shot myself. But, being real life, the odds are very much against me getting close enough to the gunman to try to use hand-to-hand techniques to disarm.

In an open space confrontation the person with the longer ranged weapon wins. David used a sling (max range 725 yards) to disable the sword wielding Goliath (max range 2 yards), long enough to kill him. In 2002, the Iraqi airforce didn't even launch because their in-flight radar's range was 25 miles, whereas the American aircraft could engage at 100 miles and, when the MiG was hit, would still be over 30 miles away. While the school is not an open space, it is not a sufficiently confined to negate the advantage of a ranged weapon over an armed or unarmed melee fighter.

After the “buzz-in” lockout device, the first layer of defense in the typical school is that the main entrance goes through or past the school office. Unfortunately, school office staff are neither positioned nor equipped to deal with an armed attacker. They sit behind desks, so they cannot use hand-to-hand techniques even if they were trained to do so, and they are unarmed. The second line of defense is, in effect a deathtrap for any would-be defenders. They cannot even escape without going through the attacker.

However, if the people behind the desks were armed, the situation changes. The office area is still relatively exposed, but with a little rearrangement of furniture, the entrance to the school becomes a deathtrap to the attacker. In a case like this, with a single attacker entering via the front door, the incident ends in the vestibule between the front door and the office.

A Vauban style defense would have also helped in the Columbine massacre. In this case, the attackers planned the operation for at least a year. They pre-planted two propane bombs in the school cafeteria, timed to explode at 11:17, just two minutes after the cafeteria the maximum 500 students served each day were seated. The attackers were going to cherry pick panicked survivors as they left the cafeteria. Had the bombs exploded as planned, the death toll would have been hundreds.

When the attackers pre-positioned propane bombs both failed, the attackers entered the school themselves. They moved from section to section of the school unopposed, playing “peek-a-boo” with cowering students and staff before they killed them, for nearly an hour before they killed themselves. There was no credible defense of the school, and the lone police officer that exchanged shots with them failed to resolve the situation.

A school that was constructed to be defended, with people actively and credibly defending it, will not prevent people from attempting to harm students. But it would have gone a long way towards reducing the amount of harm that could be done. In my opinion, a credible defense means effective ranged weapons in the hands of well trained staff.

Follwup note:

After this posting, it became public knowledge that 30% of US schools already have armed security of some form.