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What makes the Virginia Beach shooting different from other massacres

In Virginia Beach, thousands of city employees gathered Monday to mourn friends and colleagues killed in Friday’s mass shooting at a government building. Police haven’t yet shared a motive for the attack but have revealed details about the shooter's weapon. Amna Nawaz talks to former Homeland Security official Juliette Kayyem about what made this shooting different and how the law should react.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thousands of city employees gathered today at a Virginia Beach Convention Center to mourn friends and colleagues killed in Friday's shooting at a government building. Twelve people were killed. Four others were critically injured.

    Outside the building where the attack occurred, there are now makeshift memorials. We will have our own remembrance shortly.

    Police still haven't provided a motive, but we learned this weekend that the shooter used a suppressor attached to a .45-caliber handgun. The suppressor lowers the sound of a gunshot, and its use has raised concern for some experts.

    Among them, Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary of homeland security during the Obama administration. She is now a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and joins us from Boston.

    Juliette Kayyem, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    You argue in an op-ed for The Washington Post that the use of a suppressor in this shooting — quote — "threatens to upend how we understand and train for how active shooter cases in the future."

    What did you mean by that? How does this change things for you?

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    Well, that's exactly right.

    First, to understand what a suppressor does, we commonly understand it as a silencer. It doesn't actually silence. It reduces the decibel level anywhere from 20 to 35 millimeters, and — and it distorts where the gunshot may be coming from.

    We don't know the specifics in this case and what happened in Virginia Beach, but there is sort of firsthand quotes from people in the building saying they had no awareness of what was happening. A suppressor can make it sound like metal hitting — like a metal chair across the floor, that you don't know where it is.

    So why is this relevant? Well, we don't see this very often in the active shooter cases. We — it's actually quite rare. The assailant in this case clearly spent some time trying to get a suppressor. And you have to wonder why.

    And the reason why it's disconcerting for first-responders is because we train the public to, as we commonly understand it, run, hide or fight. And the running and the hiding are dependent on knowing what in fact is going on. Any delay in the capacity for the potential bystanders or victims to run, let alone for the first-responders to know where they're running to, just raises an additional wrinkle that a lot of us on the outside are looking at this case as sort of an unhappy surprise that we haven't seen before.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's worth pointing out that, for many Americans, unless you have heard gunfire before, you don't know exactly what it is you should be listening for.

    I remember, after the Christchurch shooting, there were survivors who said, we didn't know they were gunshots. That's why we kept praying. We heard the same thing after the Thousand Oaks shooting, after another shooting, the Las Vegas shooting, for example. People think they hear fireworks or firecrackers.

    Does the suppressor really change how people react?

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    So there's a debate about that. And I think it probably depends a little bit on whether people have heard gunfire before.

    Look, I'm not minimizing the fact that the assailant in this case actually knew the facility. That helped him considerably. But if you put that together with the silencer, or the suppressor, you have a situation in which not only do people not know how to respond, but, as importantly, the police officers and the first-responders have both a muted sort of noise level and a capacity to know where that noise is coming from.

    This was a very, very long firefight. We are going to know a lot more about what happened in the days to come, as there's after-action reports. But, nonetheless, it is worth — the reason why I wrote that piece is, as there is political movement to make the ability to get suppressors easier for the American public and the American gun-owning public, it is worth those who oppose it knowing one of the impacts is going to be in our capacity to respond.

    And in an active shooter case, there's not much people can do but run away, if you're a bystander or a potential victim, or run to if you're a first-responder.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned some of the efforts to make it easier to get the suppressor.

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It is actually pretty difficult right now. It's worth pointing out that it takes an extensive background check, much more extensive than even buying an average firearm.

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It can take up to seven or eight months. The shooter in this case, we believe, clearly crossed that hurdle.

    So what kind of additional regulation do you think would prevent something like this from happening?

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    So, right now, about 42 states allow it. It is regulated under the National Fire Firearms Act.

    As recently as about a year-and-a-half ago, there was a movement on the Hill to actually reduce some of those standards, or at least lower some of those standards for background checks. That should absolutely not happen. And I think, because you have House Democrats pushing against it now, it probably won't.

    Nonetheless, there is — at least for many of us in this space, whether you are for guns or against guns, there is not a very good reason for there to be a major market for suppressors. A lot of people talk about the — your ears when you're shooting, the noise level.

    There are actually alternatives in the market, including earmuffs or the equivalent of earmuffs that mute the sound. But, in other words, what we need to do is not lower those standards, and then assess, how did he get through this background check and whether we shouldn't make them more rigorous.

    But, listen, there's no question here that there is a movement to make it easier to get suppressors. Virginia Beach should be a sort of wakeup call, that that not only harms people who might be victims, but harms the ability for police to get in quickly and know where the sound is coming from.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We only have about 30 seconds left. But I do want to ask you. Every time we have one of these shootings, every time there is a call for a specific kind of reform, the pushback is that we cannot legislate away piece by piece our gun reform and ending gun violence.

    What do you say to that?

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    Sure — sure, we can.

    I mean, this is like the mythology of gun violence and gun legislation. First of all, in states that have more rigorous gun laws, they actually have less handgun violence. So there is actually a correlation between gun permissiveness and murders.

    But, more importantly, as a homeland security issue, the area I study, what I'm concerned about is, do we have weaponry that can kill a lot of people quickly? In other words, do — and what you want to do is minimize the ability of someone to do great harm very fast without the capacity for people to run away or be rescued.

    And so that's why you don't — I'm against semiautomatic rifles. And, in this case, to limit the capacity people to have suppressors which would harm first-responders, as much as it would harm potential victims, is absolutely key.

    We can do this piecemeal. Do not let the perfect be enemy of the good. Legislation has worked in the past, and it will work in the future.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Juliette Kayyem of the Homeland Security Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, thanks for being with us.

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    Thank you.

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