Video: Morristown police chief on gun control and how to survive mass shootings


There are many voices in the gun control debate. An important one is law enforcement.

On Thursday, Morristown Police Chief Pete Demnitz told community activists that stricter gun controls alone won’t prevent tragedies like last month’s massacre of children and teachers in Newtown, CT. Nor can police guarantee safety–no matter how well trained and well armed they are. Not unless society is willing to turn schools into fortresses.

Ultimately, the Chief contended, 21st-century citizens must rely on the same thing that saved their forebears on the frontier: Their wits.

“In the United States of America, we’ve had an expectation that legislation and government is the answer. And we’ve lost a lot of our ability to survive,” said the Chief,  sharing some candid observations with a new grass-roots local group called the Committee Against Gun Violence.

He wasn’t talking about bunkers in Montana.

Survival, he asserts in our video clip, often boils down to something as basic as knowing where the exits are, and using them at the first sign of trouble.  When considering your options, “Ninety-nine percent of the time, it should be: Flee,”  said the Chief, who has studied mass shootings since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado.

Some victims of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings would have survived if they had run instead of instinctively hiding under desks, the Chief said.

PREACHING SURVIVAL: Morristown Police Chief Pete Demnitz said everyone must learn how to react in dangerous situations. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

PREACHING SURVIVAL: Morristown Police Chief Pete Demnitz urged everyone to learn how to react in dangerous situations. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“It’s a very sad case, because kids were killed where they lay, and there was an ability to flee. And we’ve lost our ability to survive, and our most basic instinct–which is to run away.”

Of course, he worries about the firepower that his officers could encounter from citizens armed with assault weapons. But he noted that gun control measures announced in New York State and proposed by President Obama still allow magazines with multiple rounds of ammunition–and popping in another magazine only takes a couple of seconds for a determined shooter.

“I want you to maintain the energy” of your campaign, the Chief told the activists, who included elected officials, clergy, social service workers, school board members, moms and seniors. “But if you’re going to work on getting rid of assault weapons, I [also] want you to think about how to survive.”

That means learning survival skills taught to every cop. Size up a room the minute you walk in. Who is there?  Does anyone look threatening?  Where are the exits?

A book called The Unthinkable, Who Survives When Disaster Strikes–and Why,  by Time magazine correspondent Amanda Ripley, should be required reading for everyone, the Chief said.

On 9/11, a woman inside the doomed World Trade Center squandered precious moments by hunting for a misplaced mystery novel before attempting to escape, the Chief told listeners.

“If I told you: ‘Get out of this building, right away,’ I guarantee you three or four would reach for your bag,” said the Chief.

His hypothetical scenario had an eerie authenticity to it. He was speaking at the Morristown & Township Library, in a basement conference room a few yards from the location of a powerful 2010 explosion. Swift action by library staffers–alert to tell-tale warning signs–evacuated the building moments before that blast (still unsolved), almost certainly saving lives.

Gun control measures proposed by President Obama include training for school officials and emergency responders on how to respond to active shooting situations, and development of model emergency response plans for schools and other institutions.

In the wake of last spring’s suicide by a freshman who authorities say was bullied, the Chief assigned a police officer to Morristown High School. The officer has proven popular, winning the trust of students, he said. Likewise, Morris Township has placed an officer at Frelinghuysen Middle School. The Chief expressed confidence that students would alert these officers if they knew trouble was brewing. But placing police in every school would be a costly proposition, he acknowledged.

There is one piece of legislation that Chief Demnitz would welcome. As police chief, he approves all gun permits in town; he estimated 40 percent of the population is armed. His approval consists of a background check. Unlike motorists, no test or training is required by law.

“I sign off on a piece of paper that says you have a clean background,” he explained. “Do you know how to load that weapon? Do you know how to keep it safe? Are you getting any safety instruction?”

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  1. Rosary Lescohier says:

    Thanks for posting this video; I’ve passed it on to others and hope all will do the same.

    It has some important information for all of us, regardless of our views on how the gun violence issue should be resolved.

  2. Councilwoman Rebecca Feldman says:

    Thanks to co-host Pam Hasegawa and to the forty citizens who showed up to talk about the controversial topic of mobilizing to reduce gun violence.

    Chief Demnitz, thank you for sharing your professional observations with the public.

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