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peter-sellsJan. 3, 2013, Toronto – This is a bit of a different blog, given that the fire service in North America has been dealing with a different type of grief. As I write this, the West Webster Fire Department in Webster, N.Y. has just buried two of their own, and is coping with the deaths of Lt. Mike Chiapperini and firefighter Tomasz Kaczowka. Both were fatally shot as they stepped off of their apparatus on Christmas Eve, in an ambush set up by an ex-convict who set fire to the house he shared with his sister (who lay dead in the house as his first victim). Two other firefighters were grievously wounded. Numerous statements of empathy, grief, shock and support have been expressed over the last two weeks, many of which relate to the fact that although firefighter line-of-duty deaths are an unfortunate reality, none of us would ever expect to be gunned down at a fire scene.

January 3, 2013
By Peter Sells

Jan. 3, 2013, Toronto – This is a bit of a different blog, given that the fire service in North America has been dealing with a different type of grief. As I write this, the West Webster Fire Department in Webster, N.Y. has just buried two of their own, and is coping with the deaths of Lt. Mike Chiapperini and firefighter Tomasz Kaczowka. Both were fatally shot as they stepped off of their apparatus on Christmas Eve, in an ambush set up by an ex-convict who set fire to the house he shared with his sister (who lay dead in the house as his first victim). Two other firefighters were grievously wounded. Numerous statements of empathy, grief, shock and support have been expressed over the last two weeks, many of which relate to the fact that although firefighter line-of-duty deaths are an unfortunate reality, none of us would ever expect to be gunned down at a fire scene.

West Webster was not the first fire department to suffer such a loss. Firefighter Ryan Hummert, a 22-year-old rookie with the Maplewood Fire Department in Missouri was shot to death in July 2008. Lt. Javier Lerma and Pvt. William Blakemore, of the Memphis Fire Department in Tennessee, along with Sheriff’s Deputy Rupert Peete, were shot to death in March 2000. In Webster, Maplewood and Memphis, the firefighters and other responders were set up for murder by shooters who deliberately set house fires to draw their victims to the scene.

There is a lot of focus on the dysfunctional American gun culture right now, as the Webster incident came in the wake of the unbearably tragic school shootings in Newtown, Conn. We have had school shootings in Canada as well, with multiple victims at Brampton Centennial Secondary School in 1975, École Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989, and Concordia University in 1992. I am not aware of any shooting incidents involving Canadian firefighters, but the murder of four RCMP officers in Mayerthorpe, Alta., in March 2005 should serve to show that uniformed responders can be targets in this country as well as in the USA.

Although there are reams of statistics showing that overall firearms deaths are far greater in the U.S. than in Canada (some studies show U.S. per-capita risk as 10 times that of Canada), I have not seen any studies that show school shootings or responder ambushes being more or less likely in either country when population is considered. This may be an indication that such manifestations of extraordinary rage may have as much to do with mental health as with access to weaponry. I hope that more research can be done to get down to the root causes. Logic would dictate, however, that an unstable person with a high-powered assault rifle is more dangerous than an unstable person with a hockey stick.

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I am not here to propose solutions to our American neighbours. They will have to sort out for themselves how the Second Amendment to their constitution, which states that;

"A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,"

became free and unfettered civilian access to military assault hardware. That amendment, part of the U.S. Bill of Rights, was intended to codify similar rights inherited from the English Bill of Rights of 1689, which declared;

“That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.”

One historical point needs clarification: the specific mention of Protestant rights in the English Bill of Rights was to restore rights to those who had been disarmed by the late King James II, a Catholic who had attempted to raise a personal standing army to suppress Protestant opposition. When Americans defend the Second Amendment as their right to oppose oppressive government, they are reflecting the European and colonial political power struggles of the 17th and 18th centuries. Of course, most of them don’t know that that’s what they are doing; they are just repeating far-outdated rhetoric. Their well-regulated militia performed so poorly against British professionals and British-trained Canadian militia in the War of 1812 that the entire concept of an armed civilian force being adequate to ensure national security had to be re-thought.

Another important difference is that the English document qualifies the right as allowed by law, whereas the American document maintains that it shall not be infringed. Some critics argue that the contemporary muskets allowed by the Second Amendment do not translate into the hardware available today, but “shall not be infringed” is an open-ended statement extending into the future. Muskets were state of the art infantry weapons in 1789.

All of this being said, arguments about the historical context of the Second Amendment, or whether the English Bill of Rights gives Canadians the right to bear arms as part of common law, are missing the point completely. What should be openly and freely discussed is what type or level of civilian armament is appropriate and acceptable in this century. Who should and who should not have access to automatic weapons, high-capacity magazines and large quantities of ammunition? If constitutional documents, which are bordering on ancient history, are no longer relevant, should they be amended or replaced?

Dawn Nguyen, a 24-year-old neighbour of the West Webster shooter, had gone with him to shop for the weapons used in the attack, knowing that, as a convicted felon, he could not legally do so himself. She has been arrested on two charges for knowingly making a false statement for signing a form indicating she would be the legal owner of the guns, and for filing a falsified business record. In fact, she is an accessory to three murders and two attempted murders. Any argument that the current situation is adequate since she will be prosecuted for her misdeeds (he didn’t have access to the weapons as a convicted felon, and she wasn’t supposed to do what she did) is frankly ridiculous. She may have had the right to purchase an AR-15 assault rifle, but what social need did that right serve that could be balanced by the danger of her exercising it?

In the February issue of Fire Fighting in Canada, I will explore tactics, equipment and procedures related to firefighter safety with respect to gunfire. I have no quick solutions, but welcome any and all suggestions, as always.

My thoughts and sympathies go out to the West Webster Fire Department and their entire community as they grieve.

Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory council of the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo.