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A chilling milestone in 'age of mass shootings'
The 41 U.S. mass killings in 2019 are the most in at least four decades, and all but eight involved gunfire


The first one occurred 19 days into the new year when a man used an ax to kill four family members including his infant daughter. Five months later, 12 people were killed in a workplace shooting in Virginia. Twenty-two more died at a Walmart in El Paso in August.

A database compiled by the Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University shows that there were more mass killings in 2019 than any year dating back to at least the 1970s, punctuated by a chilling succession of deadly rampages during the summer.

In all, there were 41 mass killings, defined as when four or more people are killed, excluding the perpetrator. Of those, 33 were mass shootings. More than 210 people were killed.

Most of the mass killings barely became national news, failing to resonate among the general public because they didn't spill into public places like massacres in El Paso and Odessa, Texas; Dayton, Ohio; Virginia Beach, Virginia; and Jersey City, New Jersey.

The majority of the killings involved people who knew each other - family disputes, drug or gang violence or people with beefs who directed their anger at co-workers or relatives.

In many cases, what set off the perpetrator remains a mystery.

That's the case with the very first mass killing of 2019, when

a 42-year-old man took an ax and chopped to death his mother, stepfather, girlfriend and 9-month-old daughter in Clackamas County, Oregon. Two others, a roommate and an 8-year-old girl, managed to escape; the rampage ended when responding police fatally shot the killer.

The perpetrator had occasional run-ins with police over the years, but what drove him to attack his family remains unknown. He had just gotten a job training mechanics at an auto dealership, and despite occasional arguments with his relatives, most said there was nothing out of the ordinary that raised significant red flags.

The incident in Oregon was one of 18 mass killings in which family members were slain, and one of six of those that didn't involve a gun. Among other trends in 2019:

The 41 mass killings were the most in a single year since the AP/ USA Today and Northeastern database began tracking such events back to 2006, but other research going back to the 1970s shows no other year with as many mass slayings. The second-most killings in a year before 2019 was 38 in 2006.

The 211 people killed in this year's cases is still eclipsed by the 224 victims in 2017, when the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history took place in Las Vegas.

California, with some of the most strict gun laws in the country, had the most, with eight such mass slayings. But nearly half of U.S. states experienced a mass slaying, from big cities like New York, to tiny towns like Elkmont, Alabama, with a population of just under 475 people.

Firearms were the weapon in all but eight of the mass killings. Other weapons included knives and axes and at least twice when the perpetrator set a mobile home on fire, killing those inside.

Ninemass shootings occurred in a public place. Other mass killings occurred in homes, in the workplace or at a bar.

James Densley, a criminologist and professor at Metropolitan State University in Minnesota, said the AP/USA Today/Northeastern database confirms and mirrors what his own research into exclusively mass shootings has shown.

"What makes this even more exceptional is that mass killings are going up at a time when general homicides, overall homicides, are going down," Densley said. "As a percentage of homicides, these mass killings are also accounting for more deaths. "

He believes it's partially a byproduct of an "angry and frustrated time" that we are living in.

Densley also said crime tends to go in waves with the 1970s and 1980s seeing a number of serial killers, the 1990smarked by school shootings and child abductions and the early 2000s dominated by concerns over terrorism.

"This seems to be the age of mass shootings," Densley said. He and James Alan Fox, a criminologist and professor at Northeastern University, also expressed worries about the "contagion effect," the focus on mass killings fueling other mass killings.

"These are still rare events. Clearly the risk is low but the fear is high," Fox said. "What fuels contagion is fear."

The mass shootings this year include the three in August in Texas and Dayton that stirred fresh urgency, especially among Democratic presidential candidates, to restrict access to firearms.

While the large death tolls attracted much of the attention, the killings inflicted a mental and physical toll on many others. The database does not have a complete count of victims who were wounded, but among the three mass shootings in August alone, more than 65 people were injured.

Daniel Munoz, 28, of Odessa was caught in the crossfire of the shooting that took place along a 10-mile stretch in West Texas. He was on his way to meet a friend at a bar when he saw a gunman and the barrel of a firearm. Instinctively, he got down just as his car was sprayed with bullets.

Munoz, who moved to Texas about a year ago to work in the oil industry, said he had actually been on edge since the Walmart shooting, which took place just 28 days earlier and about 300 miles away, worried that a shooting could happen anywhere at any time.

He remembers calling his mother after the El Paso shooting to encourage her to have a firearm at home or with her in case she needed to defend herself. He would say the same to friends, telling them before they went to a Walmart to bring a firearm in case they needed to protect themselves or others during an attack.

"You can't just always assume you're safe. In that moment, as soon as the El Paso shooting happened, I was on edge," Munoz said.

Adding to his anxiety is that as a convicted felon he's prohibited from possessing a firearm.

A few weeks later, as he sat behind the wheel of his car, he spotted the driver of an approaching car wielding a firearm. "My worst nightmare became a reality. I'm in the middle of a gunfight and I have no way to defend myself."

In the months since, the self-described social butterfly steers clear of crowds and can only tolerate so much socializing. He still drives the same car, still riddled with bullet holes on the side panels, a bullet hole in the headrest of the passenger seat and the words "evidence" scrawled on the doors. His shoulder remains pocked with bullet fragments.

Nebraska traffic deaths this year are 9% above five-year average

Nebraska roadways have proven more deadly in 2019 than in recent years, and the state’s Office of Highway Safety is urging everyone to be more cautious.

“It always goes back to people paying attention, putting down the phone and buckling up,” said Mark Segerstrom, Nebraska’s highway safety administrator. “Be aware of your surroundings, whether you are driving or a pedestrian.”

As of Thursday, Nebraska had recorded 249 traffic fatalities, a 9% increase over the five-year average, Segerstrom said. The number of pedestrian deaths through Monday stood at 19, down from 24 last year at the same time but still a 13% increase over the five-year average.

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Historically, Segerstrom said, rural areas have “two to three times” more fatalities than urban areas. That ratio holds true again this year, he said.

“There are multiple reasons for the higher numbers in rural areas,” Segerstrom said. “We know there is less seat belt usage in rural areas, roads have narrow or no shoulders, there are more uncontrolled intersections and the distances to hospitals are longer.”

Segerstrom said his office will study the final year-end statistics for trends. Until then, he’s hoping for no more fatalities in the final days of 2019.

“This time of year, the days are shorter, and so it’s darker out there,” he said. “Make sure your headlights are on and clean. Watch out for each other.”

The Hauptman O’Brien Wolf & Lathrop law firm again is offering free cab rides home in an effort to reduce drunken driving in Douglas and Sarpy Counties. The service is available from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. through New Year’s Eve.

Call 402-292-2222 and tell the dispatcher you want the Hauptman O’Brien Safe Ride Home and mention the promo code “Safe.” The ride won’t be free without the promo code.

Petersen Law Office in Omaha also offers reimbursement for sober rides home on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day within the Omaha city limits. Uber, Lyft or taxi rides may qualify. Go to criminaldefensene.com/free-holiday-sober-rides for more details.

Omaha’s 10 busiest intersections

Omaha's 10 busiest intersections

Staying safe in winter requires common sense and patience
Do NOT stick your hand into a running snow blower, and don't rush anywhere till spring

Don't use your snowblower in the dark.

Do make sure kids and pets are indoors when you're using one.

And don't stick your hand in the chute when the blower's running, slowing down or jammed.

Common sense, right? Thousands of gruesome snowblower injuries happen each year, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Most commonly, the patient is a man in his mid-40s with an injury to, or an amputation of, the fingers on his dominant hand.

Often, the injured person is not a novice but has owned the blower for a while. Few of the injured are women, data show.

Shoveling snow can also be a hazard. About 100 people a year, mostly men, die of heart attacks while shoveling snow, according to Harvard Medical School. The deeper the snow, the more heart attacks occur.

Winter falls can be trouble, too. About a million people are injured annually in falls on snow and ice, the Rothman Orthopaedic Institute in Philadelphia says, and thousands are killed.

(There are also a slew of holiday decorating accidents, mostly people falling off ladders.)

That said, here are some tips for keeping yourself and your home safe this winter:

In the home, water pipes exposed to outdoor cold can freeze and burst, creating a big mess. Turn off the flow and drain the water from those pipes.

Pipes that run through unheated areas of your home, such as the attic, basement or garage, can be covered with foam insulation. And if you're planning to go away for a few days, set the heat to 60 degrees so your indoor pipes don't freeze.

Lower the storm windows and check for under-door drafts. If windows are stuck, try a lubrication spray. For doors, draft stoppers of cloth, plastic or metal can keep out icy gusts.

If you're handy, you can also caulk around windows to keep out drafts.

Experts suggest reversing the direction of ceiling fans so they rotate clockwise and circulate warm air down that has risen to the ceiling. There's usually a reverse switch on the hub.

Make sure your furnace works. Bleed air out of radiators.

Make sure your smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms work.

If you have a fireplace, check the chimney for animals that may have taken up residence. If you suspect an animal, you can light a piece of newspaper, stick it in the fireplace and smoke the animal out the top. Or call a chimney sweep.

Critters such as squirrels and insects, like those high-jumping crickets, can also seek shelter from the storm in attics and basements.

Pest control experts can help. There are also hand-held bug vacuums and a bug gun that shoots a blast of table salt at intruding insects. (Think buckshot for bugs.)

Go out now and buy ice melt, a windshield scraper, windshield washer fluid and a snow shovel before the stores sell out. You might want two bottles of washer fluid, because it can go fast.

As for the shoveling, don't do it if you have a heart condition. Otherwise, go easy and take rests, especially if the snow is wet, or hire the kid down the street.

Take care of your neighbors, and don't pitch snow into the roadway.

Of course, be careful walking on ice.

Be wary of big icicles, too. They're pretty, but they can be heavy, and if they fall on you, they can hurt.

You don't want to wind up in the ER.

Clean the top of your car after a snowstorm. Snow flying off a car's roof can be dangerous to the driver behind you. In some places, you can be fined if snow from your car hits another car or injures someone.

Don't drive in the snow if your car can't handle it. You'll get stuck and irritate other motorists.

Allow more time for everything.

Be prepared for power outages if a storm is coming. A little extra food and water, flashlights and batteries and an independent phone charger are recommended. Extra pet food and bags for dog waste are also good to have.

Clean out your rain gutters and downspouts. After a snow, a clogged gutter or spout can lead to a nasty phenomenon called an ice dam, where melting snow gets backed up by trapped ice and water flows inside the walls and ceiling of your house.

Also clean out accumulated leaves in outdoor drains. A blocked drain can let water back up into the house.

If you have to drive in the snow, go slow and be aware of your car's ground clearance. If you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, remember that your car may perform better in the snow than a two-wheel-drive vehicle, but it might not stop any better.

Good luck, stay warm and don't drive with the windshield iced over.

Weekend's wet weather in Nebraska could affect travel, cause flooding

Rain and snow smacked Nebraska on Saturday and will continue to do so Sunday in some areas.

Persistent precipitation led to National Weather Service flood warnings until early Sunday in Omaha, Lincoln and other communities in southeast Nebraska.

Meteorologist David Eastlack said the vast storm system has lived up to expectations, hammering Nebraska, Colorado, South Dakota and the Northern Plains this weekend.

Authorities advised caution for drivers throughout the weekend because of rain or snow in all directions from Omaha.

Rain late Saturday in northeast Nebraska most likely will turn to a wintry mix and blowing snow Sunday.

Omaha had received up to 2 inches of rain as of late Saturday morning and rain was expected to persist. The National Weather Service said Omaha has a chance of snow Sunday.

Western Nebraska and most of northern Nebraska were placed under a winter storm warning through Saturday.

Cody Thomas, a spokesman for the Nebraska State Patrol, urged drivers to be cautious and alert. "I know it's getting slick out west," Thomas said Saturday. "All the way through the panhandle."

Nebraska travelers can check up-to-date travel conditions at 511.Nebraska.gov or with 511’s smartphone app. You may also simply Google “NWS Scottsbluff,” “NWS Kearney,” “NWS Valentine” and other cities to get area conditions and forecasts. NWS stands for National Weather Service.

Forecasts for some communities and cities in the region:

» Kearney will be under a winter storm warning through much of Sunday with rain and snow expected to continue.

» Scottsbluff can expect snow showers to give way to sun on Sunday, but temperatures will stay well below freezing.

» Des Moines will be cloudy Sunday with a chance of rain and snow Sunday night.

» Chicago might see rain today and tonight with a chance of rain or snow Monday.

» Minneapolis probably will see some rain Sunday with chances of drizzle and a wintry mix Sunday night.

» Denver will experience sun and some wind Sunday with a low of 12 degrees on a clear Sunday night.  

Many Panhandle cities, including Scottsbluff, declared snow emergencies beginning at 5 a.m. Saturday.

Travel on some roads well north and west of Omaha was expected to be  difficult over the weekend as fluctuating temperatures caused ice to melt and refreeze during the storm, according to meteorologist Alex Trellinger at the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, weather service office.

A dry New Year’s is expected for Omaha, with highs Tuesday in the low 30s and temperatures falling to the low 20s early New Year’s Day.

The 10 biggest single-day snowfalls in Omaha history

The 10 biggest single-day snowfalls in Omaha history