Debunktion Junction: Myth of “1 More Gun”

In the wake of gun-related tragedies, the pro-gun part of the population always comes to the same conclusion: the problem was not that there were too many guns, but rather that there were too few guns. In other words, had there been “just one more gun” – in the hands of one of the victims – they would’ve been able to defend themselves, and stop the shooter.

This is a notion etched in our minds from years of movies, TV shows, and video games portraying the singular “good guy” as an excellent marksman going up against a gang of inept “bad guys” who seem to have never attended aiming school.  It is a theme so prevalent that Roger Egbert deemed it the “Principle of Evil Marksmanship” in his 1980 book “Little Movie Glossary.”

It’s easy to deal in the theoretical, and simply say that more guns would’ve fixed the problem. However, this idealized view of guns falls apart when we look at the actual facts. I agree that the “one more gun” myth sounds good in theory, but we don’t live in a theoretical world.

In the real world, we know that having a gun actually makes you LESS safe, not more safe. A 2009 study found that having a gun while being the victim of an assault made it more likely that you would be shot: “On average, guns did not protect those who possessed them from being shot in an assault. Although successful defensive gun uses occur each year, the probability of success may be low for civilian gun users in urban areas. Such users should reconsider their possession of guns or, at least, understand that regular possession necessitates careful safety countermeasures.”

In addition, arming a victim of a mass-shooting with a gun is actually more dangerous than it is helpful. An ABC News experiment showed that your body naturally gets in your way in crisis situations, as your brain is sending “flee” signals. As you work to overcome those signals (such as increased blood flow) and tunnel vision, even highly experienced gun owners most likely will not be able to react quickly enough to stop a shooter, and may even get themselves injured or killed in the process:

“No one ever gets hit in the movies, but in real life I got hit 5 or 6 times.” -participant in ABC News experiment

Not only is it “blaming the victim” for not defending themselves, the more we learn about the details of mass-shootings, the more it becomes clear that “one more gun” wouldn’t have made any practical difference.  Let’s look at three well-known mass-shootings: (1) the “Batman” shooting in Aurora, Colorado, (2) 2011’s Gabby Giffords shooting, and (3) the Virgina Tech massacre in 2007.*

*NOTE: Some pro-gun advocates have criticized my focus on these three events as a way to “cherry-pick” only those that fit my needs, or as an attempt to isolate them from some “other” trend that I’m trying to “hide.” This entry was originally published on July 24, 2012 (as the URL indicates), and I picked these three because, at the time, they were three of the highest-profile mass-shootings. Aurora had just happened 4 days earlier. Virginia Tech was (and is still) the deadliest school shooting in American history. Gabby Giffords had been targeted as a United States Representative during a time when political rhetoric was becoming very violent (particularly against President Obama and Congressional Democrats after the passage of Obamacare).

As of December 14, 2012 (according to ThinkProgress.org): “since 1982, America has mourned at least 61 mass murders,” and it would certainly not be feasible to go through every case to make my point.  Since this post was first published, there have been several mass-shootings, including Wade Michael Page’s attack at a Sikh temple, Adam Lanza’s rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and Aaron Alexis’ shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC.  I stand by the three I had chosen at the time, and the exclusion of any other mass-shootings is not an attempt to be deceitful or disingenuous.

The theory of “one more gun” relies heavily on the following two contradictory assumptions:

1) If everyone is allowed to carry a gun, then the fear of retaliation will preemptively stop someone from using a gun in the first place, because statistically it’s probable that someone else will have a gun… and no one wants to be killed – obviously.

2) If someone wants to kill someone, there is no way to stop them – not even fear of retaliation from the possibility that someone around them will have a gun.  So then everyone (or at least most people) must actually HAVE a gun, because a trigger-ready vigilante is the only way to stop the second bullet.

Point 1 assumes that those who commit these acts are logical, rational people.  It also assumes they every person who wants to kill people also who cares if they themselves die – and cannot take precautions against this. It also assumes that point 2 is incorrect.
Point 2 assumes that point 1 is incorrect, and leads to a fully-armed (or mostly-armed) country of vigilantes. 

Let’s see how these apply in the real world…

“Batman” / Aurora, Colorado

As of right now (July 24, 2012), what we know is this: between May 22 and July 7, James Holmes bought two Glock pistols, a shotgun, and an AR-15 rifle from local branches of Bass Pro Shops and Gander Mountain Guns. At the same time, he was stockpiling bullets, high-capacity magazines, and military-grade protective armor from such websites as BulkAmmo.com and TacticalGear.com, “which caters to police officers looking to augment their equipment, [and] members of the military who don’t want to wait on permission from the bureaucracy for new combat gear.” All of this was available to a civilian with no background check. According to a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, “there is no official system to track whether people are stockpiling vast amounts of firepower.”

With his arsenal set, and raising no red flags within our current system, Holmes purchased his ticket for the midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” and walked in with everyone else in plain clothes. He then propped open an Emergency exit, left, and came back wearing bulletproof vest, tactical helmet, groin, leg, and throat protection, as well as a gas mask. He first threw smoke bombs, and since there were plenty of people wearing costumes, many thought it was part of the show. It wasn’t until he started firing that anyone realized it was an attack.

It lasted a mere 90 seconds.

According to Aurora Police Chief Daniel Oates, Holmes used the 223-caliber assault rifle loaded with a 100-round drum magazine. “I am told by experts,” he said, “that with that drum magazine, he could’ve gotten off 50-60 rounds within 1 minute, even if it were [only] semi-automatic.”

He began firing indiscriminately at first, and then at anyone who tried to leave. He injured 70 people (a small handful were not hit by bullets, but were injured indirectly), and killing an additional 12 (10 of whom died in the theater). So many bullets were fired that some pierced the adjacent theater.

When he decided he was done, he left the theater and returned to his car. At this point, the police had arrived and arrested him. “If you look at active shooters, they often go to engage their mayhem, and then be killed by police or commit suicide. He didn’t do that.” -Danny Coulson, former FBI deputy assistant director.

So let’s apply the “one more gun” theory:

1) Premise: ‘If Holmes knew there could be other people in the theater with a gun, he wouldn’t have tried to kill people in the first place because he – like all murderers – was a rational person.’

Reality: Holmes was aware that he could face retaliation – perhaps from people in attendance, or from a police response. He was aware and prepared for this possibility, and it wasn’t enough to deter him.

2) Premise: ‘Someone with a gun could’ve been stopped sooner.’

Reality:  With his head-to-toe armor, Holmes was prepared for retaliation, and any return fire would’ve been unlikely to do any damage. Further, let’s put ourselves into the situation: this theoretical person with “one more gun” would’ve been fully engrossed in the film – their mind distracted, and their eyes focused on the screen. It was not only dark, but once Holmes entered, also filled with smoke. Holmes had the benefit of a gas mask, which the theoretical person would not have had. They would’ve had to have realized what was going on, pulled their gun, seen through the smoke, gotten a clear shot through all of the chaos of bullets and people scrambling for the exits, managed not to be shot themselves, and found the smallest part of his body not covered with protection… all within 90 seconds.  

That’s far too much to ask.

No, “one more gun” likely would not have helped in this tragedy.  Further, what if instead of “one more gun,” there were rather several more guns … multiple people straining through the smoke, and firing at where ever gun shots were coming from – including each other. Bullets cross-firing through the entire room… MORE innocent people potentially killed.  Or imagine if people were accustomed to going to movies fully armed, “just in case.”  We’ve already seen plenty of cases of road rage turning deadly when guns are present – how tragic if we started seeing altercations between rowdy movie goers turning deadly…

Virginia Tech 

Two years prior to launching his attack, Seung-Hui Cho was removed from school and admitted to a psychiatric hospital where he was deemed “an imminent danger to himself or others as a result of mental illness.” He was ordered to obtain treatment, but no one followed through on that order and was allowed to re-enter Virginia Tech.

In the months leading up to the attack he legally purchased two guns and a variety of ammunition through eBay, Wal-Mart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Home Depot.  His history of psychiatric problems did not stop any of the purchases.  Despite Virginia Tech’s “no guns” policy, he had both guns and all of the ammunition in his possession for several months prior to the shooting.

That day, he gained access to a residence hall at 7:15am where he shot and killed a girl whom he had previously harassed.  When the RA tried to stop Cho, he was shot and killed. Most of the campus was asleep, as the earliest classes didn’t even begin until 8:00am.  The dorm was on lockdown as police investigated the homicide, but Cho had already returned to his dorm to reload.  At 9am, Cho entered the Engineering building and chained the doors shut.  A call to 911 was made at 9:45 indicating that shots had been fired.  Police arrived three minutes later to find the doors chained shut.  Using two semi-automatic pistols (Glock 19 and Walther P22) he was able to shoot 60 people within 9 minutes, killing 33 including himself.  Police were making their way to Cho’s position when the shooting stopped.

So let’s apply the “one more gun” theory:

1) Premise: ‘If Cho knew there could be other people on campus with a gun, he wouldn’t have tried to kill people in the first place because he – like all murderers – was a rational person.’

Reality: Cho was mentally unbalanced and likely wouldn’t have been swayed by logical things like “probability” and fear.  Also, since he was able to get away with having guns on campus, he could’ve assumed that other people also had guns, but that clearly didn’t stop him.  Not only was he aware that VT didn’t actually check to see if anyone had any, VT also had a history of students being caught with guns.  So “gun free” wasn’t really true. Also, since he killed himself he clearly wasn’t concerned with someone else killing him as a deterrent.

2) Premise: ‘If people had been allowed to have guns (which they basically were) then he could’ve been stopped sooner.’

Reality:  the first shootings happened at a time in the morning when most college students are still asleep. While it is true that if the girl or the RA had a gun, then perhaps Cho would’ve been stopped sooner, but that assumes that:

a) The only reason they didn’t have a gun was because VT didn’t allow it (and they were good kids so they followed the rules), and not because they were ideologically opposed to guns, regardless of the rules.
b) They would’ve been alert enough at 7:15am to be ready to use a gun properly at a moment’s notice.
c) Having a gun wouldn’t have led to some other unrelated incident.

None of these assumptions are necessarily true.

The second round of shootings happened at an early class (‘early’ for college), and most of the campus was likely still asleep.  The ones who dragging themselves out of bed to class might not have thought their gun was a necessary accessory for the annoyingly-early class. Not to mention, would you want a potentially hung-over (or still partially drunk), half-asleep college student with a gun in-hand?  Anyway…

The shooting spree lasted 9 minutes due to the use of semi-automatic weapons.  And the doors had been chained closed.  So someone inside of the building would have had to have been armed for there to even be a chance of helping.  And they would’ve had to have been able to find the shooter within 9 minutes.  If someone in the actual classroom had been armed, that’s probably the only way Cho could have been stopped.  But if you give people the ability to choose whether or not to own a gun, not everyone will.  So what if no one in the classroom chose to own one?  Or if they did, what if they didn’t happen to bring it with them that morning?  Short of mandating that everyone carry a gun at all times, this isn’t a practical deterrent.

So really the question isn’t ‘how many lives were lost that day because students weren’t allowed to protect themselves?”  But rather, ‘how many lives were lost that day because a mentally unstable person was allowed to purchase and use guns that have no place in a civilized society – even in the hands of a rational person?’

Jared Loughner / Gabby Giffords

Despite being rejected from the Army (for confidential reasons) in 2008, and showing clearly unstable tendencies at his job and school (leading to his suspension from Pima Community College – on the terms that re-admission would be granted upon passing a mental health evaluation – in September 2010), Jared Loughner was able to legally purchase a Glock pistol with an extended magazine from Sportsman’s Warehouse on November 30, 2010.  He bought 90 rounds of ammunition between two local Walmart stores the morning of the shooting.

On January 8, 2011, Loughner brought his gun, extended magazine, and ammunition to Representative Gabby Giffords’ “Congress On Your Corner” event in Tuscon, Arizona. At 10:10am, he walked up to Giffords and shot her at point-blank range. He then opened fire on the rest of the crowd, killing 6 and injuring another 13.

Only when he stopped to reload was Patrica Maisch able to disarm Loughner, at which point several men (Bill Badger, Roger Sulzgeber and Joseph Zamudio) wrestled him to the ground, and subdued him until police arrived. Had Loughner not been allowed to own an extended magazine, he would’ve had to stop and reload sooner…

I don’t even have to theorize about the “one more gun” premise here, because there was one more gun that day, and it almost led to one of the heroes being murdered by someone who thought they were helping. In an interview with MSNBC’s Ed Schultz, the man revealed that he heard the commotion, and as he ran toward the scene he had his hand on his gun. He assumed that the man holding Loughner’s gun was the shooter — and he almost shot & killed him, but someone yelled that it wasn’t him. Another hero might not be so lucky…

When “One More Gun” Works… Rarely

The Rachel Maddow Show sought out any instances of “one more gun” actually stopping a mass-shooting… and they came up with one… kind of. On May 25, 2008, a family feud erupted in Winnemucca, Nevada. Ernesto Villa Gomez burst into a bar and killed two members of another family. When he stopped to reload, “a man from Reno took out a gun and shot Villa Gomez. That man has a concealed weapons permit.”

Real Solutions Needed, Not Fantasy

Pro-gun advocates often combat the idea of gun safety reform (aka “gun control”) with the argument that “if someone wants to kill someone else, they’ll do it regardless of whether or not they have a gun.” But as Eddie Izzard once said, “I think the gun helps. Just shouting ‘bang!’ isn’t going to kill too many people.”

Yes, if Holmes, Cho, Loughner, or any other murders decided they wanted to kill people, and they didn’t have access to guns, it still would’ve been theoretically possible. But why make it so easy for them?

While it is true that there is no amount of regulations that could stop someone from killing someone else if they really want to, that does NOT mean that we should abandon all regulations. For example, guns are banned on planes, but I could theoretically stab someone with a pencil, so should TSA ban pencils on planes?  No. But should they remove metal detectors and just let people carry on whatever they want, including knives, guns, and explosive material?  No.

The answer to “if someone wants to kill someone, you can’t stop them” isn’t “let everyone carry a gun if they want to.”  In practice, that would turn us into a country of hair-trigger vigilantes. 

Bob Herbert (a NY Times columnist) recently pointed out that more than 1 million Americans have been killed since 1968 due to gun violence –  3 people are killed by guns every hour. According to the Center for Disease Control, 31,347 people were killed by guns in 2009.  Gun violence is a real problem that needs real solutions, not things that only sound good in theory based on fantasies portrayed in entertainment media.

The solution is not to introduce more guns into more situations under the guise that people need to be able to protect themselves once an attack begins. The facts above show that once an attack begins, it’s already too late. The solution must come from prevention: gun safety reform.

A 2013 study from Boston Children’s Hospital found that “states with more gun laws have lower levels of gun fatalities,” and Mother Jones debunked the pro-gun claim that killers specifically target “gun-free zones.” The pro-gun / NRA side clearly allows their love of guns to overshadow reality.

“The real NRA nut says ‘if the government can take our guns, then after that they can come take our freedoms.’ But what happened with the Patriot Act was the government said, ‘No, no, no – keep the guns, just give us the freedoms.’

And they said ‘we get to keep the guns!’

If you just wrap the request in a flag, they’ll line up to surrender the freedoms – they just really want the guns so they can protect the guns.”
– Dana Gould

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