Ever since our book was published earlier this year, I’ve been trying to follow it’s lead and avoid overly controversial topics, especially topics of a partisan political nature. In particular, it seems that since the shooting at the Batman opening in Colorado last week, there has been somewhat of a revival of the gun control debate, within the context of “what could have been done to stop or mitigate this tragedy.” Unfortunately, most of the debate has been a rehash of decades old arguments. To characterize, on the left people say “no one goes hunting with assault rifles”, and “there should be reasonable restrictions”, and from the right people tend to just repeat “second amendment,” “slippery slope,” and “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” over and over.
Frankly, I’m sick of it. There ought to be plenty of common ground. So I thought I might try to lay out a few facts of life to try to move the debate forward. I’ll let people draw their own conclusions, but at least if we’re going to debate gun laws in the wake of this horror, let’s do it intelligently.
1) People Are Certainly Responsible For Their Actions, But Guns Sure Do Make It Easier To Kill People
Crazy people don’t need guns to commit acts of mass murder. See 9/11 (airplanes hijacked with knives) and Oklahoma City (a bomb made primarily of fertilizer), the worst two terrorist acts in American history, as examples. The Colorado gunman had access to plenty of explosives, and it is possible that had he not had access to an assault rifle he might have chosen to kill people with bombs instead. But as the Shoe Bomber, the Underwear Bomber, and the Times Square Bomber can all attest (none of whom successfully detonated their devices) safe and proper usage of explosives is not nearly as easy as safe and proper usage of an assault rifle.
2) The Colorado Gunman Had In His Arsenal Weapons and Ammunition That Have No Legitimate Civilian Purpose
The assault rifle that he was using was made with one thing in mind: battle. It is designed to allow the shooter to quickly and accurately fire a large number of well-aimed shots in rapid succession at long-range. It is complete overkill as a home-defense weapon (where long-range and multiple targets are not usually a problem) or for hunting (where the first shot will cause your prey to bolt if it misses).
The military version of the weapon has a fully automatic feature, which is technically illegal on the civilian version of the gun–although it is apparently not too difficult to buy a kit online to un-modify it. Soldiers are taught to basically never use the fully automatic feature on their guns; it’s a waste of ammunition. If you have a target, and he needs to be dead, two bullets should be more than enough. When set to fully automatic, a rifle like this can expend it’s entire clip (see below) within seconds. In combat it’s a rarely used feature–one might switch one’s weapon to automatic to provide cover fire for instance. And again, there is no civilian reason to ever use a fully automatic rifle, although the NRA has fought tooth-and-nail against restrictions against fully automatic rifles.
The gunman was also carrying clips of ammunition that held 100 bullets. That meant he could fire as many as 100 times without reloading. Again, there is no good civilian reason for this. If you are shooting 100 bullets at a burglar, really it just means that you’re destroying any property that he might have stole. If you’re shooting your deer 100 times, I suppose that might be a sadistic hunter’s diet plan, because you certainly aren’t taking home any useful meat. But a clip that size did allow the Colorado gunman to walk around a dark theater for a long time without having to worry about reloading. Again, clips that large have their place in battle, where having to stop to reload at the wrong time can be disastrous. But there is no civilian usage. Also, clips that large had been outlawed as part of the Brady law, which was allowed to expire in 2004 due to NRA pressure.
Of course, the gunman also had two normal hand guns and a standard shotgun. In principal, I have relatively less problem with those weapons, especially the shotgun. Shotguns, in my mind, are great home protection weapons. It’s obvious when you have one, which makes it more likely to scare away the bad guys. It’s obvious where it’s aimed–and where it’s not aimed (which makes it safer when the police do show up). It’s easier to aim and hit your target, if you do actually have need to fire it. I have no interest in buying a home protection weapon, but if I did it would be a shotgun. Moreover, shotguns can’t be modified for automatic fire or to hold 100 rounds–and killing spree with a shotgun as the primary weapon will require quite a lot of reloading, which is plenty of time for people to run for cover.
3) In This Case an Armed Audience Wasn’t The Answer (Most Likely)
Gun control opponents often say that the answer to gun crimes is more guns. Colorado has incredibly loose gun laws, but the theater did ban guns on the premises, and it would seem that none of the people in the audience were armed. But I’ve heard it suggested by more than one person that had they been armed the tragedy would have ended a lot more quickly; one person even blamed the theater for posting that sign.
So imagine the scene inside the theater. The movie has just started. It’s loud. It’s dark, although the screen is bright and so your eyes aren’t quite adjusted to the pitch black. Now the gunman comes in. He starts by throwing down at least one canister of smoke or tear gas–I’ve seen conflicting reports. He’s wearing body armor, pretty much shoulder to toe, and a gas mask, and wielding a semi-automatic assault rifle. Most audience members report not fully registering that something was wrong until he started shooting people, at which point the audience panics and starts rushing for the exits.
So now, a hero steps forward! Despite the smoke/tear-gas, the disorientation, the pushing audience, and the surprise, he stays calm pulls his gun, aims, and hits the gunman squarely in the head, killing him. That’s surely what would happen in the movies. But in the real world, life is more complicated. The hero would get jostled. He wouldn’t have the training to stay calm, and his shots would go wild. Or his shots would hit the gunman’s body armor. Or the hero’s eyes would be watering too badly to get a good aim on the target. Worse yet, this is a crowded theater, with only thin walls separating it from other crowded theaters. Every bullet that goes into the air that doesn’t hit the gunman has a pretty good chance of adding to the number of victims.
So yes, some people might see an armed audience as a chance for the tragedy to have been cut short–and that’s certainly a possibility. I see it as a chance to add to the body count, and I think given the circumstances of this particular tragedy that is a much more likely scenario.