The following is an edited version of a comment posted under yesterday’s Question of the Day by Edwin Herdman.
CNN has an, er, interesting op-ed by Northeastern University (Boston)’s James Allan Fox today, “Gun control or carry permits won’t stop mass murder.” Here’s Fox’s main point: “While [concealed carry is] logical in theory, in the chaos of the moment, few gun owners would be prepared to mount an effective counterattack. And in a crowded setting, such as the movie theater clouded with tear gas and smoke, it would be virtually impossible to distinguish the bad guy with a gun from the good guys with their guns.” But would it? . . .
a) Why limit it to concealed carry? Perhaps Fox is merely reflecting the status of popular anti-gun advocacy here. However, many people (certainly almost all TTAG readers) would see this as dancing around one of the arguable benefits of open carry: You see people with guns, you think twice. Most people are polite when around the police, and part of that is motivated by their weapons and sanction to use force.
b) The statement that “few gun owners” could respond effectively appears to be entirely off-the-cuff, even unsupported by evidence. Why is this? In an op-ed, the usual pressure on newspapermen to disregard “academic” (i.e. useful and relevant) detail for the interested mind is probably absent, and he was invited to give us a full rationale. I think he clearly failed to do so.
Another CNN article quotes an attorney based here in Michigan – Steven Howard, who teaches legalities of CCW and is a former border patrol agent and a gunsmith – to emphasize that theaters are perfect “killing zones,” with many heads lined up at seat height. Nothing suggests that that an idiot standing tall below the screen with a weapon wouldn’t stand out sharply in most cases; in fact, it appears that the idiot with a couple guns did stand out, despite the tear gas.
At least one person in the audience remembered his gas mask and many others knew which way to run, even though this appears to be the most confused scene of a mass shooting in recent memory (rivaled only by the Moscow Police’s resolution of Nord-Ost Theater siege some years back with some kind of gas, which resulted in many hostage deaths).
c) There’s the typical assumption that “police and the military are special because they are legally empowered, and law is magic.” If, in Prof. Fox’s interpretation* of this event, target confirmation would be so problematic that a trained private individual who had been there and had some immediate familiarity with the area and some awareness of the other patrons, what would make responding officers more likely to get it right, even assuming that they were able to rush straight in from a connecting hallway? Nothing whatsoever.
Generally speaking, being immersed in a chaotic situation can make you biased. However, most people would agree that this was not a problematic situation for deciding to shoot at what looks like, sounds like, and probably smells like a bad guy. One could say that any bias is a problem, and that firearms magnify the opportunities for harm. But to categorize any dangers from bias as prohibitive ignores why you took the measure of carrying a firearm in the first place.
There are dangers from being around people carrying weapons; you might possibly have found yourself standing next to Tex Grebner while he fiddled with his SERPA – but then again, you probably won’t. I think the audience members would have preferred that Tex was in the audience fiddling with his SERPA than just sitting and hoping they could tackle the guy or flee in time. Personally, I would sit to Tex’s right side every time. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but nobody ever gets it in time.
The average defensive shooter probably wouldn’t be overly concerned about being wrongly targeted by the police or a confused defensive shooter in a case like this – if it was really unavoidable – so long as the guy doing his best to kill every last person is stopped. Sometimes that involves taking the risk of being shot. Firefighters don’t watch fires; they rush in and put them out (unless you didn’t pay your property tax, in some rare places and cases).
That’s a utilitarian rationale. Police often put their lives on the line (although I understand they aren’t legally required to do so, but the nature of their job puts them at risk). CCW and open carriers arguably do, too. An argument that it’s for their sake or that it would just make things more confused and more dangerous is condescending and wrong.
Additionally, moviegoers would have had time for their vision to adjust from the typical bright lighting of hallways connecting theaters in the typical modern movieplex design, which is yet another critical benefit denied to immediate responders. It’s not total situational awareness – it’s TOTAL SITUATIONAL IMMERSION. The best person to judge a situation might not be the one at hand, but if you can assume two people to be roughly equal in ability, the one who has had time to get acclimated to a situation will have a natural advantage. So goes the saying: a gun in the hand is worth two out in the bushes peering down at the theater.
The only real objection to concealed carry is, again, really a utilitarian one. How many lives might be lost across the entire nation? By expanding the problem to such a broad scale, however, this “big-picture” thinking immediately threatens to swallow up awareness of the individual defensive actions that demonstrate why and how defensive gun use can be helpful.
In any case, statistics can always be met with more statistics. I am not familiar with Fox’s work (or, actually, with the firearms statistics in general) but the utilitarian calculus should require that the measure of suffering avoided by justified DGUs must at least narrowly outweigh any suffering resulting from concealed carry. Many people will prefer to talk about the deaths from one source versus another – since death is the greatest harm possible, it’s usually considered appropriate to take dramatic and expensive measures to prevent it.
It’s a funny thing, but nobody seems to ever make the claim that gun ownership is worse, on those scales, and get away with it. Instead we get a parade of individual, anecdotal cases. Tragic as each case may be, they don’t make up the reliable basis of a careful analysis. I’m not aware that the firearms statistics show that gun owners are more adept at harming themselves and innocents than they are at stopping crimes. And they often manage to accomplish it without so much as pulling the trigger or even pointing the gun at the bad guy – just like the police, in fact. It’s right to promote competence and professionalism in gun owners; it’s wrong to deny that it exists or attempt to use the assumed lack of it as a reason to deny gun ownership.
* You could call it that to be generous, but “fabricated” seems factually consistent with the information available here. He presents his case against permits as if dense gas and confused target environments are the norm in mass shootings, where the reverse is much more likely to be true. Shooters tend to make themselves conspicuous, often to indulge in self-worshipful head games. Given that nobody in the theater seems to have had a gun for self defense, we won’t be able to definitively judge whether anybody else could have identified the bad guy and shot him without injuring others, but the evidence we do have suggests that at least a few people could have made the right call.