Time and again we’ve been told that active shooters choose to attack certain places over others because those targets are either posted as “gun-free zones” or fall within the definition of a “gun-free zone” under federal law. The thinking goes that these murderers choose these targets specifically because they would be target-rich environments where the shooter would face low prospect of encountering resistance. But do they? Sure, a rational and reasonable person might think that if they were going to conduct such an attack, they might follow that logic. But a rational and reasonable person wouldn’t be considering such an attack in the first place. We should consider that those who carry out mass shootings are perhaps not thinking the same way the rest of us would . . .
I previously dug into this subject to see how much correlation I could find between school shooters and the schools they attacked. My conclusion at that time was that of all school shootings (for which I could find data) from 1980 to mid-2014, from 83 to 91% of those shootings were committed by a person who had a personal connection to that particular school. They either currently attended it, were a prior student, were employed there, or the individual they wanted to kill worked there.
Now, while every one of these shootings took place in a gun-free zone, I didn’t see any evidence to back up the commonly-held assertion that these shooters had chosen their target specifically because they were gun free zones.
But part of the problem with digging into something like this is that the shooters rarely, if ever, explain their reasons. Frequently they die in or immediately after the assault (either by police or by their own hand). And when they survive, they aren’t always sane, nor do they usually want to talk.
Maybe they chose their target because it was a gun-free zone, but if they did, they rarely say that. I have found no evidence on any killing I’ve looked into, in which the killer specifically gave their reasoning for choosing a target location because it was a gun-free zone. (Note: that doesn’t mean such evidence doesn’t exist, just that I’ve never seen it.)
In the case of the Aurora movie theater shooting, we are actually getting some insight into the thought pattern that went into choosing the movie theater James Holmes chose to attack. I’ve seen it repeatedly claimed in forums that the killer chose that particular Cinemark theater because it was posted as :no guns allowed,” And that the shooter drove past two closer (non-posted) theaters to target that one. But is that actually why he chose that theater?
Greg Ellifritz has been digging into Holmes’ published diaries, trying to get to the bottom of this question, and he found some very interesting information. It’s a great article, and has links to the actual diary pages for those interested.
Ellifritz makes some excellent points and draws some well-reasoned conclusions. Homes didn’t just “snap”, he didn’t simply decide one day to order a bunch of ammo online and go on a killing spree. And he didn’t choose that particular theater because it was a posted “no guns allowed” zone. He meticulously plotted this attack over the course of about 10 years. He considered several targets, including an airport (which he rejected because of security concerns, and also because he thought the attack would be blamed on terrorism, which wasn’t the message he wanted to send).
So he settled on a movie theater. But how to choose which one? Did he factor in that one was posted “no guns allowed” and another one wasn’t? No — apparently there is no evidence that such a thought ever crossed his twisted mind. He chose the Aurora theater because, according to Ellifritz:
…the particular theater he selected had an exit into a rear parking lot that was isolated and had limited visibility. That theater also had easy access from the outside, and a minimal number of exits (2). The killer noted that the doors could easily be locked or chained to prevent escape. He rejected theaters that were in the front of the complex, those that were more visible, and those that had numerous exits.
Why does this matter? Because, as Ellifritz also points out, we should know what the facts are and what the actual causes were. It doesn’t serve the gun rights community’s cause to continue repeating false narratives. We may not know what the thought process was in every killer’s head, but at least we know what the thought processes were in this killer’s head, and continuing to claim that he chose his target “because it was a gun-free zone” is simply not true.
All of us who are gun rights advocates want to believe that this was yet another example where restrictive carry policies made a particular target very palatable for the killer. That wasn’t the case. It’s important not to let our personal feelings or hunches replace the facts in cases like these. In the ever-present debate against the anti-gunners, we have the facts on our side. We must stick to the truth and the facts we know so that we retain credibility in the debate.
I find that point especially relevant since, as I was recently watching the testimony in the Texas legislature on the open carry and campus carry bills, I saw Leslie Ervin make emotional and heart-wrenching testimony describing how her paranoid schizophrenic son bought “an arsenal” of guns and then murdered her husband. While the testimony was powerful, it also turned out to be misleading. Her son killed his father with a wrench and a knife — no guns were used.
As Ellifritz points out, the gun rights movement typically argues from a position of strength using facts and truth. The facts are that nearly every mass shooting event since at least 1980 has taken place in a gun-free zone. Which leads to the next fact: establishing a location as a gun-free zone doesn’t make it safe from mass shooters. As we all know, criminals and mentally disturbed individuals simply are not dissuaded by those signs. Which leads us to the next fact; the only guns that a gun-free zones prevent are those in the hands of law-abiding citizens. All of which means that if there were even a possibility that a law-abiding citizen might be present and stop (or at least slow down) a mass shooter, that possibility is eliminated by a gun-free zone designation.
A “good guy with a gun” can’t stop “a bad guy with a gun” if the good guy is forced to leave his gun in the car because of a “no guns allowed” sign or policy. There are more than enough valid, factual arguments against so-called gun-free zones without resorting to inaccurate information to bolster the case.