Since the Colorado movie theater massacre, politicians and pundits have shamelessly politicized that tragic event to bolster their case for stricter gun-control laws. Upon closer inspection of human motivation and history, however, the recent tragedy in Colorado really does not appear to advance the case for stricter gun control at all.
I recently wrote a column explaining the many similarities between Norwegian mass shooter Anders Breivik and Colorado movie theater shooter James Holmes. One major dissimilarity, however, is that Breivik perpetrated an even more lethal mass shooting (not that the pain of Holmes’ victims and their families is any less) despite the fact that Norway has some of the strictest gun-control laws in the world.
Breivik’s chilling success in obtaining the means to commit mass murder in spite of Norway’s laws illustrates the extreme motivation of committed mass murderers. Their zeal to kill is such that you would virtually have to go door to door, search out, and seize all of the guns in a country before you could reasonably hope to stop motivated mass murders from acquiring guns notwithstanding.
While it is true that European countries with stricter gun-control laws generally have lower frequencies of shootings per capita than does the U.S., the reasons for that appear to be historical as well as statutory, and the historical factor is chilling in its own right: Those countries have generally had authoritarian governments or occupations at one time or another, during which purges of firearms from the civilian populace were able to be successfully undertaken.
Such a purge has never occurred here in the U.S., and the very idea of one is both constitutionally impermissible and quantitatively impractical. Even if the Constitution were rewritten or disregarded, with the millions of firearms in the hands of our civilian populace, it is unreasonable to think that a purge could be successful enough to prevent mass murderers from still acquiring guns thereafter.
It is understandable that many people react emotionally to events like the Colorado movie theater massacre, but what makes us feel better in the short term is often not what makes the most sense for us in the long term. It may be easy for many Americans to endorse abridgments of their right to bear arms now, while our government is generally respectful of our civil rights, but we must remember the lesson that our nation’s founders learned from a bitter war for independence and wisely enshrined in our Constitution thereafter: A populace capable of forcefully resisting the encroachment of authoritarianism is part of the reason why we have not experienced it.
The fact is, individuals have been “going rogue” and committing mass murder since the beginning of humanity, even in the absence of guns, even in authoritarian nations like China. Just a couple of years ago, I helped cover a rash of mass stabbings in China in which several disaffected middle-aged men rampaged through schools murdering small children and their teachers with machetes. Yes, a murderer can murder more people more quickly with a machine gun than with a machete – the point here is that motivated mass murderers find means.
I would like nothing more than to tell you that, one day soon, mental-health professionals will be able to identify and neutralize or even “fix” such individuals before they wreak havoc, but I am not that narcissistic. Given that motivated mass murderers find means, and given the volume of guns already in the hands of American civilians, the greater likelihood is that the frequency and lethality of future tragedies like the Colorado movie theater massacre could actually be reduced by more guns, not less.
What happened in that Colorado theater may prove to be the most poignant illustration in recent memory of the folly in believing that a “No Guns Allowed” policy is likely to prevent gun violence. No one motivated to commit murder is going to be deterred by the prospect of committing a misdemeanor by entering the crime scene with a prohibited gun. “No Guns Allowed” policies simply ensure that law-abiding, well-trained, well-vetted, civilians licensed to carry guns will not have their guns available if violence breaks out on that premises, i.e. it simply ensures that the murderer will likely be the only person on the scene who is armed.
While no one but the shooter is responsible for the recent tragedy in Colorado, one has to wonder whether it would have been as lethal if a number of moviegoers had been equipped to return fire. Yes, the shooter wore body armor, but even so, it would likely have been difficult for him to have sustained the assault under a hail of return fire (just ask a soldier or a police officer who has taken a bullet while wearing body armor). And yes, casualties could possibly have been caused by crossfire, but it is nevertheless difficult to imagine the existing body count having been elevated thereby.
As other pundits have noted, events like the Colorado massacre never seem to happen in police stations or gun clubs. And just in the past couple of months, concealed handgun carriers have thwarted attacks and saved lives in two cases that got national coverage. One occurred in a Florida Internet café, where a concealed handgun carrier stopped an armed robbery and chased the robbers from the premises. The other occurred in a Utah grocery store, where a concealed handgun carrier stopped a knife-wielding assailant who was randomly stabbing shoppers as they entered and exited the store.
And, in the latter case, there is yet another tie-in to the Colorado massacre: When the concealed handgun carrier ordered the assailant to drop the knife or be shot, the assailant dropped the knife and was subdued by store employees and shoppers, illustrating that even someone whose behavior may appear “insane” is generally still aware of what he is doing and is generally still motivated primarily by self-interest/preservation.
People who feel entitled to exert control over innocent others through force generally have little respect for words, but they generally do have respect for reciprocal force. In fact, they are usually cowards. Therefore, while a would-be mass murderer is likely to be emboldened rather than deterred by a “No Guns Allowed” policy, he may be deterred by the inability to know whether, when, and from whom return fire is likely to come.