When events like the shooting at the Batman premiere in Aurora, CO by suspect James E. Holmes take place, they are understandably frightening. People’s reactions under such conditions are understandable, and predictable.
The anti-gun folks and the pro-gun folks will both use events like this to stump for their respective positions. People will look for simple answers and reasons why this occurred. Everything from the media to politics, to mental illness will be blamed. Poorly thought-out solutions will be proposed.
One thing that happens when extreme emotion (particularly fear and horror) is involved, is that we actually stop thinking with the human part of our brain. Our own survival mechanism kicks in and we shift into what Marc “The Animal” MacYoung cals our “monkey mind”. We physically get less cerebral. This is not a great place to make decisions from.
I want take a minute for us all to slip easily back into our human minds to evaluate a few key items. I want to use data and logic (rather than pseudo logic) to decide how to more clearly evaluate this tragic event and it’s outcome. Don’t think for a moment that I am unaffected emotionally by this event. I feel very deeply for all of those involved.
Spree Killings Are Rare, But We Don’t Think So
Fortunately, spree killings and mass murder events, like terrorism are extremely rare events. Most people will never be directly impacted by such events. Notice I say directly impacted, since we are all impacted by the news and the resulting decisions people make in the wake killings like this one.
There is a cognitive effect called the availability heuristic that comes into effect. The availability heuristic says that we estimate the frequency of events happening, based on how well we can remember them. Since spree killings and act of terrorism are very dramatic, we more easily remember them, and tend to overestimate how often they happen.
Many many more people are killed each year by medical negligence in the US than by any kind of violence, but we don’t hear a peep about it. A mother like Casey Anthony is accused of killing her daughter and it’s on the news every day. We are emotional creatures and are not really good at evaluating the actual impact of things when emotions run high.
Violence is Getting Rarer
Violent crime in the US has been on the decline for years despite the bad economy and record numbers of new gun owners. According to The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by author Steven Pinker, we are living in the least violent time in human history.
Why does it seem sometimes like we live in a world full of violence? Because we live in a world with 24 hour access to news on TV, the radio, and the Internet. All of these channels are competing for your eyeballs. Sensationalism sells, and they are going to always show you the most dramatic story they can. We’re inundated with stories of violence, even though statistically they are actually getting less and less.
Mass murder rates in the US have actually remained steady in the US since the mid 1970s.
We Will Never Stop Mass Murder or Spree Killers
According to police, James Holmes planned this crime for at least months. He had weapons, thousands of rounds of ammo, tactical gear. His tactics were unfortunately well though – creating a fatal funnel in the movie theater while distracting with gas canisters. Most tellingly though, he had rigged an elaborate WMD booby-trap in his apartment the likes of which the police had never seen. The IED he built is said to be powerful enough to bring down his apartment building and several nearby buildings.
It is simply nonsense to think that barring access to legally purchasing guns would have stopped or prevented a super-smart killer who was dedicated to creating mass casualties.
We can see other cases of mass murder such as the Oklahoma city bombings, knife attacks in Japan (where the attacker in Osaka first ran a truck into a crowd and then began stabbing everyone).
The fact is that people bent on killing will find a way. Really smart people bent on mass murder will find a way. It’s not a comforting fact, but it is reality.
According to the James Allen Fox, Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, and probably the leading expert on mass murder in the use – neither gun control, nor increasing the number of armed citizens is likely to have any effect on spree killers.
While not comfortable for us to believe there is an easy solution, we should derive some comfort from knowing it’s very unlikely that you’ll ever become a victim of a mass murderer.
Wasn’t James Holmes crazy? Can’t we lock crazy people up?
The days of locking up mentally ill people are over. Some people who are truly seen as dangerous are locked up, but this is pretty rare.
Most people who suffer from mental illness are neither dangerous nor violent. In fact in a study in North Carolina, people with mental disabilities were shown to be almost three times as likely to be victims of violence than the general population. This is a sad statement about our society.
I honestly believe that, in the coming months, James Holmes will be shown to be suffering from mental illness. This doesn’t seem like a politically or otherwise motivated crime to me. It may be that he was undiagnosed like so many with mental illness.
We still live in a “somewhat” free society. Even if we wanted to or could, we can’t round up people we think are acting strangely and screen them for violent tendencies. And even if we could, we probably couldn’t do anything about it if they didn’t want treatment. We live in a country where, in general, we don’t lock people up before they commit crimes.
If we got rid of all the guns nobody could shoot anybody
Yes, this is true. If you could get rid of ALL guns. But you can’t.
Even in the UK, where the Olympic shooting team has to leave the country to practice, there is still gun crime. Even in Japan (which has shunned guns legally and culturally for centuries) there is still gun crime.
I don’t want to go too far down the rat-hole of gun control other than to say this. There is no statistical correlation between legal firearms ownership and violent crime (other than a negative one). The UK (which has banned almost all private firearms) has a per capita violent crime rate many times hire than Switzerland – where every family keeps automatic weapons, even grenades in their house. Phoenix, which has loose carry laws, has half the rate of violent crime as Chicago, which has the strictest gun laws in the country. In Chicago, this summer, violent crime is up 31% over last year and shootings are up 6%.
The US evolved as a gun culture. There are an estimated 200 million legally owned firearms in the United States. Even if a total ban went into effect tomorrow, it would be phsyically impossible to confiscate all the guns in the country.
So the only realistic solution is partial gun control. This already exists in many states (and I’m not sure about Colorado). So, what would you do:
Require a background check to buy a firearm – I personally think this is a great idea, but Holmes had no criminal record and perhaps no mental health record.
Ban certain types of weapons and high capacity magazines – once again, this assumes a guy who builds a powerful explosive and incendiary device in his apartment with a sophisticated triggering system couldn’t find other ways to get, make, or modify these things. Or this assumes he wouldn’t go with another killing method altogether.
Limit the number of firearms someone can purchase in a given period of time – Once again, I don’t believe this would do anything to deter a mas killer who planned an attack for months in advance
I personally believe that no regulation of any kind (firearm or not) is going to ever stop someone who is dedicated and smart and wants to kill people. From fertilizer bombs like Oklahoma city, to the pipe-bombs in Columbine, or the truck and knife in Osaka Japan – killers will find a way.
A billion hypotheticals
As a martial artist and self defense instructor is natural to wonder what I’d do if I were in such a situation. The truth is, nobody really knows until it happens. I had many of the same thoughts and feelings right after 911.
There is some general advice that self defense instructors can give about surviving a shooting:
1. Run for cover and keep going putting cover behind you
2. Stay Low
3. Put as much distance as quickly as possible between you and the shooter.
However, not all of these things apply in every situation. Be aware, evaluate quickly, be ready to move.
Regardless of your political leanings, or personal feelings about firearms or anything else, now isn’t the time for politics. Now is the time to let our fear settle as much as we can and come together as a country to support the long road ahead for the victims and their families.