Of Heroes and Hype: Mass Murder and the Absurdity of the ‘More Guns’ Crowd

As information continues to come in from Newtown, Connecticut — the scene of America’s latest mass killing, this time at an elementary school — there will be much said (and hopefully more to be done) in this nation and culture to diminish the likelihood of such tragedies occurring in the future.

But among the least fortunate, most absurd commentary, will no doubt be the cacophony blaring from the throats of conservative gun-fanatics, who will insist — as they always do in times like this — that if more people were allowed to carry guns openly on their person, tragedies such as the one in Newtown could have been prevented. Indeed, the rush to blame liberals and gun control advocates for essentially disarming teachers and others who, naturally, could have saved all those lives has already begun. Larry Pratt, of Gun Owners of America has intoned, for instance, that “Gun control supporters have the blood of little children on their hands.” Actually, of course, a gun owner — or rather, the son of a gun owner, represented, in effect, by Larry Pratt — has blood on his hands. The blood of 28 people; but never should one let the facts get in the way of a good lobbying volley, I suppose.

The idea that more guns, in the hands of more people, and the elimination of “gun free zones” at schools and elsewhere would reduce the likelihood of mass shootings — since would-be shooters would rationally fear being stopped by a skilled marksman and thus wouldn’t risk launching a killing spree (or even if they did they would be stopped before their carnage was completed) — is illogical on multiple levels. That the ridiculousness of the position really needs to be spelled out only attests to the fantasy-world-like mental simplicity of the gun crowd, but in any event, here it is.

First, and most obviously, the kind of person who is willing to commit mass murder is not likely to be open to the rational-minded deterrence that fear of an armed bystander might otherwise provide. Adam Lanza, like Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris and Wade Michael Page, and many others before him, was willing and prepared to end his own life at the conclusion of his rampage. If anything, thinking that someone else might have intervened and assisted them in their desired suicide would have only emboldened them, as the longstanding tradition of “suicide by cop” — where a disturbed individual provokes police to shoot them rather than doing the deed themselves — attests. Likewise, that an armed third or fourth party might have interrupted their killing spree after only a few had been felled, rather than a dozen, two dozen, or more, would also not have likely mattered much to them from the pre-emptive standpoint. Persons such as this will kill as many as they can, no matter the possibility that someone else might also be carrying, and thus prevent them from realizing the maximum desired number of victims.

But even the more limited argument, that someone else carrying a weapon could have at least minimized the number of dead in these instances, lacks any claim to rationality. Those who believe an armed teacher (or 2, or 3, or 5) could have stopped the Virginia Tech shooter, or the kids at Columbine, or Kip Kinkel, or most recently Adam Lanza, presuppose conditions at the scene that are absolutely fantasy-like, the stuff of video games, and surely bear no resemblance to the actual, real-world chaos that reigns in cases such as this. Simply put, it is one thing when one is serving in a war zone, or when one is a law enforcement officer, to come upon someone engaging in violent action, where confronting the shooter would be the logical and trained response. Soldiers and cops are prepared for such moments. But a kindergarten teacher or school principal or calculus professor, or whatever — even if that person is an expert shot — cannot be expected to react quickly and calmly enough to disarm a mass murderer. When such a person bursts into a classroom, the event is so utterly out of context, that the mere time it takes for those inside to even figure out what’s happening, would prove more than sufficient for these shooters to do their damage. So too in the Aurora, Colorado cineplex. Disoriented in that case by tear gas, an armed patron would have been firing blind into the fog, even presuming they would have had the presence of mind to pull their weapon and fire it at all. In cases like that, average people (again, as opposed to well-trained cops and soldiers) are thinking of saving their own lives, not engaging a killer in a hail of bullets.

For gun enthusiasts to claim that they could have taken down these killers if they had been there — or that others like them could have — is to play the role of Monday morning quarterback, operating with the benefit of hindsight, aware of what the shooter did and where they did it, such that they can somehow envision themselves, Rambo-like, crouching behind a door, or under a stairwell, or behind a chair and easily squeezing off enough rounds to spare lives and emerge the day’s savior. How easy it must be, and convenient, to retroactively ascribe to oneself the status of a would-be hero. That there are lots of legally armed citizens out there — and yet, none of them have ever stopped a killer in his tracks in the manner described by those who apparently have a hard time differentiating between “Call of Duty” and real life — apparently matters not to those for whom guns have become a political fetish.

Additionally, even if people had the right to carry guns anywhere and everywhere — schools, churches, bars, restaurants, ad infinitum — the gun nuts presume that therefore, a) lots of people would carry, b) those people would be sufficiently trained on how to use their weapons in a chaotic emergency scenario such that their carrying would result in a net increase in security in these locales, and c) that the net reduction in mass murder killings produced by concealed carry proliferation would end up outweighing the likelihood of those additional, open-carry guns, being stolen and used for the commission of crime, or accidentally discharged, resulting in death or injury. For instance, those who advocated that college students be allowed to carry guns on campuses after Virginia Tech seem to think that such forbearance would prevent another mass killing in the classroom, and that such a heroic scenario would be more likely than the possibility that some of those guns would be used to violently settle bar fights engaged by inebriated undergrads, or to resolve domestic disputes with fatal alacrity.

In other words, the “hero-with-a-gun-on-his-hip” crowd looks only at the incredibly rare and unlikely possibility of stopping a mass murder with more guns floating around, and pays no attention to the attendant risks on the other end of the equation, which suggests that long before those guns could be used for such beneficent means, more of them would find their way into the hands of persons with nefarious intent, or be used in far less constructive ways.

With all of this said, of course, it is true that tougher gun laws might not serve to deter many of these mass killing events either. In most cases, these kinds of killers are so deeply in the throes of untreated mental or psychological illness,* that they are unlikely to be dissuaded by a few additional obstacles to procuring weapons with which to injure, maim and kill their targets. But such obstacles, even if not completely sufficient for making us a safer nation, would surely make their actions — and the violent actions of many other, more pedestrian and retail-level killers — more difficult. The hurdles would become higher, the ease and simplicity with which mass killers can ply their trade at present would be made more complicated. Perhaps just long enough for the momentary schizoid or other mental break to pass, or the instant rage to dim, or for help to be procured by a teacher, counselor or parent armed not with yet another weapon, but rather, the necessary training to spot profound emotional disturbance and to obtain assistance for those in need of it.

But one thing is clear: the notion that because gun control won’t necessarily stop a given crime, it is therefore a useless gesture, is an argument unworthy of a civilized people. By that logic, there should be no limit on any kind of weapon — surface-to-air-missiles, personal tactical nukes, or tanks — since, after all, people who really want them will still get them. First off, uh, no they won’t actually. Law enforcement is perfectly capable of ensuring that no underground market emerges for those weapons, as with machine guns, for instance. To think they could not similarly enforce laws against high capacity, semi-automatic handguns, or assault rifles, is to believe them both competent and incompetent at once. Yes, the occasional killer, extremely motivated and resourceful will no doubt still find a way to kill people, as did Anders Breivik in Norway, for instance. But note, Breivik’s crime was extraordinarily rare in his nation. So rare as to be sui generis, in fact. Would that the same could be said about Adam Lanza’s deeds.

But here is the larger truth. Whether severe restrictions on gun ownership would save a thousand lives, or merely a handful now and then, really isn’t the point. The more important question is what kind of country do we want to be? Will we insist on remaining among the most heavily armed nations on Earth — and one of the most deadly, as if those things were merely coincidental — or will we seek to create a culture of non-violence, in which manhood is not defined beginning at an early age, as being related to fighting, hunting, shooting things for fun, and generally being physically tough? Bottom line: there is something wrong with a society in which so many people want and even seem to need guns, like some kind of psychological crutch; a society in which millions pay good money to watch two men get in a cage and beat the shit out of each other, and think to call that sickness a sport, or even worse, an art form.

Whether or not gun control can really work as advertised, guns, sadly, work exactly as promised. They serve only one function, and it is that purpose for which they were made: to kill, either an animal (usually for fun), or another person. To think that we would want more killing machines in the hands of a people who are so quick to resort to violence at the drop of a hat — to avenge global, or local “disrespect” by some foe, real or imagined, or to resolve otherwise minor squabbles — seems the stuff of true insanity.

In short, while guns alone don’t kill people, it is rather apparent that Americans do, and mostly with guns. And until we address the cultural sickness that lay at the heart of our national identity, it is quite clear that we are a people unworthy of access to such instruments of death as these. Perhaps somewhere there are people mature enough to handle guns responsibly. We have proven, over and again, and with the blood of our children, that we are not that people.

* Please note, this is not to say that most mentally ill persons, or those suffering from a psychological disorder are themselves violent. Most are most assuredly not, even if a disproportionate share of mass killers may be reasonably said to suffer some type of emotional/psychological malady. Thankfully, violence among the mentally ill is rare, and mass killing even rarer.

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