While everyone was still reeling from the Santa Barbara shooting spree of Elliot Rodger, and before we could even process that tragedy fully, two new shootings took place in America. They seem to be coming at the rate of about one a week now – sometimes even faster (and still, we do nothing significant to address it).
These two shootings are instructive because they juxtapose two very different outcomes, especially when viewed through the paranoid, gun-mad lens of the NRA. The first was the Seattle shooting, in which a young man with a history of mental problems (sounding not all that different from Elliot Rodger in Santa Barbara) took to the campus of a small local college with the intent to kill as many people as possible. The second shooting was less than a calendar week later in Las Vegas, when a husband-wife team of militia/tea-party types (the man had given interviews from Bundy Ranch during that recent standoff) went to a local shopping area, first to a CiCi’s pizza where they shot two police officers, and then on to a local Wal-Mart where they shot one more civilian before taking their own lives.
What links these two shootings, other than their senselessness and needlessness? NRA propaganda. Or, more precisely, its complete bankruptcy.
Every time a major shooting happens, from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Sandy Hook, the gun lobby trots out its trained poodle, Wayne LaPierre of the NRA, who reads from the same practiced script: “gun free zones” and situational restrictions on access to firearms are what cause the loss of lives in these situations. If only more people had been armed, argues LaPierre as predictably as the sunrise, the gun-based tragedy-du-jour could’ve been avoided — or at least mitigated. Never mind the fact that places like Columbine and Virginia Tech already had armed guards or even their own police forces. LaPierre and his gun-manufacturer bosses want guns everywhere (much like, sadly, what was just passed in my state). Only a “good guy with a gun,” LaPierre frequently insists, can stop a “bad guy with a gun.”
Leaving aside the utter infantilism of the hero fantasy involved in making such a statement, LaPierre has used this argument to, if not exactly win the debate on the merits, at least convince enough legislators that nothing serious should (or needs to) be done with regard to limiting the circumstances under which Americans can purchase weapons (or what kind of weapons).
But is the fantasy true? Is the only thing that will stop a “bad guy with a gun” a similarly-armed “good guy?” That’s where these two most-recent shootings can help us get at some truth (at least, I think they’re the most-recent shootings. Haven’t checked for massacres since breakfast, which – in today’s America, appallingly – means I can’t be totally sure). [UPDATE: So, I was (mostly) joking when I said “I haven’t checked since breakfast.” Apparently, I shouldn’t have assumed it was probably a safe bet that just a few hours had no new shooting occurrences in them. This happened literally as I was typing this very post, or only moments afterward, in Oregon. Jeebus, when will it be enough for all of us to feel like we need to DO something?] In Seattle, shooter Aaron Ybarra was armed with a shotgun, the kind of gun used for hunting ducks or quail. In other words, the kind of gun that has to be reloaded after usually just a few (less than six) shots in order to continue shooting. While Ybarra was reloading, a student named John Meis, only two weeks away from his wedding date, saw his opportunity and heroically rushed Ybarra, tackling, pepper-spraying and eventually subduing him, holding him until the police arrived. In Las Vegas, the third victim of Jerad and Amanda Miller was Joseph Wilcox, a licensed concealed-carry gun owner who happened to be in the immediate vicinity when Jerad Miller approached the Wal-Mart brandishing his weapon and shouting about revolution. Like Meis had done in Seattle with Ybarra, Wilcox heroically moved to confront Jerad Miller. Unfortunately, he was unaware that Amanda Miller was working with her husband and was also armed. As Wilcox passed her, she shot him in the torso and killed him.
What is the difference here? In Seattle, a killer who would have killed many more if he could have is instead in custody and an extraordinarily brave young man is being hailed as a hero, while in Las Vegas, another man who acted with equal bravery lies dead. Obviously, circumstances are such that any number of factors could have varied only slightly and resulted in vastly different outcomes, but as it stands, the difference seems clear. In Seattle, John Meis had a brief window of opportunity in which to perform his act of heroism because the shooter was forced to reload. Had Mr. Ybarra been armed with the kind of weapon LaPierre and the gun lobby insist every American ought to have unfettered access to – semi-automatic pistols and rifles with high-capacity magazines – things would likely have gone very differently. Ybarra’s stated intent was to kill as many as possible. If he’d had one of those weapons so beloved by the gun lobby and LaPierre, it seems unlikely Mr. Meis would have had the brief respite from the gunfire he used to disarm Ybarra. Meis would either have tried anyway (which a brave person might do) and now lie dead among a great many more than actually died that day (leaving behind a grieving fiancee), or he might have realized he had no chance and tried to hide or run away. Either way, Ybarra’s death toll, had he been armed with the kind of weapons the Bundy ranch militia had, would’ve likely been much higher. It’s unclear why Ybarra chose a shotgun for his rampage – possibly it was the only kind of gun he could easily acquire on short notice. But with today’s laws, had he planned only somewhat better, he could easily have acquired a much more lethal weapon with a much higher rate of fire and less-frequent need to reload. That he didn’t is simply Seattle’s (and Meis’) good fortune.
In Las Vegas, Wilcox’s loved ones are preparing for his funeral, despite the fact that he was legally permitted to concealed-carry the handgun he attempted to use to stop the “bad guy with a gun.” Gun apologists might argue that if Jerad Miller had been alone, Wilcox might have succeeded in his attempt to stop him. Maybe they’re right…or maybe Miller, having his gun already out, would’ve gotten the draw on Wilcox and shot him anyway. Or maybe (since we’re hypothesizing here), something much worse and more unexpected might’ve happened. There’s no way to know. What we do know from the Las Vegas shooting, is that just having other armed people in the vicinity of a shooter or shooters is far from any kind of guarantee that they will stop the “bad guy(s) with a gun.”
The long and short of it is that Meis is a live hero and Wilcox is a dead one because, in the first case, conditions very similar to what would have been the case had sensible gun control laws been in place were in effect. Ybarra – for reasons known only to himself – chose a weapon which is very useful for hunting birds but not particularly useful for rapid fire and infrequent reloads – i.e.: the kind of weapon useful for massacring a high number of humans. It’s also true because, despite being armed, Wilcox could not prevent nor foresee all eventualities in the Las Vegas shooting. Simply being armed did not ensure his safety. To be fair to Mr. Wilcox’s memory, there are indeed situations in which the possession and proper use of a firearm at the right moment might save one’s own life or the life of others. Mr. Wilcox thought he was in such a situation, and he acted with undeniable courage. But he was not in such a situation. Mr. Meis, in Seattle, acted with equal courage…and managed to save his own and probably other people’s lives without a firearm, because Mr. Ybarra wasn’t able to shoot thirty, or a hundred, bullets without reloading.
Guns have their uses. I remember enjoying hunting as a teenager with my father, and although I stopped hunting after I left home and today own no guns, I’m well aware of the millions of Americans who enjoy hunting peacefully and safely and who don’t share Jerad Miller and Wayne LaPierre’s extreme views on gun rights. But hunting requires either a shotgun, like the weapon Mr. Meis disarmed Mr. Ybarra of, or a “long gun” – a rifle. It never, ever requires a semi-automatic pistol with a hundred-round drum magazine, or anything like it.