The danger of having guns in even skilled hands

And so, inevitably, there has been another mass shooting, this time at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and we can expect the gun control debate to heat up again. I am not opposed to private gun ownership. I can understand how a ‘well regulated militia’ might be necessary for the ‘security of a free state’, as the Second Amendment to the US constitution states. I can understand how some people in some areas can feel so frightened that having a gun lets them feel more secure.

But the right to own guns does not mean that such ownership should be free from restrictions. I can see the need for restrictions such as fairly long waiting periods to prevent people from purchasing them in anger, thorough criminal and psychological background checks, and the need to require training on how to use them that leads to an owner and user license (like drivers education that leads to a driver’s license) that shows competence to handle them safely in various situations.

The last item is especially necessary because of the argument put forward by gun enthusiasts that an armed populace that routinely carries guns around may be able to stop these kinds of rampages early on, because the police typically take quite a bit of time to arrive, whereas they are on the spot and could shoot the assailant.

But having many armed people around who are indistinguishable can be dangerous. A friend of mine who is a police officer says that the presence of more than one person with a gun in such situations ups the danger and complexity of such situations by an order of magnitude. Identifying the killer becomes problematic and even police and soldiers with extensive training have difficulty, as this tragic story of a police officer mistakenly killing his own son illustrates.

Joe Zamudio was one such gun carrier who was at a store near the event that congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was holding in Tucson, AZ last year. Hearing the shooting, he drew his gun and came around the corner with it cocked and ready and saw a man with a gun in his hand. But this man was not the shooter Jared Loughner but someone who had just wrested the gun away from him.

The Arizona Daily Star, based on its interview with Zamudio, adds two details to the story. First, upon seeing the man with the gun, Zamudio “grabbed his arm and shoved him into a wall” before realizing he wasn’t the shooter. And second, one reason why Zamudio didn’t pull out his own weapon was that “he didn’t want to be confused as a second gunman.”

This is a much more dangerous picture than has generally been reported. Zamudio had released his safety and was poised to fire when he saw what he thought was the killer still holding his weapon. Zamudio had a split second to decide whether to shoot. He was sufficiently convinced of the killer’s identity to shove the man into a wall. But Zamudio didn’t use his gun. That’s how close he came to killing an innocent man. He was, as he acknowledges, “very lucky.”

That’s what happens when you run with a firearm to a scene of bloody havoc. In the chaos and pressure of the moment, you can shoot the wrong person. Or, by drawing your weapon, you can become the wrong person—a hero mistaken for a second gunman by another would-be hero with a gun. Bang, you’re dead. Or worse, bang bang bang bang bang: a firefight among several armed, confused, and innocent people in a crowd. It happens even among trained soldiers. Among civilians, the risk is that much greater.

This is the problem with many people firing guns in such situations.

While understanding the argument of the right to own guns, I personally would never own one and would much rather live in a society in which guns were absent. From reader Norm, I read this article about how Japan has virtually no shooting deaths.

In 2008, the U.S. had over 12 thousand firearm-related homicides. All of Japan experienced only 11, fewer than were killed at the Aurora shooting alone. And that was a big year: 2006 saw an astounding two, and when that number jumped to 22 in 2007, it became a national scandal. By comparison, also in 2008, 587 Americans were killed just by guns that had discharged accidentally.

Almost no one in Japan owns a gun. Most kinds are illegal, with onerous restrictions on buying and maintaining the few that are allowed. Even the country’s infamous, mafia-like Yakuza tend to forgo guns; the few exceptions tend to become big national news stories.

It may be that this is one of those issues where there is no middle ground and one has to go to the extremes, that one cannot have a society that allows some legal ownership of guns. One may have to have a total and complete ban to achieve the kind of security that will make people feel safer without one than with one.


  1. thisisaturingtest says

    Absolutely correct in every respect, and it astounds me that there are still folks who think the answer to gun violence is more guns. Incidents like the Aurora shooting, and the one in Wisconsin, are anomalies, very rare exceptions to the general rule of expectations. And the root cause of them is that someone had a gun. What do you gain by making the cause of the exception the rule to prevent it, except to make the exception itself the rule? “Everyone should carry guns” isn’t an effort to address the problem of gun violence, it’s just a reaction to it.

  2. machintelligence says

    Your post has some inconsistencies in it:

    Hearing the shooting, he drew his gun and came around the corner with it cocked and ready and saw a man with a gun in his hand.

    The Arizona Daily Star, based on its interview with Zamudio, adds two details to the story. First, upon seeing the man with the gun, Zamudio “grabbed his arm and shoved him into a wall” before realizing he wasn’t the shooter. And second, one reason why Zamudio didn’t pull out his own weapon was that “he didn’t want to be confused as a second gunman.”

    He either had drawn his gun or he hadn’t. You can’t have it both ways.

  3. Mano Singham says

    Good catch. I had not read the article carefully enough. The later phrase that he had “released his safety and was poised to fire” in the news report suggested that he had his gun out already but that may be my misreading of what is involved.

  4. stephenyutzy says

    This is an issue that I struggle with all the time. I’m a big supporter of the second amendment, and think citizens should be allowed to keep and bear arms. With that said, I also recognize that even though it is a constitutionally protected right (note: protected, not granted), and a gun is only a tool that can be used for many purposes, it’s also a tool that can easily be used for very bad purposes.

    The reason I struggle with it is that every “reasonable” sounding restriction carries with it the potential to be the beginning of a “death by a thousand cuts” approach that sees our rights disappearing. I have a hard time reconciling that with my view that I do think gun owners should at least have a minimum level of safety training (like a drivers license). It’s a nice analogy, but then again driving a car isn’t a constitutionally protected right like keeping/bearing arms.

    Statistically speaking, concealed carry permit holders commit crimes at a rate several times lower than the general population. FBI statistics show that as firearm ownership continues to rise, violent crime rates continue to fall. These are of course only correlations, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

    I don’t know the answer here. I just hope that the answer won’t involve punishing law abiding citizens for the actions of an extremely statistically insignificant minority. To continue the driving analogy, I don’t think the answer to DUIs is to make it harder for sober people to buy cars.

  5. stephenyutzy says

    I don’t think that “the root cause of them is that someone had a gun”. The root cause is that someone felt the need to kill other people. Look at a country like China, where civilian gun ownership is essentially non-existent. They also have mass killings from time to time, but they involve knives not guns.

    Oklahoma City and 9/11 didn’t come about because the perpetrators had easy access to explosive chemicals and box cutters, they came about because the perpetrators had the desire to kill others.

  6. jpmeyer says

    Bonus: the cognitive dissonance from people saying “Well if everyone had guns none of this would’ve happened!” when one mentions brings this up in the context of the temple shooting in Wisconsin or the mosque arson in Missouri (“So you want America to be fully of heavily armed, well-trained Muslims with whatever weapons they they want to have?”)

  7. ImaginesABeach says

    I get frustrated by those who would not allow any restrictions on guns or ammunition. I get that the 2nd Amendment protects gun ownership. But the 1st Amendment protects freedom of speech, and that right is not absolute. The 1st Amendment protects the free exercise of religion, and that right is not absolute. The 1st Amendments protects against the establishment of religion, and that protection is not absolute. The 1st Amendment protects the freedom of assembly and that freedom is not absolute. What, exactly, is it about the 2nd Amendment that makes it more important than the 1st?

  8. stephenyutzy says

    The supreme court agrees with you (DC vs Heller, 2008), and the 2nd amendment is hardly unrestricted (federal background checks, national firearms act, additional state/local restrictions, etc). It has however been becoming less restricted over the past 15 years or so, through expanded right to carry laws, the expiration of the “assault weapon” ban, and less restrictive self defense laws. Of course during the same time period violent crime rates have also been falling…

  9. says

    The obvious answer to those who are concerned with gun rights is to strengthen the separation between the executive branch and the command of the national guard. Maintain the guard with military weaponry that is comparable to the standing army and downsize the standing military. Then if someone wants to be a gun nut, they can join the guard and shoot real machine guns and laser guided missiles and drive tanks and whatnot – at the taxpayers’ expense.

    If the idea is to prevent a putsch, having a rabble in arms is not going to seriously inconvenience a modern military. Revolutions (or counter-revolutions) almost entirely hinge on whether or not the standing army gets involved and on which side they get involved. Insurgencies of peasants are very very very expensive in terms of the lives of the peasants. It’s much better to try to head off putsches using political compartmentalization so that, in effect, there is no single army that can be turned against the state.

    I own a few rifles and some handguns and shot Expert in basic. But I don’t fool myself that I could do much more than make an ugly stain on the front of a Bradley. These idiots who talk about preventing a coup have never seen what an MLRS strike would do after the satellite imagery showed “minutemen” congregating someplace…

    The way to maintain liberty is not with guns! It’s with political checks on politicians! The irony of this whole situation is that the same folks who generally favor “2nd amendment rights” are also the ones who generally favor expansion of the government’s powers and expenditures on the standing army. They need to study a little bit about how the Roman Republic turned into the Roman Empire and the relevance of that history to today.

  10. says

    If everyone in the sikh temple had nuclear weapons, the shooting never would have happened because the shooter would have backed away from trading an entire city of white christians for a handful of sikhs.

    Checkmate in 2 moves!

  11. rork says

    Good points about staining the Bradley, but in the U.S. I sense a tradition of self-protection is more at work in the minds of most people than the possibility of fighting the government.
    Reading Teddy Roosevelt’s older books for example – it’s clear those ranchers needed guns cause the threat of violence was the only method of not being molested. The police powers were entirely unable to stop outlaws. That tradition continues out west. They won’t stand for “go ahead and kill me – the authorities will get you later” as a solution.
    I don’t have great answers, but I would offer: let’s worry more about the every day killings, the vast majority of them, and see what we can do about that. Better background checks might be something most of us can agree to. More training for concealed-carry or perhaps any pistol. More of the message that owning a gun, perhaps handguns in particular, is more likely to have your friends or family members killing each other than to save your life. As other bloggers have mentioned, bring on the epidemiologists, who might be able to shed light on where we have the biggest opportunities. They might not think it’s assault rifle bans (not that I oppose that, I just don’t think that will save many lives).

  12. thisisaturingtest says

    That’s true- a very fair point. Maybe I should have said “the root addressable problem.” IOW- in the combination of guns+motivation (or desire), the guns are the immediate and visible problem; you can’t go around monitoring every disgruntlement that may lead to murder, but you can stop enabling the easy achievement of it by guns (the difference between knives, box-cutters, or chemicals and guns is too obvious to need spelling out).
    The only restrictions on gun rights I’m suggesting are the ones Mano listed- “waiting periods to prevent people from purchasing them in anger, thorough criminal and psychological background checks, and the need to require training on how to use them that leads to an owner and user license.” I don’t see how any of these things are “punishing” gun-owners, especially not if they can save lives. To be fair, I have to concede that I don’t know that these restrictions would save lives. But, if there’s a realistic chance it could- there’s a report out today that Holmes’s psychiatrist went to police a few weeks before the shooting to express concern about his state. At that point, he hadn’t done anything; but, I have to think that a check on him, producing the information that he had purchased a small arsenal’s worth of arms and ammo (all legally), in combination with evidence of his mental state, might have saved a few lives.
    I have to admit that I’m not entirely comfortable with the police-state vision that conjures up, especially since it’s based on a hypothetical. But, what real price are we willing to pay to avoid that vision? And, in any case, heaping more guns on to the problem seems to me, as I said, to be replacing a search for a solution to a problem with a reaction only to it.

  13. kagekiri says

    I think the biggest problem with comparing the US to Japan is that we basically stripped them of weapons after WWII, and heavily restricted their arms manufacture. They had no military left, and thus the tradition of owning guns was pretty much broken if it ever existed.

    Here though? I know internet gun-owning tough-guys have said they’d stockpile guns and hide/lie about them if the government tried to take away their guns, or even go as far as rebelling against the state.

    And not only is our country kinda huge which makes policing incredibly difficult, but we already have tons of guns that won’t go bad for decades if not centuries, and a history of gun ownership as “patriotic”.

    It’d be very hard, and very expensive in terms of law enforcement and civilian lives lost, not to mention money for buying back the guns or defending yourselves from lawsuits if you’re just seizing them, nor to mention the political momentum that’d be required, to get rid of our guns.

    Sigh..weapons are an annoying issue. I’m pretty annoyed at my state (California) and its current anti-weapon laws, though. They don’t actually consider if something is more deadly: if it *looks* scarier, or is popular in movies, they ban it.

    The main difference between my current utility knife and a balisong (butterfly knife, illegal to own in California) is that butterfly knives are in movies and stereotypically used by gangsters. They don’t cut or stab better, they don’t draw faster, they don’t conceal better, they’re just funner/flashier to flip around, and take a little more practice to use quickly. It makes zero sense.

    Similarly, I can walk around with a pistol open carrying here (so holster is visible and gun is unloaded, and no going near schools/federal property), but I’m not technically allowed to bring a simple stick or extendable baton around for self defense. Never mind that a stick is less deadly without skill or strength than my knives, let alone a gun. Never mind that it’s much less concealable than either. It’s just illegal because cops want another way to arrest gangsters, and use the law to tack on extra charges and punishments.

    Sorry, got a bit ranty.

  14. says

    Be careful about comparing the United States with Japan. There are extremely substantial and highly relevant economic and social differences.

    To show the data, according to the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime the murder rate in Japan for 2009 was 0.4 per 100,000 people. In absolute terms, 506 murders in a country of about 128 million. Contrast with the U.S. at 4.4 per 100,000 and 13,636 murders in a nation of roughly 300 million.

    This kind of gap can’t be explained by gun laws alone. It’s definitely not population density either; Japan is even more crowded on average.

    What could explain it? Several factors may be seen as working together here.

    One is wealth inequality. The United States has severe concentration of wealth and it’s getting worse. Countries with relatively fair income distributions also tend to have less violent crimes. It’s not quite a perfect correlation, but there’s some connection. Whether the underlying cause is that more equal societies generate people less likely to attack and steal from others, or that they have more effective police systems and are better at responding to crime, or some combination of these and other reasons is not fully known.

    A second issue is the matter of discrimination, both historic and on-going prejudices. The United States seems to have one of the most entrenched problems with racial animus among all first world countries. Contrast this with nations like Japan and Sweden which have rather high, even extreme, levels of ethnic integration. That’s not to say they lack problems with discrimination, but rather that the problem on this particular axis is guaranteed to be limited to a smaller segment of the population by the demographic facts.

    Third and finally is the issue of cultural narrative and the personal conditioning that occurs differently depending on it. In a culture that elevates or directly supports the concept of rugged individualism and self-defense rather than a sense of shared responsibility and collectively dealing with problems, it becomes more likely that people will attempt to take matters into their own hands. I see enough of a difference between the cultural standards in the U.S. and Canada, leaving aside the even larger gap between the U.S. and Japan.

  15. kyoseki says

    I’m totally ok with the idea of restrictions on gun ownership (background checks, registries, even psych evaluations), but I think it’s fundamentally flawed to assume that they will automatically lead to fewer firearms deaths, if that were the case, California would have the lowest rate of firearms related murder in the country and we don’t, in fact, we’re well above the national average, we’re only marginally below Arizona in terms of firearms deaths per capita and they have almost no restrictions on firearms ownership whatsoever.

    As I see it, carrying a concealed weapon is a personal freedoms issue, it’s up to the individual whether they choose to or not, but they should know the risks and know that it makes them more likely to get shot and not less, but if they still want to carry, then they should be allowed to, just like we allow people to own powerful cars & motorcycles or engage in any number of other activities that put themselves or others in danger.

  16. kyoseki says

    I would say that waiting periods definitely help with what we laughably term “crimes of passion”, but in the case of mass shootings, these things are usually planned out well ahead of time.

    Holmes bought his firearms over a 2 month period, Page bought his handgun last month, even California’s 10 day waiting period wouldn’t have helped (incidentally, it’s worth noting that the only reason California has a 10 day waiting period is that the state runs the background checks themselves and they’re chronically backlogged, so the old 3 day waiting period was too short – oh and they’re not even accurate, my application to buy a shotgun for skeet shooting was denied because apparently I’m an illegal alien, and I’ve heard storied of the California DOJ calling the gun store on the 11th day asking them not to release the firearm AFTER the person had already picked it up).

    Rudimentary psych evaluations also sound like a perfectly reasonable idea that I’m also not sure would help – the UK requires your doctor to sign off on your application but they still have the odd mass shooting as well – that said, there were legitimate questions about the psychological state of the Virginia Tech, Tucson and Aurora shooters that didn’t result in a disqualifying flag on their firearms applications, so maybe they would help some at least – my concern here would be the NRA simply producing a cheat sheet for the test to tell people how to answer the questions “correctly”.

    Norway has pretty stringent regulations on gun ownership too (the vast majority of which most people would consider reasonable), but they didn’t stop Anders Breivik.

    I dunno, the more I think about it, the more I feel that there’s no such thing as “sensible gun control”, anything short of a complete ban is utterly futile, but at the same time, I can see a complete ban causing a HUGE number of deaths as authorities try to implement it.

    You have to stop people wanting guns before you can ban them, that’s the fundamental issue here and I haven’t the first goddamned clue how you go about it.

  17. thisisaturingtest says

    I think the first thing we have to admit to ourselves is that there’s never going to be a 100% effective means of gun control- that’s a completely unrealistic expectation that gun-rights extremists like to throw up as a bit of a strawman to argue against- and that there will always be the anomalies; the goal is to make them quantifiably more anomalistic than now. I have to admit, along with you, that I wouldn’t have the first clue how to do this; I just don’t think more guns is a solution.

  18. says

    Good morning thisisaturingtest,

    Yet, that — someone felt the need to kill other people — IS the root cause we must address.

    I do not yet have any workable solutions, but that does not excuse me, or anyone else, from seeking one.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,


  19. stephenyutzy says

    This is why I like following Mano’s blog: the readers generally take the time to think before typing, something that can’t be said for the internet as a whole.

    Of course I also like that most of the responses here seem to agree with my general view (of all issues, not just gun control): make sure that the solution will actually solve the problem.

    Whenever I write to my legislators, I always follow a 3 step process in evaluating proposed legislation.
    1) What is the problem being addressed?
    2) Is that actually a problem (ie is it an issue that actually exists, and one that I agree with)?
    3) Will the proposed solution have a good chance of solving that problem?
    Using the example of the recent PA voter ID bill, the answers as I see them are 1) voter fraud, 2) nobody’s been able to say for sure, and 3) seems likely. The test fails at step 2.

    Most historical and proposed gun control measures fail at one of these steps, especially since step 1 is commonly “reduce crime” and we now know that the result is very rarely “crime was reduced”. To be fair, most legislation I see proposed these days on many issues fails one of the steps, especially step 3.

    I’d encourage everyone to develop something that makes sense to you, and apply it when faced with issues such as these. Or feel free to suggest how I can improve my own system.

  20. amhovgaard says

    No, Norway’s stringent regulations didn’t stop ABB – OTOH, in a normal year (i. e. not counting 2011) only about 40 people are murdered (out of 5 million), and only a (very) few of those are shot. Accidental deaths by shooting are also rare. And there are a lot of privately owned guns in Norway, mostly used for hunting. So I’d say the evidence seems to suggest that regulations work, although not perfectly.


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