Disarming law-abiding citizens still wrong and meeting the standard of effectiveness in self-defense.

(Apologies if this seems late. I attempted to post this 2 days ago and had a snafu at HoodaThunk? so it had to be re-created.)

In the wake of the shootings in Aurora, CO, many of the usual advocates for increased gun restrictions – and, let’s be honest, the outright ban on private ownership of firearms – have tried to score political points by using the shootings to call for more and more restrictive gun laws. The first thing I posted when I got to work that morning was both my prayers for the victims and their families and a call for everyone to resist the urge to jump to conclusions:

Just heard about the Aurora, CO shootings this morning. I know it’s tempting to try to draw early conclusions but let’s wait for the investigation. In the meantime, I offer my prayers for those killed and injured.

It wasn’t even a couple of hours, however, before calls for those more restrictive laws were being thrown around, provoking, in my view, the response from advocates of the right to keep and bear arms to suppose that had there been an armed citizen present in the theater that night there might have been more survivors and fewer injured. This prompted responses suggesting that any presence of firearms in the hands of those moviegoers would have been A) useless and B) more of a threat with the inevitable result that more people would have been killed. They say that average citizens with firearms would never have been able to hit the shooter in the dark, that they would never have been able to hit the shooter with the tear gas all over the place, and that even if they had been able to score a hit, the body armor the shooter was wearing would have made him impervious to their shots.

In a word: garbage. I contend that those people making such claims have absolutely no basis for their conclusion beyond simple fear. But let me tell you what I know:

  1. The average gun owner would have been hard-pressed to return accurate fire in the dark of the movie theater against a target wearing mostly black. Note, particularly, that I said “hard-pressed” which is not the same as “impossible.”
  2. The average gun owner would have been hard-pressed to return accurate fire, or perhaps even operate at all, in the presence of tear gas since the vast majority of us have never had any exposure to such gas in our lives. Note, particularly, that I said “hard-pressed” which is not the same as “impossible.” Note, also, that those untrained witnesses reporting to the police in the heat of the moment said “tear gas” but that reports of the actions of police and rescue personnel in the immediate aftermath don’t conform to people having to deal with tear gas, per se. Those people saw the shooter throw canisters that let off some kind of obscuring cloud. It may have been simply smoke canisters. While that’s no piece of cake to operate in, either, it’s significantly less of a problem than some chemical agent deliberately designed to cause choking, tearing up, and respiratory problems.
  3. Armed citizens in the audience who engaged the shooter would have, even if they missed completely, been effectively providing “cover fire” which would almost certainly have caused the shooter to duck for cover. That act alone would have disrupted his attack offering the crowd windows of opportunity to escape that simply didn’t exist with the shooter free to stand still and fire round after round into the seats.
  4. Body armor vests, which the shooter was apparently wearing (though it is not confirmed he actually had armor in his vest), provide protection to the center mass of the wearer but that protection is neither absolute nor does it cover the head or extremities of the wearer. Return fire from the audience would either have hit the armor in the chest (or head, since the shooter was wearing a helmet) and produced a kinectic strike that would almost certainly have further disrupted the attack or it may have struck the shooter somewhere he was not armored. The gas mask, for example, protected against the gas but it provides no protection against a bullet. Ballistic armor in vests usually covers the chest and abdomen but rarely above the collarbone and certainly not across the arms, hands, and legs. The shooter’s position down in the front of the stage would have actually been a tactical disadvantage, offering audience members a line of fire above the protective line of the armor.
  5. Deprived of their ability to carry and deploy their weapons in their own defense, the audience members had no chance whatsoever of defending themselves. With my life and the lives of my family on the line, I’ll take any chance over no chance any day of the week.

I’ll take the moment to point out to those who are suggesting that more restrictions are called for from this incident that the movie theater prohibited people from bringing guns onto the premises. You’ll note how effective that policy was in actually making anyone safe.

The concept of rushing to pass laws that curtail the rights of the many on the off chance that it might bring about some desired state of things has been a topic recognized as a loser and a fallacy of process for literally centuries. Cesare Beccaria, an Italian jurist, wrote the seminal work Of Crime and Punishments in 1764. He addressed this penchant in the chapter fittingly titled, “Of false Ideas of Utility.”

A principal source of errors and injustice are false ideas of utility. For example: that legislator has false ideas of utility who considers particular more than general conveniencies, who had rather command the sentiments of mankind than excite them, and dares say to reason, `Be thou a slave’; who would sacrifice a thousand real advantages to the fear of an imaginary or trifling inconvenience; who would deprive men of the use of fire for fear of their being burnt, and of water for fear of their being drowned; and who knows of no means of preventing evil but by destroying it.

The laws of this nature are those which forbid to wear arms, disarming those only who are not disposed to commit the crime which the laws mean to prevent. Can it be supposed, that those who have the courage to violate the most sacred laws of humanity, and the most important of the code, will respect the less considerable and arbitrary injunctions, the violation of which is so easy, and of so little comparative importance? Does not the execution of this law deprive the subject of that personal liberty, so dear to mankind and to the wise legislator? and does it not subject the innocent to all the disagreeable circumstances that should only fall on the guilty? It certainly makes the situation of the assaulted worse, and of the assailants better, and rather encourages than prevents murder, as it requires less courage to attack unarmed than armed persons.

Beccaria most eloquently states the folly of “gun-free” zones such as that movie theater, colleges and universities, and – dare we say it? – captial cities: Someone who has made the decision that they’re fine killing another human being because they feel like it is not going to be deterred by a sign or a piece of paper saying they can’t carry weapons. To the contrary, history has shown they tend to be emboldened in such places.

I disagree in the strongest sense that allowing law-abiding citizens to carry weapons for their own defense is either useless or wil inevitably make incidents like this worse. Suggestions to the contrary are motivated by ignorant fear. Citizens who carry don’t do so because they live in fear. They do so because they have decided not to.