11 January 2011

Tucson: Did guns save anyone?

As early reports arrived from the massacre scene in Tucson on Saturday afternoon, viewers were led to believe that someone in the crowd who had gathered to meet Rep. Giffords had taken out a concealed weapon and opened fire on the assassin. With casualty figures still inconsistent, this unconfirmed detail raised the question of whether some of the victims might have been shot by someone other than the Representative's attacker. It now seems clear that no one tried to shoot the shooter, who was subdued only when two men tackled him. However, at least one man was on the scene with a concealed firearm on his person, as is allowed by Arizona law. He has told reporters that he nearly shot an innocent person, having run to the crime scene in response to the original gunfire to find the shooter's weapon in the hand of one of the two unarmed men who had tackled and disarmed him. Fortunately the interloper restrained himself; his hand was also stayed by the reasonable fear that, had he drawn his own gun, he might have been mistaken for the assassin's accomplice and shot.

The moral: Arizona is one of the states where the scenario dreamed of by gun-rights extremists should have played out. A brave, cool-headed and well-trained marksman should have picked off the assassin amid the chaos and minimized the body count. It did not happen. The gun-owner's testimony suggests that he might not have used his weapon even if he had arrived while the assassin was still shooting. The heroic scenario that posits good guns as the remedy for bad guns doesn't account for such details; it may be implausible in both practical and psychological terms. In 1949 a would-be hero opened fire on Howard Unruh in the middle of the first modern American amoklauf. He wounded Unruh, but when the shot didn't stop the killer, he couldn't bring himself to fire a second time. I won't claim that it's impossible for a hero to shoot down an amoklaufer cleanly, but I suspect that it's never going to be as common an event as some people hope, and I doubt more strongly whether the possibility would ever deter someone like the present shooter. It may be impossible to predict whether such intervention would cause more casualties in a crossfire, but the possibility of that result may outweigh the likelihood of a hero gunman saving lives. One thing seems certain: the liberal (in the old sense of the word) gun-rights regime in Arizona made it easier for someone to shoot twenty people. It didn't make it any easier for anyone to stop him.

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