Shootouts aren't the solution

New York TimesAugust 28, 2012 

We had a shooting near the Empire State Building. An aggrieved ex-employee of an apparel company killed his former co-worker, and was himself killed by police. Except for the famous-landmark location, it was not actually a very big story. Remember the mass shooting at the lumberyard in North Carolina earlier this year, or the one in October at the California cement plant? No? Neither does anybody else except the grieving families.

[The North Carolina shooting occurred in January, in Star, Montgomery County. Three people were killed and the killer shot himself.]

Nine passers-by were also wounded in last week’s incident in New York City, and it all were accidentally hit by the police. This isn’t surprising; it’s only in movies that people are good shots during a violent encounter. In 2008, Al Baker reported in The New York Times that the accuracy rate for New York City officers firing in the line of duty was 34 percent.

And these are people trained for this kind of crisis. The moral is that if a lunatic starts shooting, you will not be made safer if your fellow average citizens are carrying concealed weapons.

This is not the accepted wisdom in many parts of the country. (Certainly not in Congress, where safety was cited as a rationale for letting vacationers take loaded pistols into federal parks.) Shortly after the mass murder at the movie theater in Colorado, I was waiting for a plane at a tiny airport in North Dakota, listening to a group of oil rig workers discuss how many lives would have been saved if only the other theater patrons had been armed. “They could have nipped it in the bud,” one man told another confidently.

People, try to imagine what would have happened if, instead of diving for the floor, a bunch of those moviegoers had stood up and started shooting into the dark. Or ask a cop.

We are never going to have a sane national policy on guns until the gun advocates give up on the fantasy that the best protection against armed psychopaths bent on random violence is regular people with loaded pistols on their belts.

Is there anything the other side can concede in return? Well, gun control advocates have to be careful not to say anything that demeans hunting. Virtually every politician in America has already gotten that message. (See: New York Sen. Chuck Schumer holding dead pheasants.) But it’s true that some city-dwellers can be snotty on this point.

“You don’t mess with hunting and fishing because that’s part of who we are,” says Kathy Cramer Walsh, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who specializes in civic engagement. “A lot of times, talk about regulating guns and ammunition is seen as the outside trying to change who we are.”

I’ve been thinking about guns and Wisconsin lately, especially since Paul Ryan, a big fan of the arm-the-world theory of public safety, was picked to be a vice presidential nominee.

Wisconsin has some of the least restrictive gun laws in the country. (The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence gives it 3 points out of a possible 100.) It was also, of course, the scene of a terrible mass shooting this month by Wade Michael Page at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee.

Page had a high-capacity magazine, which allowed him to shoot at least 17 bullets before reloading. Those magazines tend to be a common theme in all our worst mass shooting incidents. The gunman at the shopping center in Tucson where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot had one that held more than 30 bullets. The Colorado movie theater shooter had a 100-bullet magazine.

The magazines used to be illegal before Congress let the assault weapons ban elapse. Getting rid of them again would not stop mass shootings, but it would limit the number of victims. And you do not need a high-capacity magazine for hunting. In fact, many states outlaw them for hunting because they don’t want one person mowing down an entire flock or herd.

Under federal law, you only can use guns with a maximum three-shot capacity if you’re hunting migratory birds. The National Rifle Association appears willing to give that a pass.

“Hunting’s a different thing,” said Jeff Nass, the president of Wisconsin Force, an NRA affiliate. “The ducks and geese can’t shoot back.” Mass shootings, Nass contended, do not occur because crazy people have access to weapons that allow them to hit a large number of people in seconds. “Mass shootings come into play because nobody’s there defending themselves,” he said. “The solution is self-defense.”

So the guy driving toward the Sikh temple with the high-capacity magazine on his gun was legal until he started shooting. The guy sitting in the duck blind, no. Mull that one over.

The New York Times

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.

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