COMMENTARY | It’s been days since James Holmes allegedly opened fire at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” So far, few politicians have linked the shooting with gun laws. As John Whitesides and David Ingram point out, many gun control advocates won’t risk pro-gun votes in 2012. I think that’s a cop-out. I’ve looked at the pro-gun arguments in the comments section of news stories, and they’re pretty weak.
1) “If audience members had been carrying guns, this wouldn’t have happened. I could have shot him myself.”
When thinking about violent crime, the specific setting and participants are important. Sometimes additional guns may prevent crime; sometimes they may increase crime. But what happens in the aggregate? Empirical studies by Ludwig, Rubin, Ayres and others all suggest that the passage of conceal-carry laws correlated with higher levels of gun violence. Very few researchers (other than Lott) disagree.
Let’s get specific. Would firing more guns in a crowded theater have helped?
James Holmes was allegedly armed with a Smith & Wesson AR-15 rifle, a Remington 12-gauge shotgun and a Glock .40-caliber handgun. Clad in body armor and a gas mask, he began his rampage by throwing multiple smoke bombs. It only took the police 90 seconds to respond, but he was still able to kill 12 and injure 59.
Could you have seen through the smoky, already darkened theater, dodged the semi-automatic bullets, avoided being trampled long enough to aim, and then fired? How would your single gun have done against his four? And wouldn’t some (also possibly armed) observers have wondered if you were his accomplice?
Sometimes I think a citizen vigilante might prevent tragedy. But in this case, it is very implausible.
2) “Holmes is a nut. He would have killed any way he could have.”
After all, crazy people act crazily in every situation. This looks reasonable on a comment page but falls apart under scrutiny. A useful comparison is the relationship between suicide risk factors and suicide rates. Most studies have shown that firearm access is a major suicide risk factor. Similarly, in Great Britain, the switch from coal gas during the 1960s led to an overall decrease in suicides. In the case of both firearms and coal gas, people were more likely to use lethal force (in this case, on themselves) if it was convenient.
Holmes may be mentally ill. But mentally ill people exist in particular contexts. In his case, he lived in a state in which semi-automatic weapons and thousands of rounds of ammo could be purchased at his local Bass Pro Shop.
We shouldn’t reduce Aurora to another shouting match about guns. But ignoring the issue is not acceptable. That’s how we like it, though. We kid ourselves into believing that we could personally thwart any villain — that with weapons and a little ingenuity, we could be Batman. Unfortunately, the facts don’t support our superhero fantasies.