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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Editor for RealClearPolitics.A rampage shooting at the Youth With a Mission centre in Arvada, Colo., the night before had taken two lives and left a third man critically wounded.
The crime scene was 70 miles from the Colorado Springs campus of the New Life Church.
But the killer had escaped into the snowy night, and one member of the congregation — former Minnesota policewoman Jeanne Assam — had an ominous feeling he might strike again.
Acting on her instincts, Assam urged the church pastors to post volunteer guards — some of them armed — at Sunday services at the sprawling mega-church. And at 1 p.m. on Dec. 9, 2007, Jeanne Assam’s premonition came true.
The Arvada gunman, 24-year-old Matthew J. Murray, showed up just after the 11 a.m. worship service at New Life had ended. He began blazing away in the parking lot, killing two teenage sisters and wounding their father and another woman. Unloading two pistols and a semi-automatic rifle from his car — along with 1,000 rounds of ammunition in a backpack — he headed into the church’s foyer.
Hearing the gunfire in the parking lot, Assam drew her licensed pistol from its holster and headed toward the gunman . . .
A Killing Machine
After last week’s horrific shootings inside a movie house in suburban Denver, Americans did what they always do in such circumstances: We moved in two different directions at once.
Many people decried the ease with which firearms can be obtained in this country by unbalanced people with no business playing with matches, let alone high-powered rifles. Others went out and bought a gun. And some did both.
These are contradictory impulses, but they both make sense. Many ordinary Americans, unlike our polarised and linear political parties, can hold two competing ideas in their minds at the same time. In the aftermath of the “Dark Knight” killings in Aurora, those two thoughts were as follows:
(1) It is far too easy for mentally unstable individuals to acquire deadly firearms in this country.
(2) The only person known to be packing heat in that multiplex last week was the killer, and, God forbid, if a similar situation ever arises, carrying a loaded gun would at least give me a fighting chance.
So this week legal gun sales, along with applications of “carry and conceal” permits, spiked upward — just as they did after Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting in Tucson in January 2011. One factor at play? Fear that President Obama intends to push for stricter gun controls.
Once upon a time, this was indeed the reflex of Washington lawmakers to events like the one that happened last week — and it may be again. Mostly, however, that is an echo of a time that predates Obama’s tenure in the nation’s capital.
On July 1, 1993, 55-year-old loner Gian Luigi Ferri, dressed in a business suit and carrying a black attaché case, took the elevator to the 34th floor of a San Francisco office tower at 101 California St. When he unbuttoned his coat, it was apparent that he had two semiautomatic IntraTec Tec-9 handguns around his neck, along with a .45-calibre pistol in a holster. He carried 250 rounds of ammunition, and wore earplugs as he went office to office in the law firm of Pettit & Martin, shooting people he had never met.
When S.F.P.D. officers arrived, Ferri turned his gun on himself, but not before he had killed eight and wounded six. It was the deadliest such shooting in the city’s history, and it made San Franciscans angry. All that firepower, said Assistant Police Chief Earl Sanders, had “turned a 55-year-old, pudgy, out-of-shape little man into a killing machine.”
California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, had ascended to the mayor’s office in San Francisco years earlier because of the actions of a deranged gunman, and she quickly set about trying to make it harder to purchase such lethal weapons. Within days, she called for a federal ban on “assault” weapons. President Clinton threw his support behind it, and the following year it became law as part of a sweeping package of anti-crime legislation.
“Without eroding the rights of sportsmen and -women in this country,” Clinton said while signing the law, “we will finally ban these assault weapons from our street that have no purpose other than to kill.”
It didn’t really work out that way — loopholes in the law made it too easy for gun manufacturers to circumvent the intent of the ban — and in the meantime the political environment became less hospitable to gun control advocates.
After John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the debate began to encompass high-powered rifles and background checks, too, but public opinion surveys on handguns remains the best barometer of public attitudes toward gun control because the Gallup polling organisation has been asking the same questions about them since 1959.
That year, some 60 per cent of Americans favoured a ban on handguns. Nine months ago, only 26 per cent of respondents answered that question the same way. It’s an all-time low, but it isn’t an aberration: Since 1975, a majority of Americans have opposed such a measure, and in recent years that opposition has hovered around 60 per cent.
The reasons for the erosion of support for gun control (or, if you prefer, the increase in support for Second Amendment rights) are not readily apparent, even to veterans of the debate. But in an insightful column this week, Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus proffers two theories:
The first is that the lack of faith in the federal government to administer gun laws corresponds to a general decline in confidence in the government to do much of anything right.
The second reason cited by McManus is the polarization of the two political parties. Historically, about two-thirds of Democrats viewed gun control favourably. That number hasn’t changed much. But in the Republican Party, which was once divided nearly 50-50 on this issue, rank-and-file voters favour gun rights over gun control by a 3-1 margin.
Mitt Romney can read polls. In 1994, when the Feinstein-sponsored assault weapons ban became law, he said while running for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, “I don’t line up with the NRA.” As recently as 2002, the year he became governor of the Bay State, Romney was still saying gun control laws “protect us.”
He is not talking that way in the 2012 presidential campaign.
In an interview in London this week, where Romney is set to watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, he pointed out that James Eagan Holmes, the man arrested for the Aurora shootings, had managed to obtain bombs and other weapons that are already illegal.
“So we can sometimes hope that just changing the law will make all bad things go away,” Romney said. “It won’t.”
When NBC News anchor Brian Williams brought up Romney’s signing of legislation designed to tighten restrictions on some semiautomatic weapons in Massachusetts, the former governor — and would-be president — shrugged. “I don’t happen to believe,” he said, “that America needs new gun laws.”
Barack Obama can read public opinion polls, too, and he has generally avoided this issue both on the 2008 campaign trail and in the White House. The assault weapons ban had a 10-year sunset provision (it lapsed in 2004), and although the president was on the record as supporting bringing it back, it just wasn’t an issue he talked about.
That began to change this week, after Feinstein and other prominent Democrats urged him to speak out. In a Wednesday speech to the National Urban League convention in New Orleans, Obama obliged. Tying Aurora and other recent mass shootings into an increase in all-purpose gun violence that has plagued Chicago and other urban centres this year, he raised the assault rifle issue.
“I, like most Americans, believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms,” the president said. “But I also believe that a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals — that they belong on the battlefields of war and not on the streets of our cities.”
That is not a compelling constitutional argument — the Second Amendment wasn’t designed to protect duck hunters. But as a political argument, Obama may be in sync with public opinion. Shortly after Giffords was wounded and six were killed in Tucson, a CBS/New York Times poll showed that 63 per cent of respondents favoured banning the sale of assault weapons with high-capacity magazines.
Moreover, Obama was building to another point, one that even conservatives are wrestling with this week:
“Many mentally unbalanced individuals should not be able to get his hands on a gun so easily,” he said in New Orleans “These steps shouldn’t be controversial. They should be common sense.”
More Guns, Less Crime?
An estimated 300 million rifles and pistols are in private hands in this country. That’s one for nearly one for every man woman and child in the United States, but they are not evenly distributed. Nearly half the adults in the United States — 47 per cent — own at least one firearm, according to an October 2011 Gallup Poll. These are self-reported numbers, but they are considered fairly accurate. And the typical gun owner possesses more than one weapon. Whatever your politics, these arms take a frightful toll.
The website of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Violence keeps a running tally of how many people are shot each day in the United States. At just over 98,000 each year, that brings the daily toll to nearly 270, slightly more this year because it’s a leap year — as is the case every presidential election year. Of those 98,000, something close to 38,500 will die, nearly half of them by their own hand. Three thousand of the dead will be children and teens.
“As a nation, we truly believe we are better than this,” Brady Campaign President Dan Gross said after the Aurora shooting. “It is time for all of us to come together — Republicans and Democrats, ‘blue’ states and ‘red’ states, people who own guns and people who don’t — to have a meaningful national conversation about what we can do about it.”
After Aurora, we’re adding even more. Our friends in the international community — even friends in close proximity with Wild West traditions of their own — don’t quite get this. Americans enjoying the centennial of the Calgary Stampede festivities this month were treated to the musings of Calgary Herald columnist Naomi Lakritz, who speaks for many non-Americans.
“After the vigils are over, the candles burned down and the speakers have fallen silent, the next round of interested persons will come forward — the gun owners trotting out their stale patter about how ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people,’ ” she wrote. “Well, guns do kill people. Without guns, all those lives in the various scenes of carnage mentioned above would not have been lost.”
Millions of big-city liberals in this country feel the same way, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has been nearly apoplectic in his condemnation of U.S. public policy on guns. Monday night, in an appearance on CNN, Bloomberg actually appealed to police officers across the country to go on strike and to say “collectively” to the nation, “We’re not going to protect you unless you, the pubic, through your legislature, do what’s required to keep us safe.”
Hizzoner was forced to backtrack the next day — such a strike would be illegal most places, including New York — but the disconnect between the two sides in this debate remains profound. And each clings to its own articles of faith, imperious to evidence on the other side.
Gun control advocates insist that the main thing a person does when they purchase a firearm is dramatically increase the chances that they will be shot with that self-same weapon. Earlier this year, Vice President Joe Biden made the following statement: “You know, the bulk of the people who are shot with a weapon — other than these drug gangs taking on one another — end up being shot with their own weapon.”
This claim isn’t remotely true, even if one includes suicide, which was not the context of the vice president’s remarks.
Meanwhile, gun rights advocates cite the studies of John R. Lott Jr., a researcher who has documented that in states where carry and conceal permits have been issued, violent crime declines.
His assertion, at its essence, is that hundreds of thousands of crimes are deterred in this country because law-abiding citizens own guns. Almost always, all they have to do is brandish them — if that. Some independent researchers have concluded that Lott is overstating the evidence, but what is undeniable is that he has provided a scholarly rationale for feelings already harbored by millions of Americans.
That’s because, for many people, the “more guns, less crime vs. more guns, more death” debate is not an academic argument about the statistical odds of shooting yourself or a family member by mistake. It’s about the basic human instinct to protect your family.
But how is the best way to do that? That is where Americans diverge.
A Tale of Two Women
On Oct. 16, 1991, a Texas chiropractor named Suzanna Gratia Hupp was eating lunch at Luby’s Cafeteria in the city of Killeen when an unhinged 35-year-old unemployed merchant seaman named George Pierre Hennard drove his pickup truck into the restaurant and opened fire on everyone he saw.
Hupp owned a handgun, and a licence to carry a concealed weapon, so when the shooting started, she reached into her purse instinctively. But her gun wasn’t there. In compliance with existing Texas state law she left it in her car. By the time police arrived and cornered Hennard, who shot himself, he’d reloaded several times and killed 23 unarmed people, including Hupp’s mother and father, and wounded another 20.
Two years later, a licensed nurse in Mineola, N.Y., waited for her husband and son, both of whom commuted by train to jobs in Manhattan, to come home from work. She waited in vain.
The woman’s name was Carolyn McCarthy, and she wasn’t a person who paid much attention to politics. All that changed on Dec. 7, 1993, the evening Dennis McCarthy and his son Kevin were passengers on a Long Island Rail Road commuter train when a delusional Jamaican immigrant suddenly began shooting other passengers without warning. Among the six killed was Dennis; Kevin was seriously wounded.
These two aggrieved women, both health professionals, were galvanised into action by a political system they believed had let them down. But Suzanna Hupp and Carolyn McCarthy lived in different parts of the country, took their cues from different cultural touchstones, and derived very different lessons from their families’ crucibles.
Hupp was convinced that if she’d been allowed to carry her pistol into Luby’s she could have saved her parents’ lives — and the lives of many other people. She went into politics, running successfully for the state legislature as a Republican, and helped pushed Texas lawmakers to adopt a “shall issue” law guaranteeing citizens the right (if certain conditions are met) to carry concealed weapons.
McCarthy had very nearly the opposite reaction. A Nassau County Republican back then, she began asking local elected officials about this issue, and found their answers wanting. As a newly minted anti-gun activist, she switched political parties and was elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1996. Her mantra on this matter: Why do ordinary citizens need assault weapons? Why are handguns so easy to obtain?
One country, one issue — but two very dissimilar ways of looking at the solution. In a sense, that kind of intellectual diversity has always made America interesting, and even strong, but on a matter that begs a national solution, it hasn’t made us whole. And on this issue, the absence of a comprehensive approach may translate into the worst of both worlds: too many guns in the hands of precisely the wrong people.
Fog of War
When it comes to how to handle shooting rampages, tidy answers are hard to come by. More than a century ago, on Aug. 13, 1903, a paranoid Army veteran named Gilbert Twigg went on a rampage with a .12 gauge shotgun and a pistol in Winfield, Kan., a time and place where no stigma, or even controversy, attached to carrying firearms.
Nonetheless, a man named Link Smith provided instructive testimony at the coroner’s inquest two days later. Smith said he heard the gunfire and, though unarmed, ran into the street toward his aunt and uncle who were in the middle of it. The gunman spotted him and fired. The bullets missed, but came close enough to travel through the sleeve of Smith’s coat. He asked his uncle for a gun, but was told: “Don’t do it.”
Frantic to stop the maniacal gunman, Smith raced down the street and ran into two men he knew, George Nichols and Cal Ferguson. Both were armed, but neither man would give him their gun. Nor were they making any move to find Twigg, who subsequently went into an alley and shot himself.
A similar opportunity presented itself half a century later, on Sept. 6, 1949, when Howard Barton Unruh methodically went through an East Camden, N.J., neighbourhood killing 13 people in 13 minutes. There was a brief moment, however, when he could have been stopped.
One man, Frank Engel, heard the noise and opened his second-floor apartment window. Seeing Unruh pause, perhaps to reload, in a narrow alley below, Engel pulled out his own gun, aimed and fired. He thought he hit the gunman — and he had, in the leg — but Unruh only stopped for a second before continuing his deadly rounds. Although Engle still had him in his sights, he did not fire again.
“I wish I had,” he told journalist Meyer “Mike” Berger later. “I could have killed him then. I could have put a half-dozen shots into him. I don’t know why I didn’t do it.”
Second thoughts also caused an unnamed civilian security guard at New Life Church to freeze five years ago when Matthew Murray showed up with deadly intent. Two church members ran toward the sound of the guns that day. The first was Jeanne Assam, the former Minneapolis policewoman. The second was Larry Bourbonnais, a Vietnam veteran. Assam was armed, Bourbonnais was not.
“Where’s the shooter? Where’s the shooter?” Bourbonnais shouted. He found him near the entryway to the church. Between him and the mad gunman was an armed male parishioner who’d been pressed into service as a security guard. He had his weapon drawn, but was not firing.
“Give me your gun!” Bourbonnais shouted. “I’ve been in combat. I’m going to take this guy out.”
But the guard would neither give Bourbonnais his gun, nor use it himself. “Get behind me,” was all he said to the frustrated Vietnam vet, who was then shot in the arm by Murray.
Just then, Assam approached. She walked calmly and rapidly toward the gunman shouting at him to surrender. Instead, he opened fire. So did Assam. She felled Murray who, seriously wounded, then turned his own gun on himself.
It’s no disgrace for an untrained person to fail to fire when confronted with the sudden and unexpected choice of whether to kill another human being. It’s perhaps a sign of mental health, or, at least, of inward grace, to hesitate in such a circumstance. Killing strangers, no matter the provocation, is not a natural act.
And yet, many people were in that huge Colorado Springs church that Sunday, and no matter where one stands on the issue of gun control, it must also be said — and New Life senior pastor Brady Boyd did say it — that Jeanne Assam and her gun may have saved a hundred lives.
This story was originally published by RealClearPolitics.
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