Responding to Aurora, responding to Fort Hood, responding to Columbine

If you’ve been on the planet for any length of time, you’ve seen this before. The pattern goes something like this: Some deranged—whether legally so or not is beside the point—individual commits some outrage, killing or attempting to kill somebody, or some number of people, with one or more guns. People shriek and scream expressing bewilderment that the U.S. is so permissive about guns, that guns seemingly cannot be adequately regulated, that we really need to have fewer guns. Nothing happens. Until it happens again. Rinse and repeat, start again. One of many lists of mass killings with guns (arranged by number dead, the first I found with a web search):

Bath, Michigan. School bombing. May 1927, 44 dead.

Blacksburg, Virginia. Virginia Tech shooting spree. Apr 2007, 32.

Killeen, Texas. Shooting spree. Oct 1991, 23.

San Diego, California. McDonald’s shooting. Jul 1984, 21.

Austin, Texas. Tower shooting. Aug 1966, 16.

Edmond, Oklahoma. “Postal” killings. Aug 1986, 14.

Camden, New Jersey. Shooting spree. Sep 1949, 13.

Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Shooting spree. Sep 1982, 13.

Littleton, Colorado. Columbine massacre. Apr 1999, 13.

Binghampton, New York. Shooting spree. Aug 2009, 13.

Fort Hood, Texas. Army base killings. Nov 2009, 13.

Fairfield, California. Shooting spree. Aug 1928, 11.

Jacksonville, Florida. Shooting spree. Jun 1990, 11.

Geneva City, Alabama. Shooting spree. Mar 2009, 10.[1]

It’s happened again, this time in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.[2] A typical reaction, albeit for a presidential campaign year:

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, who has waged a national campaign for stricter gun laws, offered a political challenge. “Maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it,” Mr. Bloomberg said during his weekly radio program, “because this is obviously a problem across the country.”[3]

Rinse, repeat.

But there are a couple of problems with this logic, which explain—if anybody is listening—why the debate never progresses. First, if you believe that gun ownership empowers you against crazies, then mass killings are reasons to acquire guns, not to dispose of them:

Luke O’Dell of the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a Colorado group on the other side of the debate over gun control, took a nearly opposite view. “Potentially, if there had been a law-abiding citizen who had been able to carry in the theater, it’s possible the death toll would have been less.”[4]

O’Dell’s response is inadequate because James Holmes, the suspect, was apparently wearing “nearly head-to-toe ‘ballistic gear,’ including a throat protector and leggings, plus a gas mask and a long black coat.”[5] A hero would need to have been armed with armor-piercing rounds, an escalation which leads in the general direction of weapons of mass destruction. But more generally, gun control advocates reply, more or less, by pointing to what Juan Cole points to. Cole posted a statistical comparison between U.S. and British murders, purporting to show that even adjusting for population size (a correction which is often omitted), Britain has fewer murders overall, presumably because it has stricter rules on guns. He concludes, “The international comparisons show conclusively that fewer gun owners per capita produce not only fewer murders by firearm, but fewer murders per capita over all. In the case of Britain, firearms murders are 30 times fewer than in the US per capita,” and he adds a question (which he conveniently uses survey results to answer) about the need for hunters to have assault weapons.[6] In short, if we had fewer guns, we wouldn’t need so many guns.

I offered a comment that the U.S. also has a higher teen pregnancy rate than Britain, that the problem of gun violence is not merely about guns or even about gun laws, but rather about our society. Cole declined to approve this comment. But it’s basic to quantitative methodology that such a comparison cannot be taken as proof of a cause and effect relationship because there may be additional variables. And the problem in human research is just that, that there are so many variables with humans and with human societies that quantitative research is likely to frequently produce flawed results.

The logic of gun control depends on a society response that actually reduces the number of guns in society and assumes that fewer guns overall means fewer guns in the hands of people who may commit murder. Hence, the cliché reply, “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” But perhaps more importantly, this logic demands an altruistic response—for gun owners to give up their guns—in a society that inculcates competitive, individualist values and tends to regard altruism as naïveté. In favoring these individualist values, we promote the notion of winners and losers, because this is what competition produces, and a notion of “each man [sexist language seems appropriate here] for himself.” This directly supports the rationale for gun ownership as self-defense.

So if we want fewer tragedies like the one in Aurora, we need to think hard about our social values that emphasize the individual at the expense of society and of the environment. It will never just be about guns.

  1. [1]Ben Fenton, “Mass killings in the US,” Financial Times, July 20, 2012,
  2. [2]Dan Frosch and Kirk Johnson, “Gunman Kills 12 in Colorado, Reviving Gun Debate,” New York Times, July 20, 2012,
  3. [3]Frosch and Johnson, “Gunman Kills 12 in Colorado, Reviving Gun Debate.”
  4. [4]Frosch and Johnson, “Gunman Kills 12 in Colorado, Reviving Gun Debate.”
  5. [5]Frosch and Johnson, “Gunman Kills 12 in Colorado, Reviving Gun Debate.”
  6. [6]Juan Cole, “58 Murders a year by Firearms in Britain, 8,775 in US,” Informed Comment, July 21, 2012,

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