All I saw was the gun and the hand holding the gun. It was coming out from behind the basement door. We were in a house searching for an assault victim, and this was the first guy we ran into.
All I could do was sputter, “Gun!” to the two sheriffs behind me. The guy-with-the-gun yelled, “It’s okay, I’m the one who called 911!” But in an instant, the sheriffs tackled him, slammed him to the floor, and cuffed him.
One of the officers looked at me and said, “You can’t trust anyone.”
I’ve always been intrigued by the argument that the best way to stop a shooter in a mass shooting incident is with a “good guy” with a gun. In our imagination, we see an individual — a civilian (or a posse of like-minded armed citizens) — calm, cool and collected taking out the shooter amidst the carnage and chaos of a mass casualty incident.
As a firefighter, I have never personally experienced a mass shooting (although sadly we now train for them annually). I have attended the aftermath of individuals being shot and I have been involved in a number of mass casualty situations. Thus, I have some questions about the reality of a good guy with a gun.
Question 1: Who’s the good guy? Who’s the bad guy?
Sophocles wrote, “Who is the victim, who is the slayer?” In an active-shooter situation —a crowd of screaming and running people — you probably won’t know victim or slayer. They aren’t wearing name tags. Who do you trust? How do you know, if you’re a “good guy with a gun,” who “the bad guy with a gun” is? What if it’s another good guy? Or, what if someone just yells — with gun in hand — he’s a good guy? Would you believe him or her? Wouldn’t that be the perfect way to get you to at least hesitate? Couldn’t that be a fatal mistake? Of course, if he is a good guy with a gun, and you’re also holding a gun, maybe you’ll get shot by mistake. Like our guy coming out of the basement, just holding a gun in a chaotic situation makes you suspect.
Question 2: Can you make the switch in time to help?
It takes training to be able to go from your daily routine and switch to becoming an emergency responder with a gun in seconds. Even as a volunteer firefighter, when the pager goes off we have time — driving to the station, throwing on bunker gear — to get mentally prepared. But if you were caught in a shooting situation, you would have to turn that switch on instantly; go from bystander, father, friend, mother to a shooter in seconds. On the fire department, we train every week (and regularly go on 911 calls) to be able to make that switch. It really is a switch in the brain, from civilian with lots of things on your mind to a single-mindedness based on training, training and more training.
Question #3: Situational Awareness: How do you even know what is going on?
The mass casualty situations I have been involved in are all car crashes with multiple fatalities. Most of these occurred at night.
Rolling up on those scenes, even when we are prepared, is unnerving in the beginning. The first few minutes are chaos. There are panicked people. There are wounded individuals crying for help. There are the dead. As a note, if you’ve not experienced the violent deaths of others you’ve no idea how wrenching an experience it can be. It will stop you in your tracks.
Coming into one of those scenes you don’t really know what is going on. There isn’t a TV narrator describing the scene in retrospect. You don’t know how many patients there are, or who is critically or mortally injured. You don’t know who the patients are, who are good Samaritans, and who is possibly the drunk driver hiding amongst the living. It can easily take minutes for us to sort out what happened and what we need to do as emergency responders. In a shooting situation, those are minutes you mostly likely do not have.
Then, think about when it’s dark, like the movie theater in Denver, the nightclub in Paris or the Pulse club in Orlando. When it’s dark you can’t see. Let me repeat: When it’s dark you cannot see what is going on. How then are you supposed to be an effective counter-shooter? (The shooter is most likely just spraying shots randomly. You have to pick a target.)
Question number #4: When was the last time you experienced true fear?
When was the last time you were paralyzed with fear? When was the last time you thought you were going to die? I would contend abject fear is not a frequent occurrence for most of us. Given that, let’s say you’re at the mall. Suddenly, you hear gunshots. Once you’ve figured out what they are, your amygdala will start yelling at you to run, get down or hide. Of course, human beings can overcome fear, but I would argue that it takes experience. And, because most have not experienced “I’m about to die” fear, it’s very difficult to know A) how you would respond and B) if you could gather your wits in time to figure out what is going on (see #3).
Question #5: How well are you trained?
Learning how to shoot a weapon is not that difficult. I grew up with guns. My grandfather taught me how to use a shotgun and a rifle when I was eleven. Catholic youth camps taught me to love target shooting. (Alas, I never pursued it.) But knowing how to handle a weapon is elementary compared to even thinking about pulling a weapon out of your holster or purse, aiming it in a crowd of panicked people and shooting at someone who “appears” to be the shooter.
In a crowd, what if you hit a kid by mistake? Could you live with that? Could you live with killing someone downrange of your target? What if you shoot and miss the shooter? (which, if you are the least bit terrified and shaking you probably will.) Now you have possibly a heavily armed shooter — who maybe is suicidal and thus willing to die — gunning for you.
If the trend continues, said shooter most likely will have a rapid-fire AR-15 while you most likely will have a concealed hand-gun. Hardly a fair match up. For a new shooter, a handgun is accurate up to 7-10 meters (30ish feet). An AR-15 is accurate up to 100-300 meters and as a semi-automatic (a round every trigger-pull) can easily fire 30 rounds in 5-10 seconds. The Las Vegas casino shooter was shooting from a distance of over 1000 feet with a bump stock that allowed him to fire at nearly 7 rounds a second.
The point here is that unless you train for mass shooting events and train regularly with a weapon in those scenarios you most likely are not going to be helpful. You may actually be a liability when law enforcement shows up. With you and your gun and the shooter, the scene becomes “multiple shooters” until proven otherwise (Go back to my sheriff compadres’ remarks: You can’t trust anyone”). Possibly you’re as likely to be shot by responding officers as is the actual shooter. (You are also not wearing a name tag that says “Good Guy With A Gun!”)
In sum, mass shootings are catastrophic and complex events. They don’t lend themselves to simple solutions, like “the good guy — a civilian — with a gun” theory.
It feels awkward to end this essay without proposing solutions. But solutions here are way above my pay grade. But here is one suggestion. If you’re in a crowd and chaos breaks out, maybe your first impulse shouldn’t be to draw a weapon. Maybe it should be what we now teach: run, hide and only then fight. Leave the armed response to the professionals.