Gadfly is Marty Aussenberg, a columnist for the alternative weekly Memphis Flyer. Marty is a former SEC enforcement official, currently in private law practice in Memphis, Tennessee.
The carnage at the Virginia Tech campus this week has, inevitably, revived the arguments about gun ownership in this country. We are, without doubt, the most gun-crazy country in the world, and the statistics bear that out. 30,000 people die in this country every year at the business end of a firearm, intentionally or otherwise. Gun ownership advocates say guns prevent violence, but that’s like saying that alcohol is an antidote for a hangover. Only in mathematics does multiplying a negative by another negative create a positive.
There was a time, not too long ago, when I was the proud owner of several guns. I had lived my whole life in fear of guns, and in the belief that their use and ownership should be severely controlled. So, to confront my fears and prejudices, I embarked on an episode of my life that saw me accumulate, and familiarize myself with the use of, a variety of firearms. I was the proud owner of several exotic shotguns (for sport shooting purposes), and managed to acquire more than a few Glock, Beretta, Smith and Wesson, and lesser-known handguns. I even had the big daddy of handguns, a .357 Magnum (the kind Clint Eastwood made famous in his “go ahead, make my day” movie scene). I joined a local gun club where I could hone my skills as a “gun man.”
I was living the fantasy every boy of my generation envisioned when he got his first toy gun. I even went to the trouble of being trained in the use of the handguns and getting a carry permit issued by the state. I carried a concealed weapon in the belief that, in this Wild West town, I needed protection from crazed criminals.
Then, I was robbed at gunpoint in front of a place of business, not 500 yards from a police station (a fact I throw in only to show no place is totally safe from a determined criminal). The robber surprised me as I was entering a store late at night, and already had his gun drawn and pointing at me from no more than five feet away, much the same way the assailant in Virginia was already brandishing one (or more) of his weapons when he confronted his victims.
As it happens, I was “carrying,” and I gave a fleeting thought, during what seemed the longest few seconds of my life, to seeing whether I could, OK-corral-style, out-draw him. But I realized, thankfully, I probably couldn’t shoot him before he shot me (or worse, that we would both die in a hail of bullets), and I abandoned that thought as I threw him my wallet. Since I’m writing about the incident, I obviously did the right thing, not to mention that I’m not sure I could have shot another human being, even at the risk of my own life, and I’m not sure whether, in the heat of the moment, I could have hit my target in any event. I must admit, though, I still have moments, years later, when I regret not having at least tried to defend myself, but then I realize: I’m not Charles Bronson.
The advocates of arming the population as a means of preventing gun violence take the rather simplistic view that a gun in the hand of an untrained user (and most gun owners don’t go to the trouble of being properly trained in their use) will always be effective in neutralizing the threat posed by an armed assailant, when nothing could be further from the truth. Even law enforcement personnel, who are thoroughly trained in the use of firearms, will tell you that in the heat of the moment, the likelihood of hitting your target diminishes substantially. That’s why we see so many incidents in which law enforcement personnel shoot many rounds, few, if any of which, hit their intended target. Trained weapon carriers can’t even avoid accidental discharges, as the incident involving the Secret Service the other day demonstrates. Fear and adrenaline are powerful influences in the misdirection of lethal force. Senses and reflexes, even those that are highly trained in the use of a firearm, change dramatically in the midst of a situation where life and death enter into the equation. So, even assuming any of the students at Virginia State had been armed, it is highly unlikely they could have ended the reign of terror brought about by a determined assailant who had obviously planned far enough in advance to have purchased (and used) two weapons, ammunition to reload them, was (by some accounts) wearing a bullet-proof vest, and even had the presence of mind to file the serial numbers off the weapons he used.
The more likely scenario is that anyone who had tried to neutralize the threat represented by the shooter would have just compounded the situation, by enraging the shooter or worse, shooting someone else in the process, and might well have caused the death of more victims than were ultimately lost in the incident. The proponents of a ubiquitously-armed citizenry assume that merely carrying a gun equips the person carrying it to use it, effectively and rationally, when the fact is, increasing the number of guns being carried in the population will only make those guns available to be stolen or used for some unintended purpose (i.e., suicide, crimes of passion, accidental firing, bystander injury, etc.).
My gun-toting days are now behind me, primarily because of my recognition of the uselessness of being armed, borne of my experience with an armed assailant. I don’t regret familiarizing myself with the world of firearms, but my experience has taught me guns aren’t the solution to gun violence, they’re the problem.