Part Five of this series was supposed to be about getting the most out of informal target shooting, or “plinking,” as most of us call it, but events in a Colorado theater have forced us to consider a far more sober topic instead.
Thirty-eight minutes after midnight on July 20, James Eagan Holmes walked through a theater emergency exit he’d propped open moments before, tossed in a pair of tear gas grenades, and opened fire on the captive audience of roughly 300 people in the Aurora theater. Just one minute to 90 seconds later, the attack was over and the shooter was in police custody outside of the theater. He had offered no resistance to police. Inside, 70 people were shot. Twelve died. It was the highest number of victims in a mass shooting in U.S. history.
We are a nation still trying to come to grips with the senseless violence of this crime. Many blame Holmes and Holmes alone for the crime, while others have chosen to make him just part of the equation. Some point out his odd behavior after his capture as evidence that our mental health system failed. More conspiratorial souls would have him be a cog in a grand conspiracy. And of course, the fact that he used firearms for the most effective part of his rampage (homemade bombs meant to level his apartment building were disarmed) has triggered a temporary escalation in the ever-present debate of the role of firearms in our society.
The inventory of weapons recovered at the scene of this mass murder is a cross-section of what may be the most popular firearms in their classes sold in the United States. The pump-action Remington 870 that Holmes fired to begin his assault is a variant of the most popular shotgun in America and has been used by sportsmen and lawmen for generations. The semi-automatic (one shot per trigger pull) Smith & Wesson M&P15 carbine he used is a variant of the ubiquitous AR-15 platform, arguably the most popular and customizable rifle design sold in America. The two Glock pistols Holmes had with him during the assault — at least one of which was fired repeatedly — are among the most popular pistols in the United States, equally popular with law enforcement and civilians. It would be difficult to find a more representative collection of modern firearms.
The unique parts of Holmes’ kit were a 100-round drum magazine for the M&P15, a gas mask, two tear gas canisters, and what the Aurora Police Department initially claimed was head-to-toe “ballistic” armor. The latter is a claim that has not yet been substantiated, due in part to two gag orders issued by the judge presiding over the case.
The 100-round magazine in Holmes’ rifle has been used by gun control activists to call for the outlawing of “high capacity” magazines. These political creatures argue that high capacity magazines enable criminals such as Holmes to fire more bullets and to kill more people in a shorter amount of time. These same anti-gun activists have little to say when it is pointed out that his decision to use unreliable 100-round drum magazines (there is no such thing as a reliable drum magazine due to their mechanical complexity) is thought to be the reason his carbine jammed and become inoperable. He was forced to transition to one of the Glock handguns, which anecdotal evidence suggests may have been the firearm used to fire half or more of the shots fired in the one-minute rampage.
There is very little that could have been done to prevent an attack that appears to have been months in the planning.
Other firearms could have been used. Many of them are far more powerful than what were used.
If firearms didn’t exist, Holmes had the time, resources, and intelligence to plot something even worse. Timothy McVeigh killed hundreds using nothing more complicated than fuel and fertilizer. Julio Gonzalez murdered 87 with a dollar’s worth of gas. Evil is difficult (sometimes impossible) to thwart beforehand.
Often the only indication of such a violent crime is the outbreak of violence itself, and all the authorities can do afterward is try to pick up the physical and psychological pieces. Ultimately, the survival of the individuals in Theater 9 boiled down to a combination of luck and their own split-second decisions. We can’t do much about luck, chance, or “God’s will.”
There has been considerable speculation about whether a theatergoer with a concealed weapon could have made any difference in the minute-long rampage. Glenn Reynolds pointed out after Virgina Tech that concealed carry at least gives a citizen a fighting chance against an assailant. Frank Taylor and others suggest that there wasn’t enough time, or it was too confusing, or that citizens carrying concealed weapons simply aren’t aware enough, or professional enough, to make any difference.
Many people may have frozen in shock or panic. Others may have fired ineffectually (as the police so often do) and hit nothing at all, or may have added to the casualties. The simple fact of the matter is that we don’t know, and can never know, if the presence of an armed citizen might have made a difference that night.
I do know one thing for certain.
If I had been in that theater, and had my concealed weapon (which, absurdly, is illegal here in North Carolina), there is a chance I would have remembered I was armed. There is a chance I would have been able to draw my pistol and activate the laser sight. There is a chance that the thousands of rounds I’ve fired in training — more than many police officers have in their career — would have taken over and I might have had a clear shot where I put the dot between the shooter’s eyes and detached myself from the carnage long enough to remember front sight, press.
There’s a lot of chance and not an inconsiderable amount of skill that would have had to coalesce to end a rampage like this as suddenly as it began. But that is a chance I bet anyone pinned down by a raging gunman would have taken if the situation presented itself.
The first rule of gun-fighting still applies: first, have a gun.