Shooting under stress

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Shooting under stress

On Tuesday, 17 April 2007, we were attending the SureFire anti-terrorism symposium in New York City. During lunch, when attendees had their mobile phones briefly turned on, we got a call from ABC Channel 7, who wanted to know if they could send a team over to interview us, as experts on dealing with violence, about the tragic school shooting at Virginia Tech University. We declined, as it seemed to us that they were primarily interested in fanning the gun control versus armed-person-to-kill-the-crazy-person debate, rather than discussing what was, by any standard, a tragedy brought about by a mentally ill student.

While inappropriate there, it is not unreasonable to discuss the issue here.

In essence, those in favor of stricter gun control say that the United States has a high homicide rate compared to most of the rest of the world, and that if guns were available only to the government, our homicide rate would then be in line with that of more civilized countries in which guns were not readily available to normal citizens. On the surface this seems reasonable.

To test this, one merely has to eliminate gun homicides from the stats to see how this works in real life. While it is hard to come up with international homicide rates, we found one list of homicide rates for thirty-six countries. These included Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, England/Wales, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Mauritius, Mexico, N. Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Scotland, Singapore, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, United States. In this list the United States had the sixth highest homicide rate. The only countries in the list that had higher homicide rates were Estonia, Brazil, Mexico, Taiwan, and Northern Ireland.

Let us assume that there were no gun homicides in the U.S.Where would the in the list of thirty-six countries? When we eliminate all U.S.gun homicides, and based our homicide rate only on non-firearm homicides, the U.S.would fall to sixteenth, behind Estonia, Brazil, Mexico, Taiwan, and Northern Ireland, Argentina, Hungary, Finland, Portugal, Mauritius, Israel, Italy, Scotland, Canada, and Slovenia. However, even with NO gun homicides, the U.S.would still have a higher homicide rate than Australia, Singapore, South Korea, New Zealand, Belgium, England/Wales, Switzerland, Sweden, Hong Kong, Denmark, Austria, Germany, Greece, France, Netherlands, Kuwait, Norway, Spain, Japan, and Ireland.

This, of course, assumes that all gun homicides are caused by the mere presence of the gun itself, and that none of the missing gun homicides would have become non-gun homicides. We would argue that this is an unreasonable presumption, and that some of the gun homicides would become non-gun homicides. The true non-gun homicide rate would put the U.S.better than sixth place, but worse than sixteenth. It also does not include homicides that don’t take place because of the presence of a gun. Since it has been estimated that a gun is used in the U.S.once every thirteen seconds to stop a crime, it is not unreasonable to assume that at least some of these uses prevents a homicide, which would now occur. Thus, while removing all gun homicides from the statistics obviously improves the homicide rate, the bottom line appears to be that, with or without guns, the United States is more violent than at least two thirds of the rest of the world.

Now let us look at the other side, which claims that, had there been other people with guns at the scene, one of these would have shot the madman, greatly reducing the tragic loss of life. On the surface this seems reasonable.

In fact, however, people do in times of crisis what they have trained to do. Sad experience teaches us that the gun is not a magic talisman, and that if someone who has a gun has not given great thought to what he or she would do if shooting started, the great likelihood is that they will do nothing. In addition, shooting is a perishable fine motor skill, and fine motor skills disappear almost instantly under stress. Unless a shooter has been trained in some sort of point shooting, which requires only gross motor skills (see, for example, and has given great thought (backed preferably by recent training) to how to react when shooting unexpectedly starts, there is a diminished likelihood that they will react appropriately and effectively.

By the bye, this holds true of non-gun reactions. In most tragedies of this sort there appear, in hindsight, to have been a number of opportunities for individuals, backed by other individuals, to have overwhelmed the attacker. As an example, if every student at Virginia tech had flung books, chairs, and desks at the madman it is likely that the incident would have ended with many fewer casualties. Unfortunately, this, too, pre-supposes that the victims have given prior thought to reacting appropriately in this kind of situation. However, without this forethought it is unlikely that anyone will react appropriately, or that others will appropriately support those who are reacting appropriately. The untrained and mentally unprepared victims cannot and should not be blamed for this.

How about the theory that by having more armed people around you increase the potential madman’s sense of uncertainty about the likelihood of there being another armed person on the scene, thus reducing the likelihood of their acting out? While this logic might well make sense when dealing with criminals, who act with their own best interests in mind, logic doesn’t work with the insane. While there might be some internal logic to their actions, it is not our logic, nor is our logic theirs.

All in all, we consider that neither side really has much validity to their claims, and that some other solution needs to be sought. In fact some years ago we were concerned about this exact problem, and were convinced that we could help identify that tiny fraction of students who might present a real and present danger. We applied for several grants, but there was no interest unless our aim was to (depending on the foundation) either encourage more gun control or encourage less gun control. Since our goal had been to address the problem of violence, not to push the baseless philosophical agenda of one camp or the other, we chose to let the matter drop.

If you have an interest in dealing with violence, we suggest you look at our book, The Seven Steps to Personal Safety. The Seven Steps is widely considered to be the leading book for civilians on dealing with violence.

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