If you could talk to a gunman

Whenever a mass shooting like the one in Connecticut occurs, there’s always a group of Americans who argue that the tragedy could have been prevented if someone besides the shooter had been armed.

It’s a flawed argument. Even if an employee at the elementary school had had a gun – a teacher, for example – Adam Lanza had more and better weapons, was protected by body armor and was ready to die rather than surrender.

It’s certainly possible an armed teacher, in the right place at the right time, could have stopped Lanza. But that sort of Hollywood ending isn’t likely. Shootouts are almost always messy, even when professionals, such as police officers, are involved.

And what would the teacher have done if the shooter had taken hostages? It’s one thing to know how to fire a gun. But dealing with hostages is a different situation. That’s why police have negotiators specially trained to manage these crises.

We need to find a way to stop these shootings, because the figures are alarming. In 2009 alone, 31,347 people were killed by firearms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s about 86 deaths a day. During the entire 11-year Vietnam War, 58,220 U.S. soldiers were killed.

But the statistics on gun violence have been alarming for decades, and that hasn’t led to stricter gun-control legislation. Instead, U.S. leaders continue to focus on the threats beyond its borders.

People gather for a candlelight vigil for the victims of the 2011 Tucson, Arizona, shooting that killed six people and left Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords critically injured. The shooting prompted some lawmakers to call for a re-examination of the country's gun laws.

People gather for a candlelight vigil for the victims of the 2011 Tucson, Arizona, shooting that left six people dead and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords critically injured. The shooting prompted some lawmakers to call for a re-examination of the country’s gun laws. (Source: Wikipedia)

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, I, like many other Americans, believed extremist groups from the Middle East would launch further attacks against our country. We were led to believe that every town, no matter how small, could be targeted. So while security checks at airports in Washington and New York were beefed up, so were the barriers and fences surrounding major dams in rural Tennessee and power plants in western Kentucky.

Our small towns are vulnerable, but as the shooting in Connecticut shows, the killer is likelier to come from next door, from a family we all know respect and see at church on Sundays or at the local grocery store.

That was the case in December 1997, when 14-year-old Michael Carneal brought a .22-caliber pistol to Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky, and opened fire on a group of students praying in the lobby. Three students were killed and five were injured.

Carneal surrendered after the shootings, and he was sentenced to life in prison. In 2007, on the 10th anniversary of the shooting, I traveled to Paducah to talk with some of the people who knew Carneal.

“I don’t necessarily want to know why he did what he did because I don’t know if he himself knows why he did what he did,” said Nathaniel Hantle, who lived near Carneal and went to school with him at Heath. “I think that’s one question that might never be answered.”

After the shooting, the school added video surveillance cameras, built a chain-link fence around the campus and checked students’ backpacks before they entered – measures to improve security but also make “society feel better,” a teacher at the school said.

Arming teachers with guns was never discussed.

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4 thoughts on “If you could talk to a gunman

  1. Hey Jimmy: Now that you’re living abroad, do folks ask you for the American point of view on this? Seems like it would be a really hard thing to try and explain…..

    • Yeah, some people do. They have a hard time understanding why Americans don’t have stricter gun laws when mass shootings like this keep happening. And unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer to give them.

  2. I wrote a book about women and guns, and interviewed 104 people nationwide. There are so many issues complicating any lucid and thoughtful change in Americans’ attitude toward firearms. For every liberal who loathes guns and the people who own them, there is someone for whom owning a gun is a badge of honor and pride. The underlying emotion makes it messy and intractable to debate or resolve.

    The issue, in reference to your post, is also complicated. I took a three-day defensive weapons class for research. A highly-trained shooter could well inflict harm in response, but the first thing you learn is how your body reacts under the terrifying pressure of being shot at. Everyone loves to second-guess what could have happened. Unless they have been in any situation like it, they have no idea.

    • Thanks for sharing the story about your book. Very interesting. I grew up around people who considered owning a gun to be a badge of honor and pride. And for people who like to hunt or work in law enforcement, that’s fine by me. But there are way too many guns that wind up, either legally or illegally, in the hands of people who shouldn’t own them. And that’s got to change, either through new legislation, a ban on assault weapons or both.

      Jimmy

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