The Everyman Assassin and the Self-inflicted Massacre
September 26, 2012
Gar Smith / Environmentalist Against War
Commentary: "It used to be that you could more-or-less stereotype a potential mass killer. But recently we have seen the rise of the Quotidian Killer -- the clean-cut, average Joe who suddenly goes ballistic. In our Scared New World, it was not just the lonely, loony loser or the demented evil genius who haunted our waking dreams. Now, the Imminent Threat could be anyone -- It could be that well-dressed guy with a briefcase. It could be the kid on a skateboard."
BERKELEY, Calif. (September 26, 2012) -- It used to be that you could more-or-less stereotype a potential mass killer. On one hand you had your sullen, embittered "loner" -- the high-school dropout with a history of depression, drug abuse and violent outbursts. More recently, we've been faced with the eccentric, tightly wound intellectual -- the aloof madman with a penchant for penning manifestos. But in the most troubling development, we have more recently seen the rise of the Quotidian Killer -- the clean-cut, average Joe with no outward, discernable angst, who suddenly goes ballistic.
The current Wanted Poster Boy for this new threat is Jeffery "Average Killer Joe" Johnson. On August 24, 2012, Johnson emerged from behind a car on a Manhattan street and calmly fired five bullets into the head of a former colleague. The business-suited assassin then pocketed his .45-caliber pistol, walked off -- briefcase in hand -- and attempted to disappear into the swirl of early morning pedestrian traffic.
Within minutes, police confronted Johnson and shot him dead -- in the shadow of the Empire State Building.
As reporters rushed to file their stories and post their photos, the face of domestic terrorism was given a new name: Everyman.
Now, in our Scared New World, it was not just the lonely, loony loser or the demented evil genius who haunted our waking dreams. Now, the Imminent Threat was indeterminate. It could be anyone. It could be that well-dressed guy with a briefcase. It could be the kid on a skateboard.
At least, thanks to the NYPD's swift response, Johnson's shocking act of rogue violence was handled with quick, effective force.
Or so it seemed in the first hours of the incident.
Mayhem in Manhattan
A second shock to the public's reigning belief system was soon in the offing. It would turn out that, instead of pulling the curtain on a single act of vengeance, the Shootout at the Empire Corral served to lift the veil on a previously invisible peril. If the National Rifle Association (NRA) had the power to yell, "Stop the presses," it certainly would have shouted itself hoarse the next day, trying to block the police report that surfaced in the media.
It wasn't just the news that Johnson did not, as first reported, open fire on the police. (Sadly, it is no longer news when a police investigation reveals that someone killed in "self-defense" did not actually "threaten" the police -- or worse, was unarmed and merely reaching for a cell phone or wallet.) Instead, the news that gave the gun lobby the jitters was the NYPD's admission that all the bystanders who had been left injured and bleeding in the aftermath of the shooting had been the victims of police bullets.
The two officers who opened fire on Johnson fired a total of 16 shots in Johnson's general direction. Nine innocent civilians were hit by bullets or knocked off their feet by flying shards of metal and concrete. Despite the best training in proper use of deadly force, more than half of the police bullets fired managed to wound innocent bystanders.
"These officers… had absolutely no choice," NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly later told the press. (Apparently, the officers were not equipped with tasers, a weapon-of-choice that would have protected bystanders from an onslaught of deadly gunfire.)
This leaves us with the problem that must have given the NRA's PR spinners a bout of message-mashing vertigo. One of the gun lobby's fundamental arguments is: individual gun owners need their weapons for personal protection against violence. While this justification of gun ownership seems sensible enough at first hearing but the NRA's claim that covert gun-totting constitutes a Sacred Survivalist Right has been seriously undercut by the real-life situation that went down on the streets of New York City. The truth was suddenly as clear as the bloodstains on Fifth Street: a gun fired in "self-defense" in a public space was almost guaranteed to punch holes in innocent bystanders.
More Guns Less Crime?
On July 20, John Holmes, a University of Colorado Ph.D student and an honors student in neuroscience, showed up for a midnight screening of the latest Batman movie dressed in a "costume" of full body armor and carrying two Glock pistols, a 12-guage shotgun and an AR-15 assault rifle.
No one at the Century 16 theater complex thought to question his motives. It was only after Holmes attacked the audience with two gas bombs and a hail of bullets -- leaving 12 dead and 59 wounded -- that people began to reconsider the wisdom of allowing ticketholders to "dress up" for midnight screenings of ultra-violent Hollywood blockbusters.
The pro-gun lobby was quick to respond to the tragedy. There would not have been so many deaths, the argument went, if other people in the audience had been carrying weapons.
As John R. Lott, Jr. argues in his book, More Guns Less Crime, "concealed handguns are the most cost-effective method of reducing crime that has been analyzed by economists." Lott cites a 2007 shootout at Colorado's New Life Church that left two congregants dead. Fortunately, Lott notes, the shooter was dropped by a parishioner carrying a concealed weapon. (The killer was actually brought down by a trained security guard who was on duty.)
Lott claims that most mass killings take place where "no gun" policies are in place, making these zones "magnets" for urban Rambos. But the better test of the theory would require showing that there is less gunplay in an armed camp.
Where Was God?
One of the country's more ardent pro-gun champions, Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert, demanded to know why, "with all those people in the theater, was there nobody that was carrying that could’ve stopped this guy more quickly?"
More guns in more pockets means greater safety Gohmert insisted. He cited one hometown case from Tyler, Texas: "We had a shooter come in over a domestic matter and just start shooting people. And it was a guy with a concealed carry--he got killed, but his shooting at this guy caused him to run and no doubt saved a lot of lives. He was a real hero."
Gohmert decried the dark days when Texans weren't allowed to carry hidden guns. Recalling one "senseless shooting" in a Texas restaurant, Gohmert declared: "If we’d had concealed carry, the guy would've been stopped before he could've killed so many people."
(In fact, Colorado does have a "concealed carry" law that allows moviegoers to pack heat while watching car chases and shoot-outs on the big screen. Aurora's Cinemark Century Theater was a declared "gun-free" building but the ban on casual weaponry was clearly not enforced.)
In Gohmert's view, the violence stemmed not from an abundance of guns as much as from a lack of Christian teachings. As Gohmert explained during a Heritage Foundation radio interview: "What really gets me as a Christian is to see the ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs, and then some senseless crazy act of terror like this takes place." The cure, Gohmert insisted, was discipline. "We’ve threatened high school graduation participants that if they use God's name that they’re going to be jailed."
Yelling 'Fire' in a Crowded Theater
So would it have made a difference if others in the packed Aurora theater had been "packing" and started striking "Stand your Ground" poses in the loges and balconies? Absolutely! From what we now know from the Empire State shootout, additional guns would have absolutely triggered additional carnage.
The night of the shooting, the theater screening "The Dark Knight Rises" was filled to capacity with 300 eager Batman fans. What could a couple of concealed handguns have accomplished after Holmes screamed "I am the Joker" and hurled his first smoke bomb?
Let's take a best-case scenario. Let's assume that one-tenth of the audience was carrying a pistol for self-defense. Now let us assume (again, best-case) that all 30 potential citizen vigilantes had received the same weapons training and had amassed the same years of experience as those two NYPD officers who brought down Jeffrey Johnson. In New York, two cops managed to fire 16 rounds and shoot nine innocent bystanders. Apply that template to Aurora and you would have 30 trained cops firing 240 bullets. In addition to riddling the shooter, the fusillade would be expected to wound or kill 135 bystanders.
But that's a best-case scenario. Consider: the Century 16 theater crowd was larger and more densely packed than the pedestrians on the Manhattan sidewalk. The folks in New York had more opportunities to scatter and flee. So we could expect the number of innocents brought down by return fire (and ricochets and shrapnel) would be even greater.
But what if it were not a best-case scenario. What if it were more like … real life?
In the chaos that envelops a screaming, confused and frightened crowd, adrenalin begins to flow and the most primitive survival mechanisms start to kick in.
Inside the Aurora theater that night, no one (except John Holmes) really knew what was happening. Most of the moviegoers initially thought Holmes' antics were "part of the show."
As soon as the bullets began to strike flesh, drawing blood and screams, the dynamic shifted from confusion to outright terror. Now imagine that 30 concealed gun owners in the Aurora cinema were not seasoned and well-trained police officers. What would happen when everyone with a gun suddenly feels threatened? Simple answer: gun-on-gun violence.
In the terror and confusion, no one would know whether the next person whipping out a hidden handgun was a friend or foe. Is that new weapon being waved two rows to the left being brandished by a would-be savor -- or another member of the attacker's posse? If you are unarmed, you can only pray it's the first case. If you are armed, the response is different and automatic: you have to fire first. Like the New York police commissioner pointed out, when a gun is out and pointed in your direction, you have "absolutely no choice."
And anyone who reaches for a cell phone to dial 911 would run a serious risk of being gunned down by the nearest terrified gun owner exercising his or her "shoot first" reflex.
Instead of proving the NRA's argument that concealed weapons would save lives, putting weapons into the hands of more strangers trapped inside a dark and crowded room would be more likely to provoke a "Hunger Games" scenario, leading to an even more devastating tragedy -- a "self-inflicted massacre." (Picture a "food fight" with people hurling bullets instead of creme pies.)
As horrific as such ballistic free-for-all could prove to be, there are other venues that might provoke even more bloodshed. Imagine the carnage that could ensue if the next James Holmes decides to proclaim "I am the Joker" at an armed militia convention or at one of America's heavily attended gun expos.
Gar Smith is the cofounder of Environmentalists Against War and the author of the forthcoming book, Nuclear Roulette (available November 1 from Chelsea Green. www.chelseagreen.com).