You are not John McClane. Neither is anybody else.

If only other people in that theater had been armed, maybe this wouldn’t have happened…

This sentiment has made its way around since Friday. For the most part, it is a fantastical load of bull. Here’s why.

Dark theater, loud movie, intense action sequence. Add to that a deranged gunman and a room full of people who were not expecting real gunfire. I have never attempted to shoot a specific person in a crowded theater full of panicked people, and neither has almost 100% of the American public. It sounds prohibitvely impossible. Did I mention that this all occurred in the dark. In. The. Dark.

Experienced Delta Force operators would have difficulty with that sort of situation, I imagine, because once again, no one expected gunfire.

In a crowded, chaotic, dark environment, several questions present themselves. What if you shoot and miss, and hit an innocent bystander? What if you see someone with a gun, you shoot, and you then learn that the person you killed was a fellow CHL carrier, also trying to take the shooter down? What happens when the cops show up? They are, in all likelihood, not going to know that you are a heroic defender of the innocent. They are going to see an asshole with a gun, and it is highly likely that they are going to take you down. They may or may not conclude that you were not an aggressor, but by then you’ll be dead, and the cop who shot you will probably still get a medal.

It is very comforting to think that an armed citizen could have handily taken the shooter in Aurora down, and it is possible that someone with sufficient training and skill could have. The odds are very much against it, and pondering it is really just a comic-book fantasy that we use to make ourselves feel better and to tell ourselves “I would have done it differently.”

David Weigel at Slate looks at the reality of trying to shoot this guy in the context of a darkened, noisy theater filled with what might have been tear gas. He discusses past situations where a bystander did successfully stop a shooter, noting that they all occurred in open spaces and in broad daylight. In a follow-up piece, Weigel talks to Greg Block, a federally-certified firearms safety trainer with twenty-nine years of experience. Block, to put it mildly, knows more about firearms than most people talking about arming the moviegoers will ever, ever know. Block thinks that he, personally, could have gotten the drop on the shooter, but for the fact that it was dark, crowded, and full of disorienting smoke. He says he could have gotten shots off within two seconds. Among anyone reading this, or anyone that anyone reading this knows, how many people could fire multiple accurate shots from a pistol within two seconds of drawing their gun? Again, I can’t say for certain, but I suspect the answer, if not zero, is asymptotic to zero. How many people who want to carry guns in public could even have the reaction time to draw, identify the correct target, and shoot in under two seconds? Very, very few, I reckon. Unless, of course, you are a current or former Delta Force operator.

We stopped being the kind of society that spends a significant portion of its free time preparing for gun battles over a century ago. Do we really want to go back to that? Because that is the only way that arming the moviegoers would have even stood a chance of success, i.e. if everyone had gone in there mentally prepared for battle.

What Happens When Bystanders Have Guns

Two fairly recent stories cast doubt on any guarantee of a happy outcome when law-abiding citizens are armed.

During the shooting in Tucson in January 2011, bystanders managed to subdue the shooter. One of them got the gun away from him. Seconds later, that man, by all accounts a hero, might have died, because another bystander with a gun, Joe Zamudio, might have shot him. Zamudio was in a drug store near to the scene of the shooting, and he says the fact that he had a gun helped inspire him to run to help. Fortunately, Zamudio had not drawn his gun yet. Instead, he threw the guy against a wall, and then he saw the real shooter on the ground. Zamudio told the Arizona Daily Star that he did not draw his gun right away because “he didn’t want to be confused as a second gunman.” In this specific context, the man grabbed by Zamudio was likely not in any mortal danger from Zamudio. Can we expect, however, that everyone will show Zamudio’s level-headedness and restraint?

Earlier this month in Florida, Andrew Lee Scott had a gun, presumably to protect himself. We will never know exactly why Scott was holding a gun, though, because he is dead. At 1:30 a.m., in a bad part of town, Scott (again presumably) heard a knock on his door. Scott answered the door with his pistol in his hand. On the other side of the door were two sheriff’s deputies, who proceeded to shoot Scott dead.

The cops say that Scott pointed his gun at them, and that they responded with appropriate force–e.g. shoot before getting shot. This follows the First Rule of Policing: get home alive. Scott had no way of knowing that the knock on his door was from two cops, and that’s where this gets tricky. One could easily argue that Scott made a reasonable decision to arm himself to protect his home from a possible intruder. Ill intent is a reasonable conclusion from an anonymous knock on the door, at 1:30 a.m., in a bad neighborhood. Scott was acting, one could say, in the finest tradition of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And the cops killed him for it.

The two deputies were looking for Jonathan Brown, whom they say was an attempted murder suspect (although this might be an exaggeration, according to Jonathan Turley, although if Turley is correct, I’d call it a “lie”). They saw Brown’s motorcycle parked opposite a door, and so they knocked on that door. It was Scott’s apartment. Figuring that an attempted murder suspect (if that was even the charge at the time) would respond violently to police announcing themselves, they knocked but didn’t say a word. They didn’t wait for backup. They just knocked, waited, and opened fire.

The response of the department, essentially, was “don’t point guns at cops.”

“When we knocked on the door, the door opened and the occupant of that apartment was pointing a gun at deputies, and that’s when we opened fire and killed him,” Lt. John Herrell said. “Even though this subject is not the one we were looking for when he opened the door. He was pointing the gun at the deputy and if you put yourselves in the deputy’s shoes. They were there to pick up someone who was wanted for an attempted homicide.”

Officials said the deputies did not identify themselves because of safety reasons.


“It’s just a bizarre set of circumstances. The bottom line is, you point a gun at a deputy sheriff or police office, you’re going to get shot,” Herrell said.

Two cops knocking unannounced on the wrong door at 1:30 a.m., expecting violence but not requesting any assistance, now becomes “a bizarre set of circumstances.” Scott did not know they were police. I respectfully call bullshit. Even Scott’s neighbors got in on it:

Residents said the unannounced knock at the door at 1:30 a.m. may be the reason why the tragedy happened.

“He was the wrong guy and he got shot and killed anyway. There’s fault on both sides. I think more so on the county,” Ryan Perry said. “I can understand why he [the deputy] did it, but it should have never gone down like that,” Perry said.

The only way there is “fault on both sides” is if Scott did not have the right to defend himself in his home from unknown intruders. Keep in mind that this took place in Florida, which rivals Texas for its love of guns.

I can put myself in the deputies’ shoes, if only to think that (a) I have no police training, and therefore (b) if faced with a possibly armed attempted murderer holed up in an apartment, I wouldn’t just walk up to the front door.

Scott had committed no crime that merited a visit from the police that night. We will never know for certain if he actually pointed his gun at the police, but even if he did, so what? What is the point of having a gun for self-defense if you don’t point it at a threat? Scott took reasonable action in self-defense against a threat, and two buckaroo deputies killed him for it.

The police then put out information about Scott’s irrelevant prior arrest record, and mentioned that they found “drugs and other paraphernalia” in his apartment after he was dead. Because it’s not enough to kill the wrong person and claim it was justified. You have to air his dirty laundry as well, to make yourself look better.

An aside on Professor Turley’s update on the case: he noted some allegations that, after killing Scott, police increased Brown’s charge from battery to attempted murder. Presumably they would do this to retroactively justify deadly force, since an attempted murderer would be more dangerous than an alleged batterer. If this is true, they may ruin Brown’s life to cover their own asses.

What Does This Have to Do With Aurora?

Why am I bringing up Zamudio and Scott? Because they offer a reality check about what happens when armed bystanders try to help. Zamudio, I have no doubt, is a hero, but even the best of intentions could have gotten someone killed. As for Scott, we can only guess that he was motivated to defend his home. The police had a very different perception of the situation, and Scott wound up dead. In a situation like the one in Aurora, police may not be able to tell the difference between the actual shooter and a well-intentioned armed bystander. If cops responding to the pandemonium of such a scenario see someone with a gun, the First Rule of Policing will kick in. If they kill you, not only would you be dead, but you might not even be a hero. The authorities may balance your legacy as a hero with their own need to justify their actions, and your legacy will lose out. (In other words, you’d better not have a single drug-related arrest in your past.)

So What the Hell is Your Point?

In Aurora, the shooter didn’t have a concealed handgun and good intentions. He had an AR-15 assault rifle and SWAT armor, and ammunition he bought on the internet. The AR-15 design was also the basis for the M-16, which Army infantry used from the Vietnam War until 2010. The AR-15 has no particular use in hunting, serving mostly to fire many, many bullets with an absurd amount of force, even for a gun. Still, according to the Wall Street Journal, gun enthusiasts praise “its ease of use and rock-solid reliability.” Reliability for what, I don’t know. The AR-15, along with other assault weapons, was subject to a federal ban from 1994 until 2004, when Congress let the ban expire.

Maybe the problem here is not that no one else was armed. Maybe the problem is that this one guy amassed enough weaponry, ammunition, and armor to take on a small army, and no one ever noticed. It would seem like sensible regulations on weapons better suited for infantry combat than personal use (i.e. assault weapons, not handguns) would be a simpler solution than arming the entire populace to satisfy some people’s need for a “reliable” machine gun.

One final sarcastic note: Even if we don’t enact any new regulations on guns, and even if we don’t improve enforcement of existing laws at all, we have a massive state security apparatus that predates the Obama and even the Bush administrations. In the absence of sensible regulation, can’t our government at least spy on us competently?


2 thoughts on “You are not John McClane. Neither is anybody else.

  1.  There is no need to justify response in situations like this. No need to analyze.
    Any time a shooter is taken under fire, his abilities diminish. If he
    had merely heard return fire he would have been less able to carry out
    his task. Anything to diminish his abilities is beneficial, even if it
    only results in 1 shot being less precisely placed and still hitting a
    victim. Anything hitting him is salt and pepper on your meal, anything
    hitting is gravy on your taters, a resulting kill would be a satisfying
    after meal belch.

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