Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

12.18.12

Can Collective Action Stop Mass Shooters?

A consideration of whether we can stop shootings once they start

At the end of yesterday's post on gun control, I wrote:

I'd also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once.

Jonathan Chait did not like this suggestion:

Are you kidding me? You think gun control is impractical, so your plan is to turn the entire national population, including young children, into a standby suicide squad? Through private initiative, of course. It’s way more feasible than gun control!

McArdle does allow that such behavior runs contrary to instinct. Well, yes. Teaching even fairly aggressive young boys who are learning football to avoid their self-preservation instinct and crash into their opponent full speed rather than shying away from contact usually takes rigorous, lengthy training. This is when they’re wearing a helmet and full-body padding and going up against a kid their age.

Trying to get them to fling their bodies into danger in a situation where they’re in shock, have no protection, and are facing an adult with a gun rather than a kid with a football is beyond impossible.

Unless I am missing a very subtle parody of libertarianism, McArdle’s plan to teach children to launch banzai charges against mass murderers is the single worst solution to any problem I have ever seen offered in a major publication.

I completely agree that small children rushing a shooter would be a terrible idea. I can see how taken out of context, if you maybe hadn’t read the whole article, "young people" could be read to refer to the Newtown school children.  But I was talking about teenagers, not first graders. The idea that 8 kindergarteners could have taken down Adam Lanza is obviously ludicrous, which is why I made fun of it earlier in the post:

Even if you banned magazines, forcing people to load the gun itself, people could just carry more guns; spree shooters seem to show up, as Lanza did, with more guns and ammunition than they actually need. In this specific case, it might well not have helped at all. Would Lanza really have been gang-rushed by fast-thinking primary school students if he stopped to reload?

The broader question Chait raises remains: would gang rushing an attacker work if adults, or near adults, did it?

I’m not sure, which is what I wrote, in a section that Mr. Chait also snipped out of his excerpt. Here's the full passage:

My guess is that we're going to get a law anyway, and my hope is that it will consist of small measures that might have some tiny actual effect, like restrictions on magazine capacity. I'd also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once. Would it work? Would people do it? I have no idea; all I can say is that both these things would be more effective than banning rifles with pistol grips.

The instinct to hide is, as Chait points out, quite formidable. But it's not actually impossible to overcome. We know that because people have done it.

A 74-year-old retired Army colonel decided to tackle the Tucson gunman after watching him shoot a little girl.

"Something had to be done," Bill Badger said today on "Good Morning America."

Badger wasn't the only one who risked his life to stop the carnage.

One man clobbered alleged gunman Jared Loughner on the back of the head with a folding chair. A 61-year-old woman wrestled a fresh magazine away from Loughner as he tried to reload.

Others jumped on him and held him down, ripping the gun from his hands.

In fact, few (presumably non-football playing) female administrators did rush Adam Lanza. And died doing it, because 2 people is not enough to overcome someone with a full magazine. That's why I specified a large group.

Would this do a better job of reducing mass shooting fatalities than banning guns? No. I tried to make it clear in the post that whatever my opinion on the other merits of a total gun ban, it would be the most effective way to reduce the number and fatality of these incidents. And also why I didn't think that this was in the cards. 

The point ofthe post was not to suggest, "Instead of a ban, we should do this"; the point was  that we’re not going to do a ban.  Leave aside the endless arguments about the merits of a ban, because I see no likelihood that Americans are going to agree on that.  For political reasons, for legal reasons, for practical reasons--there are hundreds of millions of guns in circulation and some very porous borders--there is no plausible way to reduce the number of guns in the United States to, say, Canadian levels.  

But saying that seemed to require asking "So if we're not going to stop the attacks, what can we do?"  

The unfortunate answer I came up with is "not much." A bunch of conservatives asked me why I didn't consider arming the teachers as Eugene Volokh has suggested; my answer is that even if we assume for the sake of argument that guns prevent a lot of crime, in the specific case of primary schools, I don't see this working. A kindergarten teacher who was carrying would always run the risk that a child would grab the gun. Yes, many parents safely have guns in their homes, but the ratio of small, accident-prone children to adults is usually a little lower. There is a reason that we have lots of kitchen knives in the home, but take the sharp stuff out of first grade classrooms.

So what's left? Even a marginal improvement would be better than nothing. If there's a chance that this could lower the body count on one mass shooting a year, it's worth thinking about.

What often happens in these sorts of attacks is that people run and hide. Split up into ones and twos, they are easy targets for the shooters, who find it easy to pick off cowering people one by one. Unless the shooter's weapon is temporarily disabled--as seems to have happened with Loughner--one or two people are unlikely to be a match for a rifle or a handgun.

But it seems to me that 8-12 people could be. Not an automatic weapon, of course, but automatic weapons are not usually used in these attacks, because it's been illegal to manufacture or sell more of these guns for civilian use since 1986. A semi-automatic weapon takes time to aim and fire, and hitting a moving target with a fatal shot is harder than hitting someone who is hiding under a desk.

Note that this is something that works in concert with the other thing I suggested: eliminating large capacity magazines. It takes a few seconds to change a clip, but a few seconds can give people a window to act. If Jared Lee Loughner's magazine had held ten bullets, instead of thirty, he might have been stopped even sooner.

The problem of course, as Chait suggests, is that while this might reduce the overall fatalities, it raises the risk that you, personally, will die. Which is why I said that I didn't know if people would do it, or if it would work.

I'm not suggesting that any individual go kamikaze; this would require a societal decision to encourage a very different--and verynon-instinctive--response. And the coordination problems are huge. Though not, as the Loughner case suggests, so large as to make it actually "beyond impossible" for a group of unarmed people to stop a killer.  The ABC News report seems to indicate that the people who attacked Loughner did not plan it together, and at least two of the three had already been shot. (And no, they were not a crack trained military unit, though one was a 74-year old retired colonel.)

There's another reason that this might work: according to sociologist Randy Collins of the University of Pennsylvania, a real concerted action might change the character of the confrontation to make it less lethal, or even result in some of the shooters giving up.

Guns provide emotional dominance when an armed individual threatens a peaceful group and they try to hide or run away. This depends on the style of the victims. When rival street gangs clash, they do not turn their backs; they are used to gesturing, with and without guns, and most such face-to-face confrontations wind down. Running away has the effect of confirming emotional dominance; it is easier to shoot a person in the back than in the front; and turning away or attempting to hide one's face has the effect of removing one's greatest deterrent-- eye-contact with the opponent. Thus the hundreds who piled on the floor in the theatre at Aurora, or who ran from the attacker on the Norwegian island, may have saved some percentage of themselves; but they collectively could have saved more than ended up being killed or wounded, if they had used their superior numbers to confront the attacker. I don't mean just the possibility of physically overcoming him, but taking advantage of the fact that groups are always emotionally stronger than individuals: Acting together and putting up an emotionally united front, they may just be able to make him stop shooting.

If this sounds implausible, consider how rampage shootings usually end: in a 1997 school shooting at Paducah, Kentucky, the solo killer, a 14-year-old boy who opened fire on a prayer group in the school hall, allowed a teacher and the prayer leader to come up to him and take his gun away as soon as he had shot 8 girls and boys (who were facing away from him). The Aurora theatre killer gave himself up to the police without resistance after he left the theatre. Even Breivik, the Norwegian killer, who stated a strong ideological motive for his killings, gave himself up without a fight once armed authorities arrived on the island, although he had plenty of ammunition left. The key point here is not simply that the Norwegian police were armed, and the teenage campers were not; but rather that the police confronted him, while the teens ran away and turned their backs. Rampage killers almost always give themselves up peacefully, or else commit suicide. A rare exception is the Columbine duo, who exchanged fire several times with the police, at long distance and ineffectually, before killing themselves during a lull in the action. This is another respect in which rampage killers differ from other types of violent persons.

I linked to this in my last post, and highly recommend reading the whole (very long) piece; like my post, it is not primarily about whether collective action could disarm shooters, but about the elaborate rituals and sociology of mass killers.   

Norway's strict gun control rules did not stop Anders Breivik, who spent 9 years planning his attack, joining a pistol club and getting a hunting license in orer to comply with Norwegian gun regulations.  He even went so far as to rent a farm so he could get the fertilizer to make bombs to set off, just so that he would have a plausible cover story to dress up as a policeman and get onto the island where he shot a camp full of children. An outright ban--or something effectively very close--would almost certainly reduce the number of attacks, but we would not stop them entirely, even if we didn't have porous borders and hundreds of millions of guns already in circulation.  For that matter, the worst school attack in US history involved not guns, but a car bomb; the worst one in China involved a madman armed with a knife, who herded kids into a classroom and set it on fire.

Obviously, it is beyond horrible to suggest that even a small number of attacks are largely unavoidable. I don't like saying it.  Unfortunately, I think it's true.  Which means that it's worth thinking about whether there is something--anything--that people in that situation could do to make them less fatal.