TOS Blog: Daily Commentary from an Objectivist Perspective

Thoughts on the Aurora Murders and Armed Citizens

Like others throughout Colorado and the world, I am heartbroken by the horrific murders last week at a movie theater in Aurora, a theater a short drive from my home. The depraved lowlife, whose name does not deserve repetition, slaughtered twelve innocent, life-loving people and injured 58 more. The pain suffered by those involved and those who lost loved ones is unimaginable.

I’m disappointed that many advocates of gun restrictions rushed to use the murders to advance long-established political agendas, and that the media gave them a bright spotlight.

I did not wish to write about gun laws in the days following the atrocity; however, because the rights of law-abiding gun owners are under attack—and because gun ownership is an important way to help deter or stop such atrocities—I feel compelled to comment on the matter.

The murderer used three guns to wage his craven assault: a pump-action shotgun, a semiautomatic rifle with detachable magazines, and a semiautomatic handgun. The guns are inanimate, mechanical devices; it was the killer who turned them on the innocent.

Hundreds of thousands of Coloradans, and many millions of Americans, own similar guns and use them for lawful purposes, including self-defense.

A report from the Cato Institute examines surveys showing that people use guns to defend themselves from criminal attacks tens of thousands of times every year, if not far more often. The report reviews several thousand cases drawn from news accounts over the last few years. Of course, many acts of armed self-defense are never reported, and, if they are, typically the media pay them little attention.

In Colorado, good people with guns have saved many lives. For example, in April, an off-duty officer shot and killed a murderer outside a church in Aurora. In February, an armed doctor in Colorado Springs guarded an exit to help his colleagues escape a hostage taker; the doctor said, “I was absolutely prepared to shoot” the perpetrator. In 2007, a volunteer security guard shot a man assaulting a church gathering in Colorado Springs. Such examples are common not only in Colorado but across the country.

And armed people not only stop crimes in progress, they frequently deter crimes. When my wife and I saw the The Dark Knight Rises Saturday, we were glad to see that the local police department had sent more armed officers to theaters to deter potential copy-cat crimes. Criminals fear regular citizens with guns for the same reason they fear police officers: They don’t want to get shot. Dave Kopel has reviewed survey results and international crime trends showing that criminals often avoid those they fear might be armed. John Lott cites numerous statistical studies suggesting that concealed carry laws deter criminals. When a would-be criminal is afraid to victimize others for fear of being shot, that never becomes a news story—because nothing happens. When it comes to crime, no news is infinitely better than bad news.

Some argue that although government should not ban all guns it should ban so-called “assault” rifles, such as the semiautomatic rifle the murderer carried, as well as “high capacity” magazines. Such policies are senseless.

The term “assault rifle” is intended to condemn the rifle in question in the process of identifying it. Originally, the term referred only to fully automatic rifles. In this context, the politically loaded term refers to a semiautomatic rifle that accepts detachable magazines and that has a few cosmetic features irrelevant to its operation. A semiautomatic hunting rifle functions the same way—one pull of the trigger fires one round and chambers another round. The stated goal of various gun-restriction groups is to eventually ban every semiautomatic gun—which in many contexts is the most useful type of gun for self-defense.

While gun restrictions hamstring the innocent, they have little effect on criminals. Referring to the Aurora murderer, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper noted, “If it was not one weapon, it would have been another.” It is worth noting that this murderer first opened fire not with a semiautomatic but with a pump-action shotgun. He also illegally constructed bombs and planted them in his apartment. Even if semiautomatic guns were totally outlawed—even if guns as such were outlawed—criminals could and would buy them on the black market or use other weapons to commit their vile deeds.

Regarding “high capacity” magazines, the very designation is arbitrary. What objectively constitutes “high” here? The now-defunct Federal Assault Weapons Ban forbade consumers to purchase magazines that hold more than ten rounds. (Because the magazines are detachable, semiautomatic guns typically accept magazines of varying capacities.)

Magazine restrictions do not deter criminals from using whatever magazines they can get their hands on; they only cripple citizens who have guns for self-defense. Moreover, a criminal, who typically has the advantage of surprise and preparation, can as easily carry ten ten-round magazines as five twenty-round magazines. By contrast, the citizen who carries a concealed handgun often can feasibly carry only the magazine in the gun (though some do carry a spare, doing so is inconvenient). Likewise, a homeowner in his pajamas, facing intruders at night (who might have cut the power), may have a difficult time using more than the single magazine in his gun.

What magazine restrictions do, then, is limit the law-abiding citizen’s capacity to respond to a criminal threat. If three street thugs break into a single mother’s home, looking for some quick cash or perhaps something more physical, magazine restrictions effectively forbid her to put more than ten rounds between the criminals and herself or her children. If the criminals bring their black-market guns, wear protective clothing or gear, advance from covered positions, or cut the lights—or if the homeowner misses some of her shots—ten rounds might not be enough.

Of course the government should do what it can to reduce crime rates while respecting individual rights. But passing more gun restrictions would fail to cut crime (and would likely increase it), and it would violate the right of citizens to own guns of their choosing—a right that is a corollary of the rights to life, liberty, and property.

It is wrong to turn anger at a mass murderer into an assault on the rights of innocent citizens. And a crucial means to helping prevent horrific crimes in the future is respecting and protecting the rights of citizens to carry their choice of firearms legally.

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Image: iStockPhoto

Posted in: Guns and Self Defense

Comments are welcome so long as they are civil.
  • Zeh

    Why not promote non-lethal forms of self protection: mace, pepper-spray, tasters, stun-guns and guns which fire rubber bullets? I understand the need for self protection, but guns carried around in public are overkill in my opinion, if you’ll pardon my pun.

    Police officers are given significant training to be able to use a firearm correctly in high stress, life or death situations. Why should any ordinary citizen be given the power to use lethal force without significant training, and regular monitoring?

  • Paul Bonneau

    The people have spoken. Gun sales are way up.

  • Jim Schindler

    In WWII the Japanese emperor chose not to invade the continental U.S. for good reason……..there would be a gun behind every rock and tree. (paraphrased) 

  • Zeh

    “You cannot invade the mainland United States. There would be a rifle behind every blade of grass.”
    It has been declared this attribution is “unsubstantiated and almost
    certainly bogus, even though it has been repeated thousands of times in
    various Internet postings. There is no record of the commander in chief
    of Japan’s wartime fleet ever saying it.”, according to Brooks Jackson in “Misquoting Yamamoto” at (11 May 2009)

  • Dave

    Uhm, because it’s in the Bill of Rights.  And further: your right to defend yourself and your family is God-given, not bestowed upon you by any government.

    In the grand scheme of things, we have seen instances of gun control transition to genocide.  In Nazi Germany. In the Soviet Union.  And, more recently, with the Khmer Rouge.

  • Zeh

    Any thoughts on my second question?

  • Jacob Zeise

    Zeh, while I disagree with Dave that rights are “God-given” (I don’t believe in any god), I do believe that humans have a kind of natural rights. If we can be said to have a right to our life, we must have a right to defend it. That includes using self-defense tools. The shooter in question was wearing armor and a gas mask. Only some types of handguns and Tasers would have been effective in stopping him. Tasers have limited range and number of shots but better power to incapacitate if vitals are not hit, a handgun has greater range and number of shots but requires more training to deal a lethal (and therefore, incapacitating) blow. A gun is therefore preferred, depending on individual training.

    As to your second question, I’d be interested to see statistics involving unnecessary shootings. I would expect that, because police do not have an intimate knowledge of who is normally in the neighborhood/home/workplace, they are more likely than a civilian to misidentify a person and shoot him in haste or by mistake. This mitigates any alleged advantage in training and monitoring.

  • Zeh

    I completely understand the need to protect yourself, I’m just not convinced that having handguns carried around in public actually improves your chances for survival. In this theater shooting it was dark, high stress and the room was drenched in tear gas. If there was someone with a gun, perhaps he would have been able to stop the shooter, or there is also the very real chance there would have been more deaths by collateral damage. (I would be curious to hear from people in the theater if they think someone w/ a concealed carry would have helped)

    To be honest, I would like to know I only need to deal with the psycho in front of me with a gun, and not have to also worry about the bleary eyed trigger happy vigilantes squeezing off shots behind me as I run away or as I go to tackle him during a reload.

    Ari and the other gun rights proponents show a few examples where handguns have helped the situation, but it seems to me to be an overwhelming evidence that handguns pose more of a danger to the owner and society than the the small chance for self-defense they grant. For example the massive increase in suicide rate for homes containing guns, or there was a concealed carry gun owner that admitted to almost shooting the wrong people during the Giffords shooting.

    Interesting idea about civilians being more familiar with the area and therefore less likely to misidentify and shoot the wrong person. I would also be interested to seeing those statistics. However, why even train police and grant them their power if civilians are better at protecting their neighborhoods? Perhaps we should all have neighborhood watchmen like George Zimmerman instead?

  • Jacob Zeise

    Why train police if civilians are better at protecting their neighborhoods? Because it’s their job to apprehend criminals after crimes are committed, not to protect neighborhoods. That they often do intervene to protect people is a testament to the courage common to the profession. But (to my knowledge) no police force has ever been held accountable for failing to protect someone. Police are law enforcement personnel, not bodyguards.

  • Zeh

    Well, it seems we have a different understanding of the role of police.

    Sure, they are not body guards, but it is in fact their job to keep the peace, and to protect the community. (In addition to pursuing criminals and bringing them to justice).

  • Jacob Zeise

    Well, Zeh, in an emergency the police will almost always be too late (even when their response time is excellent). You brought up Zimmerman. The police were on their way before the violent incident even happened. I think that case is a testament to the fact that police cannot be relied on to arrive in time to protect anyone. Anyway, that’s not their primary purpose. Rely on them at your own peril.

  • Zeh

    I was using Zimmerman as an example of how giving civilians “the power” is a horrible idea. Due to this guy’s lack of training a non-situation turned into a homicide. Zimmerman is the exact kind of guy I don’t want in my neighborhood.

    Anyway, I think we both agree that you have the right to self defense, we just disagree on where the line should be drawn. Should people have the right to own bazookas for self defense. Obviously not. Should we ban everything except your fists? No. My line is drawn between non-lethal alternatives mentioned above and guns.

    (Note: I’m not saying responsible people should be kept from owning guns to protect their house/property, but that carrying them around in public is the bad idea.)

    Our thread keeps getting squished smaller and smaller :-)

  • Anonymous

    Rather than speculate, why not read the relevant information? I linked to the Cato report; see also John Lott’s most recent book on guns.

  • Zeh

    I don’t think the Cato study does a good job of evaluating the effectiveness of concealed carry for self defense:

    “Most of the actual self-defense shootings in the Cato study didn’t
    involve concealed carry licenses, but more typically had to do with
    responses to residential invasions”


    I’ll have to track down Lott’s books you recommended, thanks.

    This morning I came across a David McDowall report which indicates that guns are only used for self defense 0.2% of the time for self protection (and 0.83% of the time for self-defense of violent crimes). I’m not sure if that is a significant enough number to promote self defense as a primary reason for relaxing gun control.

    Anyway, statistics are tricky since they seem to be swayed by politics. Perhaps we need a more indepth decisive bi-partisan study to better understand the situation.

  • Jacob Zeise

    I can’t agree with your assessment of the Zimmerman situation. But this thread is getting too small to continue. Just for fun: pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.