JANUARY 20, 2011, 9:00 PM
Myth of the Hero Gunslinger
By TIMOTHY EGAN
Timothy Egan on American politics and life, as seen from the West.
Gun Control, Tucson shooting
PHOENIX — To many gun owners, the question of whether to arm even more people in a country that already has upwards of 300 million guns is as calcified as a Sonoran Desert petroglyph. It’s written in stone, among the fiercest of firearms advocates, that more guns equals fewer deaths.
But before the Tucson tragedy fades into tired talking points, it’s worth dissecting the crime scene once more to see how this idea fared in actual battle.
First, one bit of throat-clearing: I’m a third-generation Westerner, and grew up around guns, hunters of all possible fauna, and Second Amendment enthusiasts who wore camouflage nine months out of the year. Generally, I don’t have a problem with any of that.
Back to Tucson. On the day of the shooting, a young man named Joseph Zamudio was leaving a drugstore when he saw the chaos at the Safeway parking lot. Zamudio was armed, carrying his 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol. Heroically, he rushed to the scene, fingering his weapon, ready to fire.
Suppose, in the few seconds of confusion during the shootings, an armed bystander had fired at the wrong man.
Now, in the view of the more-guns proponents, Zamudio might have been able to prevent any carnage, or maybe even gotten off a shot before someone was killed.
“When everyone is carrying a firearm, nobody is going to be a victim,” said Arizona state representative Jack Harper, after a gunman had claimed 19 victims.
“I wish there had been one more gun in Tucson,” said an Arizona Congressman, Rep. Trent Franks, implying like Harper that if only someone had been armed at the scene, Jared Lee Loughner would not have been able to unload his rapid-fire Glock on innocent people.
In fact, several people were armed. So, what actually happened? As Zamudio said in numerous interviews, he never got a shot off at the gunman, but he nearly harmed the wrong person — one of those trying to control Loughner.
He saw people wrestling, including one man with the gun. “I kind of assumed he was the shooter,” said Zamudio in an interview with MSNBC. Then, “everyone said, ‘no, no — it’s this guy,’” said Zamudio.
To his credit, he ultimately helped subdue Loughner. But suppose, in those few seconds of confusion, he had fired at the wrong man and killed a hero? “I was very lucky,” Zamudio said.
It defies logic, as this case shows once again, that an average citizen with a gun is going to disarm a crazed killer. For one thing, these kinds of shootings happen far too suddenly for even the quickest marksman to get a draw. For another, your typical gun hobbyist lacks training in how to react in a violent scrum.
I don’t think these are reasons to disarm the citizenry. That’s never going to happen, nor should it. But the Tucson shootings should discredit the canard that we need more guns at school, in the workplace, even in Congress. Yes, Congress. The Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert has proposed a bill to allow fellow members to carry firearms into the Capitol Building.
Gohmert has enough trouble carrying a coherent thought onto the House floor. God forbid he would try to bring a Glock to work. By his reasoning, the Middle East would be better off if every nation in the region had nuclear weapons.
At least two recent studies show that more guns equals more carnage to innocents. One survey by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that guns did not protect those who had them from being shot in an assault — just the opposite. Epidemiologists at Penn looked at hundreds of muggings and assaults. What they found was that those with guns were four times more likely to be shot when confronted by an armed assailant than those without guns. The unarmed person, in other words, is safer.
Other studies have found that states with the highest rates of gun ownership have much greater gun death rates than those where only a small percentage of the population is armed. So, Hawaii, where only 9.7 percent of residents own guns, has the lowest gun death rate in the country, while Louisiana, where 45 percent of the public is armed, has the highest.
Arizona, where people can carry guns into bars and almost anyone can get a concealed weapons permit, is one of the top 10 states for gun ownership and death rates by firearms. And in the wake of the shootings, some lawmakers want to flood public areas with even more lethal weapons.
Tuesday of this week was the first day of classes at Arizona State University, and William Jenkins, who teaches photography at the school, did not bring his weapon to campus. For the moment, it’s still illegal for professors to pack heat while they talk Dante and quantum physics.
But that may soon change. Arizona legislators have been pushing a plan to allow college faculty and students to carry concealed weapons at school.
“That’s insane,” Jenkins told me. “On Mondays I give a lecture to 120 people. I can’t imagine students coming into class with firearms. If something happened, it would be mayhem.”
He’s right. Jenkins is a lifelong gun owner and he carries a concealed weapon, by permit. He also carries a modicum of common sense. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.