The NRA is wrong: Real life is not an action movie

Opinion: The NRA says ‘the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.’ Research—and the Las Vegas shooting—proves otherwise.

Jooyoung Lee is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto and the author of Blowin’ Up: Rap Dreams in South Central (University of Chicago Press).

The NRA has been lying to you. For years, they’ve promoted the same bumper-sticker motto: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” These were the exact words spoken by National Rifle Association (NRA) executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre killed 26, including 20 children. Since then, this saying has taken on a life of its own. It fuels a frontier attitude toward the second amendment and creates unrealistic beliefs amongst gun owners who think they’ll become Dirty Harry when things hit the fan. And, of course, it encourages people to buy more guns.

Trouble is, a close examination of mass shootings—including the recent Las Vegas shooting, which has killed at least 59 people and injured more than 500 others—pokes holes in this logic. The video footage seen thus far reveals an ugly truth: Mass shootings are chaotic, scary, and fleeting, and they rarely conform to our dominant cultural images of active-shooter situations—much less the action-hero prospects promised by LaPierre. While shootouts look cool, stylish, and effortless in movies like John Wick or The Tower, reality is a different animal.

Just watch the video. You’ll hear the rat-a-tat of automatic gunfire spraying into a crowd of concertgoers across the street from the Mandalay Bay hotel. You’ll see people ducking for cover and running. You’ll hear people screaming out of fear, while others carry on, unaware that people around them are being gunned down.

And here are the cold hard facts. The shooter—a 64-year old white man named Stephen Paddock—had an arsenal of at least 10 guns at his disposal. Many of these were AR-15s or AK-47s, machine guns designed to deal maximum carnage in a blink of an eye. Paddock was also positioned in a 32nd-floor room atop the Mandalay Bay Casino and Hotel. This gave him a strategic vantage point over the Route 91 Harvest country-music festival below, allowing him to see into a crowd of 22,000 concertgoers who could not see him. They never stood a chance.

MORE: How Las Vegas shooting victim Jordan McIldoon didn’t die alone

I’ve studied gun violence for almost a decade now—in South Central Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Toronto—and even though the Mandalay Bay shooting is the deadliest in modern U.S. history, it shares many things in common with other mass shootings that I’ve researched. Like drive-bys that smoke an entire block party or school massacres that kill an entire classroom, mass shootings are chaotic and confusing. People don’t always know that they’re being shot at. Like victims at the Mandalay Bay, some believe that they’re hearing fireworks. Most people run for cover once they realize they’re being shot at. And it’s rare to see people fight back competently; most are just trying to survive.

These ideas are also supported by Randall Collins’s important 2009 book, Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory. In it, Collins dispels many of our oldest myths about violence. He shows us that very few people are cool and competent during violent atrocities. Most are overcome by fear, which clouds their judgment and ability to rise to the occasion. This holds true for the average person and the trained soldier alike. “Some soldiers attempt to burrow into the ground, covering their faces and heads…” he writes. “It is a paralysis of terror, and sometimes troops in this condition are unable even to surrender, much less fight back, and are killed where they lie.”

Tragically, some Americans only learn the true limits of their guns when they’re caught in active-shooter situations. “I’ve been a proponent of the 2nd amendment my entire life.  Until the events of last night,” tweeted country singer Caleb Keeter, who was at the Route 91 Harvest festival when the shooting started. “I cannot express how wrong I was. We actually have members of our crew with CHL licenses, and legal firearms on the bus. They were useless.”

Of course, the NRA doesn’t want you to know these things. These facts challenge the image that they’ve curated over the years. Sure, there are occasionally anecdotal stories of heroes who save the day, but these are rare exceptions. Far more common are stories of people who couldn’t fire their guns competently, or who froze in the heat of the moment.

MORE: Shooting holes in the self-perpetuated myth of the NRA

Additionally, our best social science casts more doubt on the NRA’s romantic-hero image. A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, “Investigating the Link Between Gun Possession and Gun Assault,” shows that carrying a gun doesn’t make you safer. Quite the opposite: carrying a gun makes you more likely to get shot. The same can be said of storing a gun at home. For instance, a 2003 study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, “Homicide and suicide risks associated with firearms in the home: A national case-control study,” finds that having a gun in the home increases a person’s risks of being shot and committing suicide.

And just as fear shapes our collective responses to live shooters, so too does it shape our behaviours in the aftermath of such tragedies. The NRA is banking on the fact that you are scared and that you’ll go out and buy guns, or you’ll support their agenda by voting for politicians who want to weaken gun control. Just this week, House Republicans have moved to roll back restrictions on silencers and are looking to pass bills that would make concealed carrying easier across state lines. They are counting on the fact that voters will believe that more guns make us safer.

This is a perverse logic, one that ignores practically everything we know about violent situations with guns. Fear motivates people to get guns. It’s also what makes us incompetent at violence. Don’t be fooled by the NRA’s attempts at leveraging another mass tragedy. Life is not an action movie, and the evidence doesn’t support the NRA’s goals to arm more citizens.


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