Guns, Germs, and Science: (Re)Thinking Ways to Prevent Mass Casualty Shootings

The debate over what to do about mass shootings generates heated extremes on both sides. While there is no consensus on what defines a mass shooting we will use the Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act of 2012 standard of three or more victims in a public place.

On one side are those who would do away with all firearms, seeing that as the only solution. On the other extreme are those who see the Second Amendment as inviolate imbuing a constitutional right to possess and carry a firearm anywhere they so choose.

They base both more on emotion than rational argument.

If we “must do something” to prevent mass shootings, we should act with data and deliberation. Doing something with no idea of whether it will work, and may cause more harm, is as dangerous as doing nothing.

If we “must leave the Second Amendment untouched” without similar deliberation, this is equally dangerous.

My perspective on this comes from two almost diametrically opposed positions. First, as a retired police officer, I recall the heart-pounding adrenaline rush of gun calls. Those moments of fearful uncertainty as you walked up to the driver’s side of a car you just stopped. The controlled terror working undercover buying illegal guns—often automatic weapons with silencers—from individuals who faced long prison terms if convicted. This terror is something no one who hasn’t experienced it can ever understand.

I spent twenty years wearing a ballistic vest, hoping to go home every night, as do officers today. There is no way I would have ever worked such a job without the reassuring feeling of a weapon on my hip or in a shoulder holster—both on and off duty—ready if the need arose.

This leads me to one of the most controversial misconceptions about the job. Whenever my previous life as an officer comes up, I invariably hear, “you must be glad you’re not a cop today.” The implication being the job is inherently more dangerous today than in the past.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact is the job has always been dangerous. In fact, in 1978, the year I went on the job, 100 officers died from gunshots. In 1998, the year I retired, 64 were shot and killed. In 2008, 42 died because of gunshots.

These numbers, while tragic, are meaningless out of context. In 2018, 52 were shot and killed in the line of duty, while 172 current or former officers committed suicide. If we just look at numbers, cops are more likely to die by their own hands than by any threat on the street.

This underscores the challenges of measuring threats and risks exclusively by numbers, ten second video clips, or perceptions based on anecdotal evidence at best or baseless assumptions at worse. While any death of a law enforcement officer related to the job is a tragedy, addressing the problem cannot even begin until we get to the fundamental basis and cause. 

The fact is, we may be imbuing officers with an unrealistic impression of the threat level through training that compounds the risk on the street despite evidence to the contrary. The reality is, we simply do not know.

The public is getting misleading information as well. This threat perception gets carried out to the general population which perceives an increasingly threatening world necessitating arming themselves. The threat perception becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The average citizen is now getting a bit of a peak into the daily life of cops on the street through cell phone video and so-called “reality” TV. The perspective is skewed and distorted at best, because the “reality” shows condense what may be a single incident in a week long tour of duty and combine it with others to give the impression of non-stop violent confrontations. These scenarios, particularly cell phone videos, are repeated ad nauseum. While it is in many ways enlightening, it lacks context. 

News headlines are equally deceptive and skewed. Headlines of “Another Police shooting” scream repeatedly from websites, news stations, and talks shows giving the impression it is a daily event. This is because the reality headline most days could be, “700,000 cops worked yesterday and shot no one, again” but no one would pay attention.

My other perspective—developed with the benefit of separation from the insular world of law enforcement where every person you meet is considered a threat—makes me question the necessity of carrying a weapon even though, as retired law enforcement, I can do so anywhere in the country.

I own weapons and belong to a firing range, so it is not that I have any objection to target shooting. Nor do I object to hunting. Of course, with very few exceptions, people hunt because they want to, not because they have to and people carry guns because it makes them feel safer, whether is actually makes them, or others, safer is the question.

The idea of the average American carrying a weapon because they believe it makes them safer seems counterintuitive to me as a societal benefit. It may also be fueled by misconceptions and distorted perceptions of the threat level. Most police departments allow officers to choose to carry off-duty weapons; they do not require them to because of the inherent complications of “friendly fire” incidents and liability.

Yet what I may think or believe may not be valid, and thus the need to approach this in a logical and scientific, data-driven manner.

First, let me make it clear I believe every American citizen should be able to own a firearm. While I may not see the need for anyone to own military-grade weapons (assault weapons are a misnomer, any gun is an assault weapon, it is inherent in their design), the choice is personal.

As a way of comparison, I see no need for anyone to have a vehicle capable of traveling faster than the US’s maximum speed limit, which, believe it or not, I learned in researching this piece is 85 MPH. Why we have vehicles capable of twice that velocity is beyond me, but we do. We depend on personal responsibility and, absent that, law enforcement to ensure compliance.

Thus it is with weapons. While I may be satisfied firing my Glock 45, others may need the thrill of an AR-15, AK-47, or other weapons. It is a matter of preference, also controlled by personal responsibility and enforceable laws.

I do not see restricting or limiting firearms ownership, regardless of the nomenclature assigned to amplify their inherent danger, as either practical, workable, or effective.

I also have an innate sense that unrestricted access to weaponry and the option to carry weapons—concealed or otherwise—is either irrational or unnecessary and certainly not in keeping with the “original intent” of the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

In the period leading up to the Revolutionary War, the armaments available to the King’s Army and to the colonists were, with few exceptions, comparable. The British Army carried muzzle loaded muskets known as the “Brown Bess.” They were inherently inaccurate (rifled barrels, which improved accuracy, although dating from the 1500s, were not commonly used until the 19th century) thus the skirmish lines where the British would line up and fire volleys of rounds, increasing the likelihood of hitting the enemy.

They also had cannon, which were devastating weapons but slow to load and cumbersome to move.

The Revolutionary soldiers had much of the same armament—locally produced muskets were known as Committee of Safety weapons and bore no makers mark to avoid prosecution by the Crown prior to the start of the war—and used captured cannon to balance the battlefield.

In essence, the weaponry used by the “government” and that used by the colonists were the same. It was a level playing field. After the war, there was much concern about the keeping of a standing army (many of the founders opposed such a policy) out of fear of similar government suppression.

Thus, the Second Amendment and its reference to a “well-regulated” militia. They never expected the change in weapons, from inaccurate muskets to full automatic, highly accurate shoulder arms all the way to man-portable surface-to-air rockets. How could they? No one had even flown yet, let alone at supersonic speeds carrying sophisticated, self-guided fire and forget weaponry.

So one fairly logical conclusion is, assuming some dystopian future where the government convinces the Joint Chiefs of Staff to attack the general population, no matter how many weapons are in the hands of civilians, they wouldn’t stand a chance against a Marine Division, a Mechanized Army Tank Corps, or a squadron of F-117 or B-52 bombers.

The balance of power between the weapons in the hands of the people and those controlled by the “standing army” was long ago tilted in the government’s favor.

I would contend that those who argue the Second Amendment affords them protection from the actions of a tyrannical government are suffering delusions. They might inflict some casualties, but their success would be beyond a Pyrrhic victory.

I think that argument can be put to rest. They would be better protected from tyranny by paying attention at the ballot box and to the daily activities of government and those who serve in it.

A second argument, one that I believe is more convincing in its logic, is that most Americans who have weapons never use them to break the law. And, on those rare occasions when faced with a threat to themselves or others, actually do something of benefit to society.

If I own and use my weapon(s) within the confines of the law. If I threaten no one. If I assault no one. If I never use the weapon outside of the firing range or hunting except in an instance of self-defense or the defense of some innocent victim of crime, why should it be any concern of yours what I have, how many I have, or why I have them?

Such an argument focuses us on the real problem; those who use firearms to commit crimes and those who, through some debilitating psychological condition, need be prevented from possessing firearms.

The question then becomes two-fold. Who should not be allowed to possess weapons and how do we accomplish this goal?

The answer, to this point, eludes us. We are either unwilling or incapable of dedicating the resources to exploring the facts behind the phenomenon, committing ourselves to developing data-driven research into the causes and societal costs, and demanding that Congress and the President take immediate action such as creating a 9/11 style commission to develop solutions based on peer reviewed research.

The NRA, now diminished by its own resistance to reality, through its prior political influence, prevented such institutions as the CDC or the National Institute of Health from even studying the problem of guns as a health issue.

This lack of foundational data to measure the problem, the cost to society, and the dearth of possible solutions merely perpetuates the misconceptions on both sides of the issue. The reality may be that the overall security benefit of carrying a weapon is unjustifiable by the actual threat. It may be that carrying a weapon makes one inherently safer. It may be that the proliferation of firearms has nothing to do with the incidents of mass shootings. The simple fact is, we don’t know.

Therein lies the problem.

On the other side of this debate, is the one proffered by those who would eliminate all firearms or, failing that, limit access to what they classify as “assault” weapons. They have a compelling argument in the sense of the bloodshed and carnage which seems unique to this country.

While there have been mass shootings in other countries, none come close to the number which have happened—and likely will continue to happen absent an effective solution—here.

The cost to society is something we must consider in crafting a solution. It is not an either or/zero sum game where either we ban guns or everyone carries guns. These are not solutions, they are reactions to a problem we don’t understand.

We need turn to science and rational analysis to craft options and solutions.

Much like our determination to put a human on the moon or, more recently, to develop not only effective vaccines to treat and prevent Covid-19 but to unleash the power of an entirely new approach to anti-viral medicines through mRNA, we need a national commitment to solve the problem.

The first step is getting to the heart of the problem.

Joe Broadmeadow

The human side of this story, those who are the victims in these matters—the dead and the wounded—need be heard as well.

Elisabeth Rosenthal, MD worked as an emergency room physician at a Level 1 trauma center in New York City. She wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post about her experiences and the changing nature of the type of wounds she treated. 

Dr. Rosenthal wrote,

“In the 1990s, by which time I was an emergency-room doctor at a Level 1 trauma center in New York City, I became acquainted with the damage that small-caliber handguns could cause. When I started treating gunshot victims, I marveled at how subtle and clean the wounds often were, externally at least. Much cleaner than stabbings or car-wreck injuries.

We searched for a tiny entrance wound and the larger exit wound; they were often subtle and hard to locate. If you couldn’t find the latter, you would often see the tiny metal bullet, or fragments, lodged somewhere internally on an X-ray — often not worth retrieving because it was doing no damage.

These were people shot in muggings or in drug deals gone wrong. Most of these patients had exploratory surgery, but so long as the bullet had not hit a vital organ or major vessel, people survived. No one was blown apart.

Guns and the devastating injuries they cause have evolved into things I don’t recognize anymore.

Certainly, many American gun owners — maybe a majority of them — are still interested in skill and the ability to hit the bull’s eye of a target (or a duck or deer if you’re of the hunting persuasion). But the adrenaline in today’s gun culture clearly lies in paramilitary posturing, signaling to the world the ability to bring mayhem and destruction. Add a twisted mind with the urge to actually bring mayhem and destruction, and tragedy awaits.  

Before Congress passed an assault weapons ban in 1994, Americans owned about 400,000 AR-15s, the most popular of these military-style weapons. Today, 17 years after Congress failed to reauthorize the ban, Americans own about 20 million AR-15-style rifles or similar weapons.

Why this change in gun ownership? Was it because 9/11 made the world a much scarier place? Was it NRA scaremongering about the Second Amendment? The advent of violent video games?   

Now, not just emergency rooms but also schools and offices stage active-shooter drills. When I was an ER doctor, we, too, practiced disaster drills. A bunch of surrogate patients would be wheeled in, daubed with fake blood. Those drills seem naïve in 2021 — we never envisioned the kinds of mass-shooting disasters that have now become commonplace.

And, frankly, no disaster drill really prepares an emergency room for a situation where multiple people are shot with today’s semiautomatic weapons. You might save a few people with careful triage and preparation. Most just die.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/04/07/i-was-teenage-gun-owner-then-an-er-doctor-assault-style-weapons-make-me-sick

Now before you jump to the conclusion that Dr. Rosenthal is just some bleeding heart liberal anti-gun nut listen to this. She began shooting when she was 8 or 9 years old, taught by her father who was also a physician.

For her 13th birthday, she received a Remington.22 rifle which she carried on her shoulder to school for practice on the riflery team. She enjoyed shooting.

Her time in the ER taught her this,

“…the United States has undergone a cultural, definitional, practical shift on guns and what they are for…Once mostly associated in the public mind with sport, guns in the United States are now widely regarded more as weapons to maim or kill — or to protect from the same. Guns used to be on a continuum with bows and arrows; now they seem better lumped in with grenades, mortars and bombs.

My Remington .22 has about as much in common with an assault-style weapon as an amoeba has with a human life. The injuries they produce don’t belong under one umbrella of “gun violence.”

Though both crimes are heinous, the guy who shoots someone with an old pistol in a mugging is a different kind of perpetrator from the person who, dressed in body armor, carries a semiautomatic weapon into a theater, house of worship or school and commences a slaughter.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/04/07/i-was-teenage-gun-owner-then-an-er-doctor-assault-style-weapons-make-me-sick

Dr. Rosenthal depicts the tragic, gory, bloody underbelly of gun violence and the changing nature of such in the US over the past few decades. 

I think she makes one of the most salient points when she theorizes that the increase on both the number and firepower of weapons owned by Americans may be based on two false perceptions.

  1. The world is an increasingly dangerous place and crime is increasing
  2. Guns offer improved protection

The reality is violence, in particular criminal violence in the US, has decreased for the past several decades. The reason behind this decrease is complex, yet it has been studied. We at least have some idea what works in reducing crime—economic opportunity and education being a big part of it.  

Mass shooting events are an outlier, occurring with more and more frequency, yet we cannot even agree on what constitutes such an incident let alone study with any deliberate purpose its underlying cause.

This leaves us wailing and gnashing our teeth in the dark. The emotional roller coaster climbs the incline of fearful anticipation, an incident occurs, then some in the car careen over the top screaming to ban all guns while others hold their weapons high in the air more determined than ever to hold on to them.

It is these emotionally driven extremes which clouds any solution.

First, we need to define the problem and it is not as simple as too many or too powerful guns in private hands. Then we need to determine the underlying cause of such violent behavior. We can accomplish this if we are determined enough to force those in the position of power to move forward with a concerted effort.

As long as the debate is driven by hysteria, by both the pro-gun and anti-gun factions, nothing will change. People convinced that guns make them safer and need to carry a concealed weapon will continue to do so which may compound the problem. People convinced that every gun, or at least those they perceive to be “assault” weapons, need be banned, may be ineffective in eliminating the problem.

Abraham Lincoln, in an open letter to the New York Tribune, said this about the most pressing issue facing his administration,

If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.

Abraham Lincoln

If such an approach getting to the heart of the matter, which at the moment was saving the Union and not abolishing slavery, could be turned towards the matter of eliminating the scourge of mass shootings perhaps we need to model our commitment on Lincoln’s words.

If we can prevent mass shootings without banning any weapons, we would do it. If we can prevent mass shootings by banning all weapons, we would do it. If we can prevent mass shootings by banning some and permitting others, we would also do that.

The first step is getting to the heart of the problem.

The fact is, we know we need to do find a way to prevent, as much as possible in a free society, incidents of violence. Yet the reality is we have no idea what the answer is, barely comprehend the problem, and we seem to be afraid to even ask the question.

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