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Armstrong: Training unarmed civilians would reduce mass murder

Yes, let’s talk about gun laws. Colorado’s Democratic legislature is sure to do that in the coming session. But let’s also talk about something that would make a large, immediate difference in reducing casualties of gun-related mass murders and in helping to deter such crimes.

Let’s talk about what unarmed civilians can do, especially with appropriate training, to reduce casualties, including, in some contexts, by attacking and subduing the perpetrator.

Ari Armstrong

I can guess what you’re probably thinking. “It’s impossible for an unarmed person to attack someone with a gun.” Or, “We should not have to think this way; we should not have to worry about potentially fighting for our lives when we go to a church, school, bar, or other social place.” Or, “We should focus on gun laws instead.”

Let’s start with the first objection. It certainly is possible for unarmed people to successfully subdue an armed criminal.

A dramatic example of this came when seven unarmed people (including two off-duty Americans from the military), while on a train from Amsterdam to Paris, attacked and subdued a man heavily armed with black-market guns. (Clint Eastwood’s film, The 15:17 to Paris, dramatizes these events.)

More recently, during the horrific crime at the Tallahassee yoga studio, Joshua Quick “used a vacuum cleaner and then a broomstick to attack the gunman.” The police chief said, “Look at the resiliency of the spirit. The fact that we had people fight this attacker to help save other people and prevent him from doing further harm really speaks to the true spirit of Tallahassee and what this community is about.”

Now for the second objection. I agree, we shouldn’t have to think about this. We also shouldn’t have to think about the global rise of racial nationalism; the mass slaughters in Yemen, Somalia, and Myanmar; the government brutality of North Korea and Venezuela; the horrific gang-related violence south of our border; or the daily crimes committed across the country.

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Burying our heads in the sand does not make a problem go away. We don’t fail to lock our doors at night because we “shouldn’t have to” think about a criminal breaking in.

What about gun laws? We all know that there is no law or set of laws that the Colorado legislature or Congress could pass that would eliminate gun crime. You want gun laws like in California — where the existing red-flag law failed to stop the criminal in Thousand Oaks? Like in France — where in 2015 armed men killed 147 people in multiple attacks? Like in Canada — where an armed man murdered four people earlier this year?

Criminals do not obey the laws. Even under a total gun ban — which we could not and should not achieve politically — criminals would continue to traffic and use guns. In Colorado, criminals have stolen scores of guns in recent months. The idea that new gun legislation is a panacea is a fantasy.

I am not arguing that well-crafted gun legislation can never reduce gun violence. I think that a red-flag law, enabling authorities to disarm threatening or dangerous individuals, might help in some cases. Colorado Democrats are already talking about running such legislation, and I have no doubt it will pass (although I hope that they take seriously concerns about due process). I also supported Colorado’s concealed-carry legislation.

However, new gun legislation is unlikely to have much (if any) effect on crime, one way or the other, especially in the near- and medium-run. So I suggest that we do something that would actually make a big difference: get people better training for how to respond to an attack.

A central function of government is to protect people from violence. It seems to me that there’s a good case that funding civilian (and non-police) training for how to respond to violent crime is an appropriate task of government. It is at least worth the time of the Colorado legislature to consider. (Disclosure: My father trains for workplace-violence prevention, and that training helped shaped my views.)

My goal here is not to fan paranoia. It remains the case that gun crime per capita is down dramatically since the 1990s, that casualties of mass shootings are a tiny fraction of total homicide victims, and that homicide doesn’t make the top 15 causes of death in the U.S. (as of 2016). Objectively, you should worry a lot more about your diet and your safety habits than you do about criminals shooting at you.

Still, I think it is worth most people spending some time and mental energy preparing how to act in a crisis. No, preparation does not guarantee that you will act as you hope or that you’ll come through OK. It does dramatically increase the odds that you’ll take action to help save lives.

If we can teach would-be criminals the lesson that, if they try to shoot up a crowd, they’ll be immediately mobbed and pummeled, some may be less likely to attempt their plans in the first place.

But first we need to learn that lesson ourselves. If you can’t run or hide, fight.

Ari Armstrong (@ariarmstrong) publishes the Colorado Freedom Report and is the author of Reclaiming Liberalism.