A picture worth a thousand rounds

Sometimes, the story lies in what the photograph doesn’t show

This innocuous photograph could tell any of a thousand stories. A young woman seems to be alive with joy, moving to the beat of silent music emanating from the stage to which her upraised left hand gestures. It’s an ordinary moment, memorialized in a photo.

But what you don’t see in the photograph is the true story. It’s an ugly contrast to the simple image of a girl dancing — the rest of the story is bloody and tragic.

It is a story repeated so often we should be ashamed.

The girl in the photograph is my niece, Hannah. Her left hand points to a banner hung over a music stage in Las Vegas — the Route 91 Harvest Festival. The photograph was made October 1, 2017.

In a small but disturbing coincidence, my niece’s upraised right hand points to an area of the Mandalay Bay hotel where, moments after the photo was shot, the glass was broken out and 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire on the crowd below with a veritable armory of assault rifles.

From his 32nd-floor suite in the Mandalay Bay Hotel, Paddock unleashed more than 1,000 rounds, killing 60 people and wounding over 400. The ensuing panic brought the total injured to 867. Paddock’s motive has never been determined.

The incident remains the deadliest mass shooting committed by an individual in U.S. history.

Is this our destiny? Our culture has decayed to the point mass murder is commonplace and we accept it? We take no action to correct or mitigate?

We would never accept daily arsons or daily bombings, but we can excuse daily mass shootings because rejecting them might hinder our own easy access to guns? And yes, that’s daily. We’re about 150 days into the year and we’ve already experienced 214 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2022 — that’s roughly 10 per week.

I have a cynical urge to ask Americans what they would prefer: eliminating most mass shootings or providing guns for (almost) everyone? I already know the answer. We choose mass shootings over any attempt to restrict gun ownership and we do so faithfully every time: Springfield, Columbine, Santee, El Cajon, Blacksburg, Newtown, Roseburg, Parkland, Uvalde — those are just a few notable mass shootings at schools, never mind the mass shootings at other locations. We’ll take the shootings, thank you very much. Every single time.

The Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas on Tuesday, May 24 killed 21 people, most of them grade-school children. I do not care what your politics are or how much you love the Second Amendment, you should be revolted that this event was at least the 30th shooting at a U.S. K-12 school this year.

Mass shootings occur with such mind-numbing frequency that it’s difficult to keep track of them. When I write yet another essay addressing yet another shooting, I always go back and review what I’ve previously said. But just like we endure shooting after shooting, I find myself repeating my remarks over and over — really, there’s only so much a sane person can articulate.

What we’re doing simply isn’t working.

I support the Second Amendment but I do not support blind stupidity. With its many firearms enthusiasts and a Constitutionally-enshrined right to bear arms, our society would never permit any attempt to ban or eradicate firearms. Even if we somehow managed to survive the civil war that would erupt if the government came for citizens’ guns, we wouldn’t see the last gun leave for at least three generations — there are simply too many.

A firearm is a tool designed to quickly and efficiently kill. We should be treating guns with the respect they deserve, not as a mis-named God-given right. This doesn’t mean making arms unavailable, it simply means requiring those who wish to bear them to first demonstrate competency, maturity, stability and accountability. Yes, a maniac can simply pick another tool like a knife, a hammer or even a panel truck. But comparing these objects with guns creates clear false equivalencies.

We like saying we’re a free country — I like saying it, too. But we’re not a free country if we send our kids off to school with a constant fear they’ll be shot. We are not a free country if we cannot go out without worrying a heavily-armed madman will mow down a crowd of children, students, shoppers, worshipers or concertgoers.

Common ground

Let’s establish some things we can all agree on.

First, we can all agree that mass shootings are unacceptable. This is a pretty big point of common ground. We should detest mass shootings enough to work together to develop solutions.

Second, I know my 2A-supporting friends love their children as much as I love mine. I know they love their children more than they love their guns.

Third, the status quo isn’t working. What we’re doing now isn’t quelling mass shootings. The 214 mass shootings we’ve already seen this year translate to about 1.4 mass shootings per day.

Fourth, guns are here to stay. The natural instinct to seek eradication each time we see a bunch of dead children is understandable but not realistic. The Second Amendment isn’t going anywhere and the so-called gun culture is embedded in the American psyche, whether anyone likes it or not.

Fifth, we must do something. While the Second Amendment guarantees certain freedoms, it was never intended to be a free-for-all. Minimizing mass shootings will take an earnest and honest dialogue coupled with earnest and honest effort from those on both sides of this divisive issue.

Well-meaning myths

Before we talk about solutions, let’s examine several proposals currently being suggested.

With straight faces, people tell me we should flood our schools with guns — that arming teachers is the solution to this problem. Aghast, I cannot imagine converting the places where we teach our children into fortified citadels. The solution for mass shootings is more guns?

The N.E.A. has already weighed in, labeling the idea of arming teachers ludicrous. If educators, themselves won’t agree to being armed, what then?

Even if the unions could be convinced, arming teachers is preposterous for other reasons. It’s not just a good-guy-with-a-gun who’s going to drop a shooter. No, if we’re honest, it’s a good-guy-with-training-and-a-gun — teachers would need to be trained tactically. Sure, a few outlier educators would agree to the training and probably make useful security guards but beyond this minority, it’ll never happen.

And ponder this: arming teachers would place tens of thousands of guns right there in classrooms. Knowing human nature, do we really believe armed teachers would manage to effectively secure their weapons from curious or malignant students? Did we consider that busy teachers might be careless or distracted and end up accidentally providing a gun to a student who wouldn’t otherwise have had one? Maybe a sidearm left in a handbag or backpack? Or a forgotten handgun left in a desk drawer?

Arming teachers would be ridiculously complicated, prohibitively expensive, enormously time-consuming and fraught with risk — all with results that would almost certainly be dubious at best.

While we’re on the subject of absurd suggestions, let’s tackle the myth of the good-guy-with-a-gun. American films and television have convinced a huge number of 2A supporters that they are ready to step up when confronted with a mass shooter. All they’ll have to do is stand firm, draw their legal sidearm, aim and — bang! — no more bad guy.

It’s not that simple, not by a long shot.

While well-meaning people see the Lone Ranger saving the day, reality would far likelier resemble Barney Fife or Roscoe P. Coltrane, panicking, fumbling, fatally hesitating, firing blindly. Without military or law enforcement tactical training, the odds of a civilian good guy taking out a mass shooter are slim. In recent mass shooting episodes, more than one professional cop has lost his life as he went up against a body-armored maniac toting semi-automatic rifles and handguns.

To those people who don’t believe training is necessary, I ask this: do you have the psychological strength and discipline to perform properly in a situation calling for instant life-or-death decisions and lightning-fast reflexes? As earnest as you may be, overestimating your true abilities will result in you worsening an already awful situation and increase chances of you or others dying.

Solutions

There is no single solution. As I said, it’s going to take a willingness to work together to craft solutions.

Currently, we are discussing increasing the age at which a person may purchase a gun. We are talking about background checks on every sale. We are talking about red-flag alerts. I keep hearing an assault weapons ban mentioned but this stands no chance of clearing Congress in the current climate.

While some of these proposals may collectively do some good, I believe the real solution lies elsewhere.

I believe we need to establish robust minimum national training standards. Training standards would change the way many people view firearms, elevating them from a mere sporting good to a specialized tool, requiring specialized handling skills. Training standards would ensure firearms owners could demonstrate competency, maturity, stability and accountability before they took possession of a tool designed to quickly and efficiently kill — a respect currently lacking. As applicants are receiving training, background checks and psychological assessments could be completed.

Training standards of various levels could be developed for classes of firearms, tailoring necessary training to maximize effect and minimize time requirements.

Hannah’s father hugs her after her return from Las Vegas.
Photograph © 2017 Carey Nielsen

I know such standards would inconvenience or even anger many firearms enthusiasts but we should be able to hash out the details, streamlining the process. I know many firearms enthusiasts already take gun ownership seriously but many more do not. By implementing training standards, we will increase public competency and weed out most of the people who shouldn’t be allowed to own guns.

Training standards would prevent totally unqualified teenage boys from buying semiautomatic rifles.

Reexamining the way we treat — or don’t treat — mental illness should make a difference, too.

Is this idea perfect? Of course not, but it should dramatically reduce these daily mass shootings unique to this nation — no other country comes close to experiencing this problem like we do. Training standards would benefit us all.

A national concealed-carry is a big-ticket item greatly sought by many Second Amendment supporters — I’d trade that for establishing meaningful minimal training standards.

Whatever solutions are implemented will be interpreted as a violation of someone’s rights, somewhere. In order to keep guns out of the hands of people we all agree shouldn’t have them, it’s going to become a bit more difficult for everyone to get them.

In the meantime, one proposal being discussed could help — I hate this proposal and I hate myself for saying that it might work. If we had professional security personnel — with body armor, tactical training and armed with the same assault weapons they’re likely to face — stationed throughout schools, this should act as a deterrent in both thought and deed. I am not suggesting a single guard per school — to be effective, we’d need squad-sized details assigned to every school. Expensive? You bet, but this proposal could be implemented, unlike the armed teachers suggestion.

I think it’s awful that we are seriously proposing turning our schools into fortresses but I’m willing to try it if we also attack the sickness at its root, in addition to treating the symptom. We never should’ve let it get to the point we need to station soldiers in grade schools.

Ultimately, we have a problem and we need to do something about it.

Even free societies must have baselines and guidelines. But common-sense rules established to avert a very real crisis should not be confused with weighty terms like tyranny. Freedom isn’t a free-for-all. Without reasonable rules, we get chaos — or endless school shootings.

My niece was physically unhurt in the Las Vegas shooting but emotionally she’s scarred for life. Sweet Hannah had to witness sights, sounds and smells a normal human should never have to experience.

As things currently stand, our young children risk experiencing scenes of horror like Hannah did. No child should endure the gruesome sights, sounds and smells associated with mass shootings. No child should die of gunshot wounds at school.

Absolutely none of us should be okay with this.


This editorial was written for the McMinnville, Oregon News-Register and was published in print and online at this link.

Photograph top © 1 Oct. 2017 Chelsea Clay

8 Replies to “A picture worth a thousand rounds”

  1. Hello Matt ,
    You and I are allies when it comes to responsible gun ownership.
    Arming teachers is a bad idea for the reasons you listed.
    But the there’s no “myth” in the good guy or gal with a gun phrase. Unless one of these cowards turns the gun on himself, that’s how these horrific events end, a good guy or gal with a gun ends it.
    There’s also no myth that if gun laws stopped bad guys from getting a gun then N.Y – Chicago – Baltimore ect would safe places to walk the streets at night. Because those cities have the most strict gun laws in our nation as you know.
    And yet what we get from our elected elites ( who are surrounded by good guys with guns BTW ) is “Prison Reform” or “Defund the Police”.
    Our nation is in a crises of moral decay we see it everywhere, and these sick bastards who do these acts want to inflict the most amount of pain possible and they want to be famous be doing it.
    The vast majority of these individuals were “on the radar” of some agency and we are left to ask “why wasn’t something done?” The answer is that in a free society we don’t want to get in the habit of locking people up for a crime that hasn’t been committed, but there are consistent “tells” that raise those red flags almost every time.

    1. It’s a crapshoot when it comes to the good-guy-with-a-gun thing.

      Good guys/gals who are armed have a fighting chance when they have tactical training or military experience. We’re agreed on this point.

      But for those without tactical or military training, practicing at a range might make them fluent with their weapons and teach them steady aim but taking down a madman who’s got evil intentions, body armor, multiple weapons and nothing to lose generally takes something more than handgun competency and a good eye. In the second-to-second violent chaos that is a mass shooting, even professional law enforcement officers with tactical training have lost their lives when trying to stop the bad guy. John or Jane Doe with a Glock, good aim, noble intentions and no body armor would have to have extraordinary good luck to take out a madman like the ones I reference.

      Now if John or Jane, for example, encountered a spur-of-the-moment fight among youth in a mall and a 22-year-old thug pulled out a sidearm, John or Jane might very well put an end to a potentially fatal situation by drawing their Glock. Or if John or Jane stumbled upon a mugging on a dark city street, yes, they might well stop the attack. These types of situations are amenable to good-guy-with-a-gun salvation. In fact, most of the armed people I know would probably make me feel safer, knowing they were nearby if I felt threatened by a mugger or home invader.

      But mass shootings like the ones I’m referencing are an entirely different matter.

      When a nutcase with an armory of semiautomatic rifles and handguns, thousands of rounds, body armor and some weird grudge carries out a planned attack at a church or school or from the 32nd floor of a hotel, I have a very very difficult time believing the most earnest and courageous John or Jane stands even the tiniest chance of taking out the shooter.

  2. Thank you addressing this issue Matthew,
    Bringing the issue into the conversational level will certainly get people thinking about whether this could happen to their child or loved one. Looking toward politicians who want to get reelected aet all costs is a mistake . Perhaps some community gatherings, where ideas can be swapped and solutions sought would be a strong influence.
    I don’t think the real issue is guns,but of morals and ethics. We don’t have to look very far to see the absence of morals and ethics, especially demonstrated by certain politicians who fill the TV screen.
    Might I suggest that community discussion be instigated by our churches? A logical place, I submit. Thanks again Matthew.

  3. If you heard Biden’s speech today, the solution is to throw spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks. Oh and suing the crap out of gun manufactures. But more importantly is the message that what we need is a larger presence of the Federal Government. How many more examples ( to quote the POTUS) do we need of the gross incompetence of these “agencies” who we empower to look after these matters? Because all the signs were there….This time, the last time and I’m sure the next time.
    Meanwhile the border is wide open and we don’t know who is crossing. What could go wrong?
    These maniacs act in a singular fashion, meaning 1 person but heavily armed. So the solution is to outnumber the assailant AFTER the event starts.
    These are not serious people who weigh in on this subject in D.C. After the fake outrage is finished they will all attended the same cocktail party and slap themselves on the back telling each other we did the best we could.
    Knowing full well that they are surrounded by good guys/gals with guns. And something like this could never happen to them or their families.
    Disgusting…..

  4. Oh, and John Hinkley Jr. was granted “unconditional release” today and he has a concert performance this month in N.Y.
    So tell me, are these people serious about mental health and stopping gun violence?

  5. I’m a Vietnam Marine veteran and Central Oregon farm kid who got a .22 at 9 years, a 30-30 at 12 and a Savage 300 Magnum at 16. I know guns.
    Here’s your “mental health” problem:
    Thousands of grown men spending thousands of dollars each to buy M14 look a likes, multiple magazines holding more than a military load. Burning through cases of expensive ammo while firing at man shaped targets. All in pursuit of a hero fantasy of blowing away their neighbors of color in a race war, or worse yet our men and women in uniform in an armed insurrection against the U.S. government.
    That’s the insanity we need to deal with.

    1. The sad part is, I admire the courage it takes to step up in a horrific situation of violence and chaos. But too much television has convinced us all it takes is that courage. No split-second on-the-fly assessment, no lightning-quick reflex, no psychological discipline, no tactical training — while a person may be born with courage, all these other things can only be learned through training.
      .
      A good-guy/gal-with-a-gun could stop a mugging or maybe even an armed robbery. But a good-guy/gal-with-a-gun stopping a mass shooting planned and executed by a body-armored lunatic with multiple semi-automatic weapons, thousands of rounds and nothing to lose, man, the odds just don’t add up.

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