In at least one way, the Aurora movie massacre was pretty typical: The perpetrator was the only guy in the room with a gun.
It was like that at the 1991 Luby’s Cafeteria massacre in Killeen, Texas (23 killed, 20 injured), at the 1984 McDonald’s massacre in San Ysidro, Calif. (21 killed, 19 injured), at the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre in Blacksburg, Va. (32 killed, 23 injured), and at several dozen other restaurant, school, post office and shopping mall massacres over the past 60 years. The story is almost always the same; none of the victims are armed, so no one shot back, and the perpetrator had his way with them.
In the case of the Aurora massacre (12 dead so far, 58 injured), there were more than 300 people in the theater when James Holmes allegedly started shooting and no one shot back; that suggests the theater was 99.66 percent gun free. And that alone tells you that the sort of disarmament gun control advocates want does not prevent mass murder, it enables it.
The Aurora massacre was typical in another way as well: The police did not intervene in time to prevent the killings.
It’s not like they didn’t try. The elapsed time between the first frantic calls to 911 and the arrival of the first officers on the scene was roughly 90 seconds. Chances are it will never get much better than that. But by the time officers actually entered the theater, alleged gunman Holmes had left it. He was arrested outside the building.
The police response in Aurora was orders of magnitude better than the police response at Columbine High School, where hundreds of officers from all over the metro area rushed to the school but didn’t enter it for hours.
But the fact remains that even with a near-instant response, the police couldn’t intervene quickly enough to stop the killing. It ended when the shooter had his fill. The truth is that, with rare exceptions, the only people who can stop a massacre are the people being massacred — but they rarely fight back.
Fighting back is a broader concept than shooting back, although it embraces the latter. It may mean throwing things at the shooter and trying to swarm him, or barricading a door, or taking on terrorists with whatever weapons you can improvise, like the tea cart on Flight 93.
There’s a lot that can go wrong when you choose to fight back, but fighting back is probably the only thing that can stop a massacre once it begins. But you have to be mentally prepared to do it. Most people aren’t.
It was not for lack of courage and gallantry that people in the audience didn’t fight back in Aurora; at least three men died protecting their girlfriends with their bodies. When you are the target of a surprise attack, like the Aurora shooting or similar rampage, that may be all you can do. But chances are you won’t be able to fight back more effectively unless you prepared yourself to do so, physically, but above all, mentally, well in advance.
Here’s how Jeanne Assam, the former Minneapolis police officer who took down Matthew Murray, a gunman intent on mass murder at New Life Church in Colorado Springs on Dec. 9, 2007, recently described her mental state at the time of the shooting. Assam was working on the church’s security detail that Sunday. Murray had already killed two people in the church parking lot and wounded three others. Earlier, he had shot four others, two fatally, at a missionary center in Arvada.
“I didn’t want to kill anyone,” she said, “but he gave me no choice. When that gunman entered the church with his AR-15, I wasn’t afraid, I didn’t get tunnel vision, and I didn’t have any problems breathing normally. I was in my element and I knew exactly what to do. Yes, I knew there was a chance I could be killed, but that fact didn’t deter me for a minute, nor did it frighten me for a second. We shot at each other. While I hit him multiple times, he missed me.”
Assam brought 15 years of police training and experience, as well as years of both secular and spiritual mental preparation to her rendezvous with destiny. She also brought a gun.
The important point is that when evil appeared with little warning, she was both mentally and physically prepared to confront it — and she successfully did so.
Most people will never have the sort of preparation and experience that Assam had. But many ordinary people will be called upon to confront evil during their lives, and maybe the real lesson of Aurora is that the time has come for the schools and other societal institutions to routinely teach the fundamental skills they will need to do so, and survive, instead of teaching them how to be victims.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.