Back before Facebook, cartoon memes were photocopied and faxed from office to office. During the Cold War some of those memes involved military strategy for defeating “the Ruskies”. Among the popular memes for a while was the ICBMW: Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Winnebago. The image was of a tricked out camper with a giant missile on the roof next to the satellite dish. In front of that stood a redneck-looking guy in camo, with a rifle slung over his shoulder and a couple six-packs in hand.
On its face the image suggested “that guy would have the Kremlin shaking in their boots!” But in my neck of the woods we knew that guy was just as likely to try to shoot a deer with the damned thing. If someone did let that guy loose to roam in the back woods armed with an ICBM and a few six-packs, the worry would be that “hey y’all, hold my beer and watch this!” would be the last thing you’d hear before you died.
That cartoon was funny in part because of the juxtaposition of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of someone with drunken redneck sensibilities. We knew it would scare the hell out of the Russians because it scared the hell out of us. Where I lived, everyone knew that guy. In fact, it would have been rare at that time and place to not know a bunch of guys pressed from that mold. Hell, most of them lettered one or more sports in High School and had been hanging out together ever since.
When the first sign went up on the first Target store in the area while it was under construction, the sign was shot out the same night. It was shot out the night after it was replaced. It was shot out regularly until they put a guard there 24×7. Community sympathies were with the shooters. Developers took over prime party grounds to build a store then hung out a giant bull’s eye. What’d they expect?
More recently, there are many example incidents in which armed citizens have responded to crimes in progress. Some of these are held up as proof that arming the citizenry saves lives. But I wonder about two specific cases. One of these is when the armed population reaches a density at which more than one citizen is in position to respond to a crime. The other is that these multiple responding citizens are from my old neighborhood.
Consider the foiled recent bank holdup in Michigan in which an armed customer emptied his pistol at the fleeing robber. The robber had stuck a loaded gun in the customer’s face moments before but wasn’t shot then. The shooting occurred after the immediate threat had passed as the robber exited the bank. The robber was hit in each arm and one leg.
This is a best-case scenario. The would-be robber has a long rap sheet including 2nd degree murder, armed robbery, and more. The shooter had a legal gun and concealed carry permit. The shooter had walked out of the bathroom into the robbery in progress and been directly threatened at gunpoint. After review, no charges will be filed against the shooter. The incident is being hailed as a 2nd amendment victory.
But in this best-case scenario, one of those bullets went out the front window, across a road and two sidewalks. There was at least one pedestrian eyewitness across the street and one arriving by car, both of whom reported seeing the shooting which means they were potentially in the line of fire. I haven’t found any news reports describing how many other bullets were fired and where they ended up but enough accounts report the citizen emptied his gun that I assume there are several more stray rounds.
In a slightly worse-case scenario also in Michigan a woman at a Home Depot saw a man fleeing the store and being chased by a Loss Prevention Officer. The shoplifter jumped into a waiting SUV which then fled. The witness in the parking lot, carrying a legal pistol and concealed carry permit, opened fire on the SUV as it left. Additional witnesses reported one bullet struck the vehicle’s rear tire.
Here is a case of shoplifting where nobody was in immediate danger, the citizen fired from behind a fleeing suspect, the suspects were not known by the shooter to be armed or to have threatened anyone, the suspect vehicle was in the process of crossing the sidewalk that divides the parking lot from the street, on which there was both pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and only one of several rounds was accounted for.
These incidents involve a single armed citizen responding. Imagine you are at the same Michigan bank except that there are several concealed carry holders present when the robbery occurs. One or more of them open fire on the robber just as the guy mentioned earlier from the actual incident walks out of the bathroom. How does Restroom Guy walking into this firefight identify who is a “good guy” and who is a robber? How do the armed bank patrons engaging the robber react when Restroom Guy shows up from inside the bank and brandishing a weapon? Is he an accomplice?
With our advanced technology and highly trained troops, we still have friendly fire incidents in battlefield situations. Short of egregious disregard for safety we accept these incidents as unavoidable in the fog of war. What happens when the concealed carry density is such that there are two or three “good guys” packing heat at the bank when the robbery goes down? Not highly trained military or law enforcement, but ordinary citizens of widely varying temperament, skill, and judgement and suddenly several people are armed and shooting?
Given the statistical lack of accuracy with pistols, are we prepared to accept the stray rounds of two armed citizens responding and emptying a clip as routine? Three armed citizens? Four?
Are we prepared to accept a total lack of the of rules of engagement that trained military and police operate under? Without which we have citizens shooting at the backs of fleeing suspects after the immediate threat to life has passed? In the recent bank case at least, the answer to that one is yes. Should we go ahead and make that the policy in all jurisdictions? Because, absent of specific controls, that is the default policy.
Are we prepared to accept citizen friendly fire incidents at the bank when the situation heats up and the “good guys” have no way to identify friend or foe and shoot each other? Or when bank patrons and associates get caught in the crossfire? Because there is no scenario being discussed in the gun control debate in which a legitimate armed citizen response situation escalates to an obligation for that citizen to stand down. If one armed citizen in the bank has a right to respond, all of them do regardless of whether the firefight escalates to a fog of war situation and innocent bystanders are getting killed.
What’s the acceptable friendly fire casualty rate at the school when those stray bullets hit a child in the course of taking out a shooter? Because arming everyone isn’t actually a deterrent unless armed citizens respond. So the argument assumes armed citizen response to mass shooters, whether they are in schools, malls, workplaces.
In this scenario, the shooter is in the center of a firefight shooting out and not caring who gets hit. The armed citizens are at the outside of this circle, all aiming toward the center – and necessarily in each others’ lines of fire. When facing down a shooter with an assault rifle, who among these armed citizens is looking beyond the shooter for a clear backdrop? Assuming they do look, who among them knows which walls are masonry firewalls that might stop a bullet and which are gypsum behind which is a huddled class of kids?
Like planning chess moves, we should be extrapolating forward to imagine how the situation changes if the rising trend in concealed carry continues. The “success” stories involving armed citizens mostly involve only one responding citizen…so far. What happens when there are two, three or four responding? Does anyone think more is better in this situation?
And that assumes the armed citizen responding is sympathetic. The best of these “success” stories always involves a hard-working, upstanding, middle-class armed citizen engaged in some ordinary activity who happens on a crime in progress and wins a gun battle against a violent career criminal. This is who you are supposed to picture when you think of an armed citizen saving the day. Someone who you can relate to. Someone who makes you think “there but for the grace of God go I.” Ideally you imagine yourself at the incident and relief that the shooter was there to save you. the NRA would have you believe that’s what happens in all cases, at least for the purposes of passing legislation.
But when the discussion turns to arming citizens, it’s the ICBMW guy who comes to my mind. This is NOT the guy the NRA wants you to be thinking of during this discussion because he’s the poster child for for gun control. (And abortion and birth control, but that’s another essay.)
I don’t bring rednecks into the picture lightly. I qualified with both pistols and rifles at a summer camp in the middle of the Ocala National Forest at the age of 12. Most of the people I knew as a kid and teen owned guns and very many of those carried them loaded and in a rack in the back window of their pickup truck, either plainly visible or obscured from following traffic by a Dixie flag. The popular weekend activity was to drive out to the undeveloped forest land out back of Lake Tarpon for bonfires, beer, pot and pills. Being responsible drunk/stoned shooters, target practice at the bonfire entailed setting up hay bales or logs by the lake shore and shooting at beer cans, bottles and other improvised targets with the open lake as the backstop.
Except that many people arrived at these events by boat and sometimes drifted into the line of fire. Nobody ever got hit but there was the occasional hole in a boat which led to lots of drinking and back slapping.
“Good thing you are such a bad shot. You coulda killt me.”
“Fuck you, I was aiming at you and I’m a GREAT shot. You’re just lucky I’m too drunk to shoot straight. Chug this beer, you got some catchin’ up to do.”
There were neighborhoods directly across the lake from the farms. In a rural area with very low population density, I know of several cases of bullet holes found in boats, cars and homes after a bonfire. Occasionally, people managed to shoot each other at these events. Sometimes that was the end of it but sometimes that led to running feuds and continued violence.
And these were the good guys in this story. (Or I should say “Good Ole Boys” there.) Jimbo used to fill the back of his pickup with ice and dump a few cases of beer in. When that was all gone, he’d let out a giant belch and ask for volunteers to go on a beer run with him. They would then put the truck into 4WD and try to cover us all in mud on the way out. On one of these runs, Calvin got naked on a dare and made the trip in the truck bed laying in the ice.
This is the crowd I imagine happening onto a robbery in progress while making a beer run to the 7-11. Jimbo, Calvin, Doug and Tom drive up, each with at least 6 beers in them and Calvin naked and trying not to freeze to death in the ice. Two loaded rifles are in the rack and at least three loaded pistols in the cab. (Four if someone is holding Cal’s clothes and stuff.) Doobie and Gunnar are in the store making a munchie run of their own, both of whom are also armed, drunk and probably high. Then the two guys in the store and the four guys outside converge on the robber from different directions and into each other’s lines of fire.
In an alternate version of this scenario, the robber gets away and the guys take off after him in the truck. Jimbo is driving, Doug and Tom are out hanging the windows shooting at the vehicle ahead and Calvin – still naked – is standing in the bed, hanging onto the light bar with one hand and trying to aim and fire one of the rifles with the other. Good luck to you if you happen to be oncoming traffic or live along that road.
This scenario may seem far-fetched but I have personally seen bullet holes that showed up in boats, homes and cars after these parties.
The drunk, stoned, naked, icy beer run actually happened.
On more than one occasion I’ve seen guys standing in the bed of a speeding truck, hanging onto the light bar, and shooting. Usually it was at road signs or plate glass windows on construction sites, but occasionally at wildlife. Shooting at a fleeing robber from that position would have seemed like the obvious and natural response for these guys.
When you consider the arguments for and against gun control, it is perfectly natural to identify with the hypothetical armed citizen. Go ahead and imagine yourself in the role of responsible concealed carry gun owner and consider what you might do, how it might play out, and if you are prepared to live with the consequences if it goes bad. This will help you with your deliberations.
Just remember that whatever the decision we as a country arrive at, it also applies to Jimbo, Doug, Tom, and naked Calvin. We like to think of defending our own right to bear arms but these guys are who we are choosing whether or not to entrust with the ICBMW. In this scenario the would-be robbers and mass shooters are the Russians who are supposed to be so afraid as to be deterred by the possibility of armed citizens. Like that original cartoon, the “bad guys” in this scenario are too desperate or bat-shit crazy to actually be deterred.
Meanwhile it’s you and me, the friends, family and neighbors of Jimbo, Doug, Tom, and naked Calvin, who need to be worried about arming them. I don’t care much for gun control legislation when it’s me holding the gun. But when I think about arming those guys I want mandatory background checks, monthly inspections, certification, liability insurance, and month-long cooling-off periods. Why? Because I’d like something other than “hey y’all, hold my beer and watch this!” to be the last thing I hear before I die.