As romantic fantasies go, it’s a pretty good one. You’re strolling across campus and suddenly you hear the “pop-pop-pop” of gunfire. This is what you’ve been training for those four hours it took to get a concealed carry permit. You can hit a target if both you and the target are standing still, not panting too hard, and reasonably close. You whip out your handgun from your backpack and race toward the sound of gunfire.
Except the police get there first. Like most big college campuses — including Virginia Tech — yours has its own police force. Sure, they aren’t going to get mistaken for SEAL Team Six, but they’re on site, and they get to race toward the sound of gunfire in patrol cars. And then there are the SWAT teams in armored personnel carriers and helicopters with guys holding sniper rifles and any cop within shouting distance who will be there in less than five minutes.
All of these people are looking for the same thing you are: a young male with a gun. Come to think of it, the suspect probably fits your description. With all the cops with guns flying to the scene, you’d consider yourself lucky if they gave you a chance to get on the ground instead of just shooting you. Like most romantic notions, this fantasy breaks down after you start asking practical questions.
That’s why veteran John Parker did nothing when he heard gunshots at Umpqua Community College. He had a handgun. He had the training. And he was not under fire. But he stayed put because he knew the police wouldn’t know by looking at him that he was a good guy.
“Luckily we made the choice not to get involved,” he told MSNBC. “We were quite a distance away from the building where this was happening. And we could have opened ourselves up to be potential targets ourselves, and not knowing where SWAT was (and) their response time, they wouldn’t know who we were. And if we had our guns ready to shoot, they could think that we were bad guys.”
But that’s no fun. Keep running toward that bad guy with a gun. Let’s assume you’re a minute ahead of law enforcement and you have a better-than-average fitness level. And let’s say you are no Barney Fife and know your way around your weapon. You know where the safety is, for example.
But let’s also assume that you’re not a veteran and lack combat training. You have four hours of handgun training under your belt, which, in the words of a friend of mine who is a career infantryman who has served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, “is barely enough to keep from accidentally shooting yourself in a quiet, empty room, in my opinion.”
The military trains for these situations because when you run at full speed and then point your gun at a target, you can’t control your breathing, your eyes aren’t getting all the blood they normally would, and your muscles are tired and shaking. “Being able to hit the same spots on the same target in quick succession — that can only be achieved after firing several hundred to thousands of rounds on the same weapon, preferably under physical stress,” he said, requesting anonymity because he works at the Pentagon and isn’t allowed within seven miles of the press.
But let’s assume that you’re a world-class athlete. You’re calm and controlled even after a sprint across campus. Now what?
“If you happen upon a crowded hallway or cafeteria, people are running at you — away from the source of gunfire — screaming, crying, bleeding, pushing past you or climbing over you. Maybe you’re shot yourself, and suddenly you start catching glimpses of somebody just shooting — is your first instinct to shoot? How do you know it’s not a plainclothes officer or another Good Samaritan shooting at a gunman you can’t see?” asked my friend.
Stopping a bad guy with a gun requires more than a good guy with a gun. It requires a lot of well-trained good guys coordinating with each other. This is why UT System Chancellor William McRaven told Texas lawmakers that legalizing campus carry would make us “less safe.” Of course, what does McRaven know? Sure, he is the former head of our nation’s Special Operations Command, but that was a desk job.
Our thoughts and prayers are not enough. Apparently we also need romantic fantasies of heroism.
Stanford is a Democratic consultant, author and nationally syndicated columnist. He blogs at jasonstanford.org and tweets @JasStanford.