More guns make us safer! Not.


Fort Hood, Texas, November 5, 2009. Photo from the New York Times

Yesterday’s terrible news of mass murder at Fort Hood, Texas is interesting because of its location at a military base.  We’re told over and over again by the gun lobby that if only we would buy more guns and armed ourselves at church, in school, and in shopping malls, we’d be safe from these terrible rampages.  The mass murders at Fort Hood strongly suggest that this is not the case.  Civil society still depends on a great degree of trust in each other–we have to think that we’ll be safe from most kinds of harm in order for us to go to work, to school, the supermarket, restaurants, and churches.  As it turns out, life on military bases is not so different from civilian life, and crazed gunmen can exact a terrible toll in human life even in an environment where most people have access to guns and walk around with firearms.

How many guns will it take for us to be safe?  How many would we need to carry, and how consistently, and where in order to protect ourselves from all of the disturbed, dangerous, and/or mentally ill people who are equally well-armed?  

As I walked into my 11 a.m. class today and turned on the overhead camera in order to cue up a video, CNN was reporting news of another mass shooting, this time in an office building.  Since both of these mass murders appear to be incidents of workplace violence, how many of us have co-workers who are mentally ill and possibly dangerous?

24 thoughts on “More guns make us safer! Not.

  1. even in an environment where most people have access to guns and walk around with firearms

    This isn’t actually true. Soldiers don’t carry weapons on the base and don’t have access to weapons in the way you’re implying. Weapons are checked into the armory and are only taken out for training/deployment purposes. The only soldiers who regularly carry weapons are the military police.

    The guy who was shooting was probably the only one there with a weapon.

    Also, sometimes people are reluctant to shoot back. When I was in the marines, somebody told me about an incident he’d been involved in, a marine firing on his fellow marines at the rifle range, and how they’d had to tackle him. I was like: “Tackle him!? Why didn’t you shoot him?” The guy really didn’t have an answer.


  2. how many of us have co-workers who are mentally ill and possibly dangerous?

    Now THAT’s a question. We’re talking about a spectrum here, right? There are probably a lot of mentally ill people in academia who are treated with meds and do fine and we know nothing about their mental illness.

    Academia, I think, tends to draw people who don’t work well with others. The carrot of academia is tenure, or the promise of autonomy. Its certainly not the salary. So that makes it a self-selected cohort already (skews our sample towards loners, or less collegial-types).

    The “possibly dangerous” aspect – to themselves and/or others? Again: its a spectrum, not a clear-cut question.

    Mental illness is not something to joke about. I’m an academic married to a psychotherapist. I think we have to be very, very careful – and sensitive – about the way we discuss true psychopathologies – for a lot of reasons. Language matters, and now that psychology and psychiatry has been removed from the asylum and moved into advertising, “Oprah” and Dr. Phil, we have this problem of everyone assuming they know more than they do (and that they can diagnose others). (Its not just pop-culture types; Christopher Lasch is guilty, too).

    Above I’m commenting on personality traits that might be indicative of psychological issues – but I wouldn’t make the connection or pretend to know more than I do. I’ll leave that to Dr. Laura.


  3. Interesting about the *lack* of availability on military bases, Emma. But–I presume that there are armed people much closer by than on my campus, in a church, or in a supermarket, no? (I live in a concealed carry state, but not in Texas.) Do military police just guard the gates? What role do guns play in most servicepeople’s training on a base?

    Ann, thanks for the info on the woman who brought down the Ft. Hood shooter. (As her links show, it was a local police officer, not an M.P., who shot him.) I don’t think putting women in combat roles would change all that much–either for women or for the military–but it seems to be the rubicon for the military which will not be crossed. (They keep the physical requirements–that is, numbers of pullup and pushups, etc.–for women different on purpose, to ensure that women “don’t meet the standard,” when I’m sure many could and would if expected to.) As we saw with the invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003-04, it’s the supply lines that can be the deadliest places to be. (IOW, Just because women aren’t infantry doesn’t mean they’re not in combat.)

    PorJ–it’s the “possibly dangerous” who concern me, not the merely mentally ill. You are right that there are a large number of academics on happy pills/SSRIs, for good reason I presume. From what I’ve been hearing on the news, the shooter at Ft. Hood was an extremely antisocial and even hostile person whose many co-workers back at Walter Reed thought was disturbed and possibly dangerous.

    I wonder, too, about the medical school and residency that credentialed someone like him as a psychologist. When my husband was in medical school, it seemed to me that psychiatry attracted a very strange bunch–some of whom were very smart and clearly socially adept, others of whom were maladjusted, IMHO. More disturbingly, at least among the med students I knew a little 15 years ago, some of the misogynist men were drawn disproportionately to psychiatry and OB/GYN, two subspecialties that treat either majority or exclusively female patients.


  4. Hm, too many links in my reply likely got it marked as spam 😦

    A shorter response without links:

    1) Someone has already won a 3+ million dollar lawsuit over a workplace shooting. I imagine that in time mental health screening may become part of the HR job. That worries me because there are already some people who are essentially unemployable due to poor credit and I see this as a similar catch-22 (severe depression being a basis to deny employment that further increases the depression).

    2) It’s way too easy to acquire a gun in Colorado. There are NO requirements for safety training. As long as you don’t have a criminal background you can usually buy a gun in an hour or less. Why do we require knowledge and understanding of basic traffic rules before letting a person get into a vehicle that may become lethal by accident, but require nothing at all when we sell them a weapon that is lethal by design?

    – Speaking as a gun-owner who doesn’t by the “makes us safer” argument.


  5. Interesting about the *lack* of availability on military bases, Emma. But–I presume that there are armed people much closer by than on my campus, in a church, or in a supermarket, no? (I live in a concealed carry state, but not in Texas.) Do military police just guard the gates? What role do guns play in most servicepeople’s training on a base?

    I agree with your larger point: having lots of guns in society doesn’t make us safer.

    No, there aren’t necessarily armed people closer by. After all, at U of M, campus security carries weapons.

    The military police function exactly like their name: they are law enforcement on the base. Keep in mind, though, that unlike their civilian counterparts, MP units are deployed to combat zones. I don’t know if that had any impact on what happened in Texas.

    Most servicepeople are not combat troops, they are support people: admin, cooks, mechanics, drivers, bandmembers, lawyers, and so forth. And a great big chunk of combat troops are not infantry: pilots, artillery crews, crew chiefs, tank crews, etc.

    I believe that in a non-wartime situation most, if not all, of these people would have yearly qualification at the rifle and/or pistol range, and that would be the extent of their contact with weapons after boot camp.

    Once they are scheduled for deployment in wartime, though, I believe that they would engage in extended combat and weapons training. But, even so, that training does not take place in the public areas of the base and none of those troops should have access to live ammunition outside of those training zones.

    Also, I know that there are military and base regulations re: owning and carrying personal weapons. If I recall correctly, when I was at Camp Lejeune if you lived on base personal weapons had to be kept at the armory and checked in and checked out just like your military weapon.


  6. When my husband was in medical school, it seemed to me that psychiatry attracted a very strange bunch–some of whom were very smart and clearly socially adept, others of whom were maladjusted, IMHO.

    There was a recent case of a psychiatry resident at an Ivy League medical school drunkenly hitting on women in a bar. When they rebuffed him, he got angry, threatened to shoot the place up, and brandished a gun. The police arrested him, and when they searched his apartment, they found a motherfucking ARSENAL of weapons.


  7. Excellent post – if you need a further argument, the gun that this guy used in Ft Hood was NOT military issued!! He actually went out of his way to buy weapons to kill people – and it was so easy for him to do so!


  8. There are a couple things that strike me as relevant. The first is that these incidents occur in places where people are concentrated: army bases, workplaces, schools. I wonder about the connections between our advanced industrial model of everything and the ways in which creating havoc in these same sites becomes attractive to people who feel unheard or frantic or invisible, in part *because* of their connections to these sites. In other words, in these tragedies the availability of guns are a critical factor at the culminating moment, but really not until then.

    Second, as many people know, we had a fatal shooting last year at Zenith, and it was one of those moments in which gun proponents would say that if the victim, or anyone in the room had had a gun, blah blah. Now in this case that wasn’t true: a man who had stalked this student for several years walked up to her in disguise and shot her before she or anyone else had had time to react. Like Ft. Hood, someone else with a gun might have brought him down, but significant damage would have occurred prior to that, as an untrained person made the effort to bring him down. At Ft. Hood, it was an off duty cop — the kind of person who is trained exhaustively for such a situation — who did it (and a woman, yay), not a private citizen.

    The idea that private citizens could be capable of responding well and safely in such a situation is part of what makes many of us think the gun lobby has a weird nineteenth century romance about public safety. And yet, when we were all locked down for hours at Zenitih last spring, I felt so vulnerable — and so helpless, knowing that I could not protect myself or the people who worked for me if the gunman was able to enter our building — I thought for the first time about buying and learning to use a handgun. I still no longer feel safe at work, and gun ownership still occurs to me. The only things that stop me are that I am morally opposed to handguns, I am not sure I could kill a person if I needed to, and my friends would think I had lost my mind if they knew.

    In addition, during this crisis, and prior to knowing anything about the identity of the shooter, two of us who were locked down together believed that it was a strong possibility that a student in our class was the gunman. This student had clearly been crumbling emotionally for weeks, had admitted he heard voices in his head: he was obviously having a break of some kind. We had been working with the deans on this, but it had never occurred to us that he was dangerous to others (it turned out he was not the shooter.) Reflecting on it, I would say I’m not sure I would even go there *now*, but I would also say that people who are familiar to us are still familiar, even when deranged, and it is more likely to imagine violence coming from a stranger. This is in part why family violence is so difficult to deal with, within and outside the family: incredibly enough, from both vantages it’s hard to recognize for what it is.

    But it is also why, although it seems unlikely after the fact that no one “did anything,” people don’t act to isolate and care for such a person. Add to that, certain kinds of derangement emerge in situational ways. The Fort Hood shooter was frantic not to be deployed — many people probably thought this was reasonable, and putting together his internet postings as a sign that he was about to snap doesn’t seem obvious to me. Our student (repeat: we only thought he *might* be the shooter) was not handing work in, sleeping in class (unless he was saying bizarre things about class readings he had not done), and had suddenly begun to cross dress. The behavior was excessive, which is what caused concern on our part, but none of this is unusual at Zenith.

    Sorry to go on so long……..


  9. TR–thanks for your thoughts. You’re right that putting an end to these mass-murders (or even the murder of one student in broad daylight at Zenith) demands complexity, rather than the simplicity of “more guns.”

    As for the mental illness issue: there are probably a lot of certifiable people out there (like your student) whose behavior and demeanor are commented on for months or years who never pick up guns and murder people. One striking commonalities of these murderers is not just that they’re all men, but that they’re men who are recognized as being maladjusted and isolated, and moreover they’re men who have serious problems relating to women. Their problems with women may or may not be directly related to their murderous rampage (as it was with the murder on your campus, or in the health club in Pittsburgh a few months ago), or it may not (as in the Ft. Hood case and the Orlando office shooting yesterday), but all of these murderers had problems relating to women.

    Perhaps the DSM should include misogyny in the differential for psychopathic violence.


  10. PorJ writes,

    “Academia, I think, tends to draw people who don’t work well with others. The carrot of academia is tenure, or the promise of autonomy. Its certainly not the salary. So that makes it a self-selected cohort already (skews our sample towards loners, or less collegial-types).”

    This is a very interesting question that goes beyond the realm of not working well with others and/or being a loner. I have met a good number of people in academia who are depressed and or anxious, etc. and would not be able to function in settings that do not provide the autonomy of the tenure track.


  11. Their problems with women may or may not be directly related to their murderous rampage (as it was with the murder on your campus, or in the health club in Pittsburgh a few months ago), or it may not (as in the Ft. Hood case and the Orlando office shooting yesterday), but all of these murderers had problems relating to women.

    The Fort Hood murderer had been unable to find an appropriate wife, and it clearly played a role:

    His failed search for a wife seemed to haunt Hasan. At the Muslim Community Centre in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, he signed up for an Islamic matchmaking service, specifying that he wanted a bride who wore the hijab and prayed five times a day.

    Adnan Haider, a retired professor of statistics, recalled how at their first meeting last year, a casual introduction after Friday prayers, Hasan immediately asked the academic if he knew “a nice Muslim girl” he could marry.

    “It was a strange thing to ask someone you have met two seconds before. It was clear to me he was under pressure, you could just see it in his face,” said Prof Haider, 74, who used to work at Georgetown University in Washington. “You could see he was lonely and didn’t have friends.

    Now, on to the psychiatrist as particularly disturbed type of medical practitioner. There’s evidence for this:

    But because the spam filter trapped me before, I am going to do another post with my larger point….


  12. My larger point is that all professions that self-regulate (like medicine, or academic history) will have difficulty dealing with – and punishing – those who transgress the boundaries of accepted practice. Bledstein’s Culture of Professionalism (I think that’s the title – its been a while since comps) explains how professionals remove themselves from public scrutiny, introduce specialized knowledge and specific jargon, and self-regulate in an attempt to rationalize the marketplace. This was Milton Friedman’s first great work, by the way, when studying the medical cartel from an economic perspective. By mystifying their work, the can claim the kind of autonomy and professional responsibility that would otherwise be impossible to achieve.

    Now, in medicine, there’s the problem of malpractice which stymies a lot of serious introspection. A new group, however, is trying to get doctors to admit mistakes in exchange for malpractice protection (as a form of tort reform):

    They are running into all kinds of difficulties. But medicine – and medical education, in particular – breeds a sense that practitioners must represent themselves publicly as almost invulnerable authorities. The psychological toll this takes has been written about and is a staple of TV (look at the difference between Dr. Marcus Welby MD and ER, or Scrubs, etc.).

    Getting a history Ph.D. breeds a similar sense of authority. Mastering the norms and standards of the profession supposedly protects the scholarship from imposters and inaccuracy. The problem is: how does that profession look when Michael Bellesiles wins its highest award (the Bancroft Prize – since rescinded) and is then unmasked as a fraud by a legal scholar and community college instructor?

    There are many, many cases of the professions incompetently policing themselves. Its not just psychiatry; if you’ve never read the rather amazing story of the surgeon Dr. David Arndt, I’d recommend it to you:


  13. PorJ–you’re right about the self-regulating professions. We could also add the law and clergy, too. I just know of a lot more weird psychiatrists than I know weird or possibly dangerous historians. There are a few history graduate student/recent Ph.D. commenters here who have been banned who were I think borderline (and who clearly had problems with women). I don’t feel the need to give disturbed people a platform to spread their negativity.

    I don’t think the lesson of the Bellesiles case is that he won a big award and then ultimately lost his job. (Interesting that you chose his case as an example here, since it was the radical pro-gun/NRA types who targeted Bellesiles’s book whose work aids and abets these murderous rampages.) I think the big lesson of the Bellesiles case is that this is what happens when an organized and well-funded political movement decides to harrass and punish someone for writing a book, and when no one in his profession stands up for him. I don’t know if you read his book–I have, because it’s pretty close to my own research. I mostly disagreed with his conclusions and thought that he overlooked some evidence or read his evidence in curiously one-dimensional ways, but I can’t say that he set out with evil in his heart to commit fraud. (I cite his book in my book, both parts where we disagree and parts where we agree.) There are a lot of books in my footnotes that I regard in the same fashion: useful and solid in parts, mistaken in others.

    A major point that gets lost whenever a case like this becomes national news is that we’re allowed to disagree with each other–everyone reading this who has published an article or a book knows that there are people in their profession who will disagree vehemently with their research and conclusions–but that doesn’t make us wrong. And even if we’re wrong–that’s OK too. That’s how scholarship works. (Think of Calvin Martin’s Keepers of the Game.–that’s what I think would have happened with Bellesiles’s book had it not come under political attack. It would be read because it’s a provocative idea, but most people would conclude that it was a mistaken one.

    The book got a lot of buzz because it was published by Jane Garrett at Knopf, and I wonder how many people–either his supporters or detractors–actually bothered to read the damn book. (One of the hazards of trade publishers, apparently, is the lack of peer review.) The historical profession was caught flat-footed by the NRA, which apparently believes that there is only ONE right answer to any historical question or problem, but it’s a much harder idea to sell that history is an ongoing conversation rather than a game of Jeopardy. The more nuanced judgment of this book was starting to appear by 2002 (see the William and Mary Quarterly forum on the book), but the academic press and historians move too slowly to compete in the mainstream press with the NRA. Make no mistake–it was their money and muscle, and not Jim Lindgren, who brought Bellesiles down.

    In neither version of the story does the historical profession look courageous or noble. The book didn’t deserve the Bancroft, but neither did it deserve infamy.


  14. On Bellesiles: Had I read his book I would have believed it for 2 reasons: 1. It accords with my political position (to some extent), and 2. I believed his sourcing met professional standards of historical inquiry.

    My point is that it wasn’t the profession that discovered his errors (or malfeasance) – it was outsiders. Even if it was an extremely well-funded NRA campaign against him, shouldn’t he have been protected by professional standards of historical inquiry? He cited archives that no longer exist, and he either “erroneously reported” or “fudged” or (use your own word)archival sources. This is trust is the basis of the entire profession: we take it for granted that after earning a Ph.D. a scholar is trustworthy enough to accurately report archival material. Otherwise the profession couldn’t exist; we can’t check every footnote in every book. He violated that trust, and it has nothing at all to do with interpretations or theories. He didn’t lose his tenured position because of his interpretation, he lost it because of the same kind of research irregularities that would get scholars in other fields fired.

    As to the NRA, if we’re professionals it should be irrelevant who holds us to our professed standards, right? Where, precisely, does politics come into the premise that all historical evidence is presumed to be reported accurately (again: interpretation is a different question)?

    Back to Hasan. Here’s my point and why the linkage matters. Its been reported that he made at least two professional presentations, one to a conference of psychologists and psychiatrists, and one to a class in a Public Health Masters program, in which he professed outrageous, questionable, and violent ideas. The people in the room did not report him. This could be for two reasons. In this article, one of the attendees in the Public Health seminar said he feared being called racist. That’s the easy way out.

    The more difficult thing is to acknowledge that as Professionals we’re trained to protect our own in the interest of autonomy and professional responsibility. Obviously Hasan felt safe to profess his ideas in the confines of the seminar room or professional conference, because we can’t throw every nutball out of the profession for acting oddly or possessing and professing ideas that makes us uncomfortable, angry or scared. But if he were one of our students saying the EXACT same things, we’d have no problem reporting him to a supervisor.

    There’s price to be paid for protecting our own, and we have to acknowledge it – regardless of the profession.


  15. I have to say I’m generally much more worried about my students than my co-workers, safety-wise. I was tangentially involved in a situation a few years ago (all of this sounds vague, but I was in a position to really know all the details) where a student was called into a professor’s office because ze had plagiarized. The student didn’t exactly come clean, but accepted the “F”, and the prof decided no other “charges” would be filed (with the judiciary, etc). The student went to the local gun shop, bought a handgun, and shot hirself. Before shooting hirself, ze wrote a long rambling suicide note full of rage and blame, listing those who had done hir wrong by name, including the professor in question. The tragedy of the situation was enormous & multifaceted, but I couldn’t help thinking, what if that student had gone a rampage instead of become suicidal? It’s a terrifying thought, that some seemingly small encounter with a student could turn into violence.


  16. When the 2nd Amendment comes up, why is it that there is no focus on the 1st clause, “A well-regulated militia …” One detail we learn from Ft. Hood is that “a well-regulated militia” restricts access to guns and ammunition by its members? Why would they do that? Perhaps because the military KNOWS that guns are DANGEROUS and have the potential to be MIS-USED!!!


  17. Perpetua–that’s an awful story. And Michiganian, I always use the Second Amendment when trying to show my students how important clarity is in their writing. There’s no question but that that’s a CF of epic proportions, probably because the so-called “Founding Fathers” didn’t really know what they wanted to say.

    And, PorJ: I agree with you on the importance of policing our own, but I totally disagree with you that the Bellesiles case is a great example of the absence of this. As I said, in going to a trade publisher, Bellesiles wasn’t subjected to the traditional peer review that other serious books in our profession get. And like I said, professional historians were rendering their (dim) judgment of the book–see the William and Mary Quarterly entire issue devoted to pouring cold water on this in 2002. But, because well-funded political interests got the jump, Bellesiles got the gate. It wasn’t just so-called “outsiders” who were skeptical of Bellesiles’ claims, it was a lot of “insiders” (myself included.)

    I maintain that it’s OK to be wrong when attempting to create new knowledge.


  18. Its simple. Detante…Everyone is a deterrent..Get a Gun,learn how to use it. This massacre could have been largely avoided with maybe one or two wounded or maybe none.Anyone jumping up on a table and yelling Allau Akbar
    would have been an easy target.Instead this Muslim terrorist following the ideology of Islam stood shooting and reloading for nearly 10 minutes while helpless soldiers were murdered.That’s’ right folks its terrorism plain and simple and it is rooted in Islam.Should you carry a gun? Not for everybody. But those who pass the test should, to protect those who cannot.


  19. The idea that the NRA had anything substantial to do with the Bellesiles case is utter nonsense.

    I just tried to think what I had ever heard about their involvement.

    1. Before the book came out, Charlton Heston criticized it in a column in a magazine (after Heston had read a news article on the forthcoming book). Bellesiles more than effectively responded with a direct assault on the NRA, enlisting several dozen scholars for his public letter sent to the NRA.

    2. Much later Clayton Cramer asked the NRA for a small travel grant to check Bellesiles’s sources and he was turned down.

    3. When the dispute was nearly over, I read about a Senator attacking Bellesiles in a speech at the NRA convention.

    4. Other than a review co-authored by Cramer in Shotgun News and some additional very derivative news articles updating members on developments in the press, that’s all I remember seeing or hearing from the NRA over the 2-3 years of the dispute.

    I didn’t regularly see what the NRA sent to members and I doubt that any of the other relevant academics or administrators did either. I think that if the NRA were involved in the Bellesiles affair in any significant way I would have heard something about it.

    Just what is it that the NRA is supposed to have done when it wouldn’t fund — even modestly – Cramer’s researching the book?

    And what is the process by which the NRA influenced the History Chair at Emory and Emory’s Provost to institute a formal investigation, or influenced Bellesiles’s colleagues at Emory to find against him, or influenced the outside panel (including a signatory to Bellesiles’ anti-NRA letter) to find against Bellesiles, or influenced the Provost at Columbia to instigate a review of the Bancroft Prize, or influenced me, or influenced Robert Churchill, or influenced Eric Monkkonen, or influenced the Wm & Mary Q. reviewers?

    From what I’ve seen from afar, the NRA mostly concentrates on 3 things: raising money, publishing magazines, and lobbying Congress.

    After the Bellesiles affair was over, I asked someone familiar with the NRA why the NRA was so savvy to stay out of it and let the academics handle it. The answer I got is that the NRA wasn’t savvy so much as it is suspicious of academics, whom they neither understand nor trust.

    Spreading patently ridiculous NRA conspiracy stories is frankly ahistorical.

    Jim Lindgren
    Northwestern University
    J.D. – Ph.D.


  20. Pingback: Wrung out. | Historiann

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