It might seem intuitive that if you had a gun, you’d be safer from someone else with a gun (or any other kind of weapon). But it seems to me just as intuitive that the more guns that are available, the more likely people are to use guns—and not always responsibly. When some commentators rued the lack of more armed movie-theater patrons when James Holmes shot up a screening of The Dark Knight Rises last year, such an idea alarmed me: in the chaos and panic, what’s to stop one gun-strapped audience member from shooting another, mistaking him or her for the terrorizer? Or just some innocent victim who made a fast, suspicious, but innocuous movement? When one of the men who helped finally subdue Jared Loughner at the 2011 Tucson shooting first arrived on the scene, he pulled his weapon on a man who was holding a gun—because he had just disarmed Loughner. “I was very lucky” not to have shot that guy, he told NBC. “Honestly, it was a matter of seconds. Two, maybe three seconds between when I came through the doorway and when I was laying on top of [the real shooter], holding him down.”
He had been trained well in the use firearms, but even those with training don’t always handle their weapons properly in practice. In 2011, undercover officers attempting to arrest a man on child pornography charges shot a fellow officer as he arrived as backup and injured another. In 2012, a disgruntled man who had been fired walked up to a former coworker outside the Empire State Building and shot him in the head; when the shooter pointed his weapon at cops responding to the scene, the NYPD shot and injured the shooter—as well as nine bystanders. When a mentally disturbed man in Times Square last month “reached into his pants pocket, withdrawing his hand as if it were a gun… and pretended to shoot at some of the officers,” the Times reported, police fired and missed the man but struck and injured two female tourists. NYPD shootings of unarmed civilians aren’t unheard of, from Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell to Ramarley Graham and Noel Planco.
When I heard the story last week of the scissor-wielding man in Riverside Park who stabbed five people including a two-year-old, I was horrified, both by the violence committed and the fear of such violence being done to myself or the people I care about. But that doesn’t mean I’m applying for a concealed-weapons permit, or that I’m sure the answer is to arm park-enforcement officials, as they’ve asked (not for the first time), just as the idea of arming teachers after Newtown seemed crazy. After that mass shooting, the country spent a lot of time and energy debating proposals for more gun-control, which eventually died in the Senate. But we never did much substantial work addressing that other issue we promised to look at: improving our mental-healthcare system. If we could improve access and care for disturbed individuals with a potential for violence, we wouldn’t need so many guns to protect ourselves from them—or from the people trying to take them down.