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The Lessons of Aurora

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In the wake of the July 20, 2012, massacre at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, where a gunman killed 12 people and wounded most of the 58 injured, the debate over gun control flared up anew.

The Aurora movie theater was a gun-free zone in that patrons were prohibited by local law and by theater policy from carrying concealed (or unconcealed firearms) into the theater. Gun controllers argue that having someone inside the theater with a gun would not have made a difference, since the shooter, James Holmes, was heavily armored from head to foot. That is a fallacious argument against carrying firearms for self-defense. Rarely does an attacker wear body armor. The possibility that an aggressor may wear armor doesn’t negate the need for a self-defense firearm or the effectiveness of one. True, an attacker has the advantage of the initiative, but as the Aurora shooting illustrates, there was ample opportunity to limit the damage.

Even a heavily armored person has vulnerable spots that armor doesn’t cover. Moreover, body armor is bullet-resistant rather than bullet-proof, depending on the caliber, distance, and weapon used. If someone wearing high-quality body armor is hit by a .45 caliber pistol round at close range — within 25 yards — he would more than likely be knocked off his feet by the impact, even if the round didn’t penetrate the armor. If he is hit in the chest, the impact would probably break a rib or two. At close range, a 9mm round, the most common caliber used in defensive handguns today, has a greater chance of penetrating body armor, because it travels at about 1,300 feet per second, than does a .45 caliber round, which travels at about 850 feet per second. That’s one reason the military went from the .45 caliber to the 9mm: they exchanged stopping power for penetration (and magazine capacity). Even if the 9mm round didn’t penetrate, the impact would either knock the person off his feet or off balance, or break a rib, bruise a bone or muscle, or even cause unconsciousness. If the concealed-carry holder had a pistol firing a .357 magnum or .44 magnum cartridge at close range, there is little doubt that it would have penetrated the armor. (Both calibers will penetrate the engine block of an automobile.)

There are also cartridges made specifically to penetrate body armor. However, the gun-control crowd has lobbied long, hard, and successfully against such “cop killer bullets,” so they are difficult, if not impossible, for civilians to obtain.

Holmes apparently wore a Kevlar helmet. Bullets, again depending on caliber and distance, can penetrate a steel or Kevlar helmet. (Helmets are designed to protect the wearer from falling debris, not to stop bullets.) Even if a round didn’t penetrate the helmet, a strike to the helmet could have rendered him unconscious or at least disorientated him with one big headache.

The fact that the shooter was wearing so much body armor and yet surrendered to two police officers with inferior weapons immediately upon contact instead of fighting it out indicates that he feared for his life. Therefore, a determined counterattack with any caliber handgun most probably would have caused him to stop his attack and retreat. Returning fire, even without hitting an attacker, more often than not causes even trained personnel to run for cover or retreat. In addition, Holmes’s semi-automatic rifle malfunctioned. It took time for him to switch to another weapon — a shotgun or pistol — affording anyone with a handgun an opportunity to attack him. In a theater of a couple of hundred or more patrons — in the absence of laws or regulations to the contrary — one could normally expect a dozen or so people to be armed. Even if we allow for one or more of those armed to be killed or injured in the initial attack, there would still be plenty of firepower to handle a lone gunman, especially if it came from different directions.

Regardless of which side of the gun-control debate you are on, the people of Colorado and the nation have spoken. Within days of the shooting, the Denver Post reported that background checks for people wanting to buy guns in the state had jumped in excess of 41 percent, and nationwide from 10 percent (California) to 300 percent (Georgia), a rational response.

In the end, possession of a gun doesn’t guarantee survival; it only improves your chances. The question is, If you meet an armed assailant, would you prefer to be armed or unarmed?

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    Benedict LaRosa is a historian and writer with undergraduate and graduate degrees in history from the U.S. Air Force Academy and Duke University, respectively.