Two Americas, Part II: Prepared or unprepared?

In my previous discussion of Timothy Egan’s New York times article, “Guns and the Two Americas”, I addressed many of the claims of fact that he made and the assumptions he holds regarding the south and American gun owners.  This time, I’ll look at Egan’s assertions about gun-free zones and the ability of good citizens to stop a mass shooter.

Egan uses the Mall of America and airports as his illustration of what we should do nationwide.  All right, let’s see if his examples really are the models of safety he wants them to be.

Minnesota’s Mall of America is officially a gun-free zone—which is to say, if you aren’t a police officer or a mall cop, you aren’t supposed to be armed.  Of course, this policy relies on a sign, not on metal detectors at the door.  Once you get inside, however, things get creepier.  Be ready to be questioned by security—in uniform or not, with actual authority to stop you or not—that could land you in the basement for a more extensive interrogation.  The Mall’s director of security in 2008, Douglas Reynolds, even claimed to be the “number-one source of actionable intelligence” to his state’s law enforcement intelligence center.

I can’t speak for Egan on this, but when I read statements like that, I wonder what country we’re talking about.  I’m stingy, and malls have very little that I ever want to buy, but this sounds more like what I’d expect in Cold War stories from the Soviet Union, not America.  As a reluctant shopper, I may not be personally affected, but as a citizen, I care a great deal.  Stories like this show how threats to liberty aren’t the exclusive action of government and how rights come as a bundle—you don’t get gun rights without defending privacy rights as well, for example.  Egan passes this off as a joke about mall cops, adding that “the Mall of America trusts them more than well-armed shoppers to protect people, as they should.”

But aren’t places with metal detectors safe?  Egan acknowledged that such devices are expensive, though he thinks more and more venues will install them.  What he offers as true gun-free zones are airports.  While we were taking off our belts and shoes, though, Transportation Security Administration agents achieved a 95% failure rate at finding weapons smuggled through by investigators, and stories about regular people getting through show up again and again—whether unintentionally or with the help of airline employees.

The fact is that there is no such thing as a gun-free zone.  There are areas where only agents of the government are allowed to be armed and areas that make being armed more difficult, but where there’s a will—or a blunder—there’s a way.  A sign at the door is not a magical circle of protection, as the recent shootings at recruiting offices in Chattanooga demonstrate.

If we admit that security theater doesn’t work, can we also challenge Egan’s belief that armed good citizens don’t stop mass shooters?  He raises the example of Joe Zamudio and the Tucson shooting in 2011 to say that good guys carrying guns pose a risk to innocents in an attack.  But Zamudio didn’t shoot anyone.  And while he didn’t stop the shooting, how could he have done so?  He was in a store when the incident began, not immediately on the scene.

Egan doesn’t mention the report, Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence, issued by The National Academies Press in 2013 that puts the number of defensive gun uses each year in the tens to hundreds of thousands.  Nor does he acknowledge the shooting at a mall in Oregon in which the attacker shot himself after being confronted by an armed good guy.  Or the Uber driver in Chicago.  (Perhaps Uber itself takes Egan’s attitude, since the company now bans drivers and passengers from carrying.)

That list of “saves” by good citizens could go on and on.  At the bottom line of all of this, I conclude that Egan does represent one part of America—a group of people who value the illusion of security and the blanket of state control over the risk of freedom and personal choice.  The problem is that these two ways of structuring a nation are mutually exclusive.  We accept Egan’s vision, or we defend rights.  That doesn’t mean we give up on reducing the number of deaths, as I’ve said before.  It does mean that we must be clear about what works, what doesn’t, and what would fundamentally change who we are as a nation.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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