Could an Armed Person Have Stopped the Aurora Shooting? A Second Opinion.

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 20 2012 4:13 PM

Could an Armed Person Have Stopped the Aurora Shooting? A Second Opinion.

"The gun industry's going to take it on the chin," said Greg Block. "The Democrats are going to use this to make another run at the assault weapons ban."

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Block is a California-based firearms safety trainer, certified by multiple branches of the federal government, with 29 years of experience. I called him because I'd just written about the differences between the Aurora shootings and other incidents, cited by Rep. Louie Gohmert, where armed civilians took out killers. The question I didn't really answer: How would an armed, trained person take out a gunman like James Holmes? Block was wondering the same thing. "All you need is one person there with a gun," he said. "If this went down in Texas or Arizona, he would have died quick."

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There were members of the military in the theater, and possibly more people with training. There were, however, no guns, even though Colorado is a concealed-carry state because the Century theater where this took place was a "gun-free zone."

But what if someone had a gun? This might become an important question. We know, from recent shooting incidents, that legislation to expand concealed-carry areas is now more frequent than serious restrictive legislation. If someone in the theater were armed, how could he have reacted?

He could have drawn quickly, said Block. "I can draw and get shots off consistently in 1.3, 1.2 seconds," he said. "But it might take two seconds to fire. Why? I want to get down on my knees. You know the curvature between the two seats? That's where my muzzle is going to be. I find the V, the gap between the seats, and I move down into the row where I have a clear shot. Now, I could stand up over everyone else, and engage him. If I stand up, I can see him, he can see me. If I'm down low shooting between two seats, I have a tactical advantage. I can crawl between them, pop up, take a shot."

According to police, though, James Holmes had a series of tactical advantages. He was wearing body armor, and depending on what it was made from, it could have stopped most of the bullets fired by handguns. A ceramic plate, said Block, could stop a rifle round. "If he has a vest, you do a head shot. Body shots don't kill, headshots do." What could Holmes's riot gear helmet have stopped? "Not a darn thing. If I make a head shot I'm gonna go for soft tissue." Failing that, "I'll go for the pelvic girdle. You put three or four rounds in the pelvic girdle, you have fixed the problem."

Back to this specific situation, though. Holmes acted while a loud movie was playing in a dark theater. That, said Block could be "a great diversion" for someone trying to drop down and shoot back. But the "tear gas" -- we're still trying to figure out what kind -- absolutely gave Holmes the advantage. "All that's going to do is make people fish in a barrel," said Block. "Smoke would disorientate people. They may not even see the aisles." Any panic or movement from other people in the seats would be distracting, too. "But anybody from the military would hit the deck. They'd prone themselves between the chairs. That's how they're trained."

They'd still have to deal with Holmes's location. He started shooting from the front of the theater. "I'll be honest with you," said Block, "it's good tactics to be right in front of the screen. It's the equivalent of being against a wall. From a clock standpoint, from four o'clock to eight o'clock he's safe. Once he starts moving from seat to seat, he's a better target." But reports from the shooting suggest that the audience reacted slowly, thinking that the smoke and gunshots were a stunt. Another advantage for Holmes, buying him time, denying the chance for a quick response to anyone that wanted to act.

Again, though -- the theater was a gun-free zone. "That's where the chickens go," said Block. "They go to where people are unarmed." The shooter made a series of smart tactical decisions that minimized the risk of anyone stopping him. "I'm gonna guess one thing. He plays computer games. They'll find computer games at his house. He's not military. He's an educated kid."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.