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The Empire State Building Shooting: How Can We Respond to Gun Violence?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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By flickr user peteSwede. License CC BY 2.0

A gunman shot several people outside the Empire State Building today. Before police officers killed the suspect, ten people were shot, one fatally. Some victims may have been wounded by police officers attempting to stop the shooter.

Police are still unraveling details about the shooting, but the New York Times reported that the suspect, Jeffery Johnson, was laid off last year from his job as a clothing designer. According to Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, the suspect apparently shot and killed his former co-worker outside the apparel importer where they worked. He then walked down the street to the front of the Empire State Building and opened fire on people standing there. Johnson was found carrying a .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun.

This is just the latest of a series of violent, unexpected attacks by gunmen this summer. Each time we struggle to understand why and what we should do. Tragedies involving gun violence always renew the discussion on whether concealed carry laws give citizens the means to prevent deaths or hand killers the tools they need. Would stricter gun control choke violence at its roots? It is hard to say.

A recent graphic on our Web site shows that the average number of guns per owner has increased and that more states have laws that allow concealed weapons. Those trends are not conclusive evidence, but they do fuel debate.

In a post shortly after the Aurora, Colo., shooting in July, Eric Michael Johnson, a doctoral student in the history of science at University of British Columbia and a Scientific American blogger, explained that “[of] the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the U.S. ranks fifth in homicides just behind Brazil (highest), Mexico, Russia, and Estonia. Our nation also holds the dubious honor of being responsible for half of the worst mass shootings in the last 30 years.”

Johnson examined and dismissed several possible causes, including whether the U.S.’s grim gun violence statistics are the result of a culture that “fetishizes violence” or whether the sheer number of guns increases the number of homicides. He concludes, however, that income inequality may explain high homicide rates. If so, then we might be able to tackle violence at its source:

“The high level of inequality, both within the United States as well as between countries globally, was constructed through a process of social interactions. It can be deconstructed the same way. If the interpretation from social capital is correct, it suggests that building relationships through our schools, labor unions, farmers’ markets, and gun ranges, at City Hall and the State House, or active participation in our churches, temples, and mosques, can ultimately make us all more secure. But at the same time it means collectively challenging the policies of those high-ranking members in our society whose obsession with status leaves the rest of us completely stressed out.”

Harvard University social scientist Steven Pinker argued in a data-rich book published last year that violence overall has declined. Paralleling Johnson’s argument, Pinker cited a “culture of dignity” as the cause. As the nation is buffeted yet again by a senseless attack, take some heart that pulling together could set us on a more peaceful path.

About the Author: Marissa Fessenden is an intern at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @marisfessenden.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Forsythkid 6:07 pm 08/24/2012

    I would submit that any person who would willingly take another persons life in such a callous manner, and without regard to any innocents who might be standing in the line of fire are either a paid assassin, religious zealot or very very sick. Few, if any, intelligent and law abiding individuals would ever involve themselves in such conduct and that’s a fact that is born out every day in a country that is by all intents and purposes armed to the teeth! Get the sick off the street…exterminate the zealots and the imprisonment of paid assassins would more than likely put a great dent into the suffering. It’s sad that none of the above are happening in a society that is coming apart at the seams.

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  2. 2. GG 6:29 pm 08/24/2012

    You are very naive, if you think that gun control is the issue here.

    There are places with very lax gun control laws, and where gun violence is actually low or non-existent. New York City has some of the most restrictive gun laws on the book, and yet it experiences 1500-1600 shootings every year.

    The issue is whether you have a civilized community of people, or you don’t…Face it, New York is a cesspool.

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  3. 3. Bops 6:41 pm 08/24/2012

    Why do all the nuts seem to be gun owners?

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  4. 4. kageNoMozaiku 6:44 pm 08/24/2012

    this is nothing more then another staged violent incident to give fuel to anti-fire arm lobbyists as the government pushes ahead to disarm the public. nothing more then another 9-11.

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  5. 5. GG 7:54 pm 08/24/2012

    @Bops: Guns can give a person a false sense of empowerment. For a deranged person, this sense of empowerment can feel even more important.

    Gun owners should pass tough psychological tests, under very stressful conditions so that their mental weaknesses come to the surface. If the examination is not stressful enough, the test taker might try to game the test.

    We can learn a lesson or two from Switzerland: they have a population the size of New York city (~8 mill.), and at least 1 million guns in circulation (of which 400k are assault rifles). The number of yearly shootings in Switzerland is around 50, vs. 1500 in NYC. You explain to me how this works…

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  6. 6. idgarad 7:57 pm 08/24/2012

    How to respond to gun violence? Gun’s aren’t violent, it’s the person you have to address. So long as we keep looking at ‘gun violence’ I guess the problem will never be solved since gun’s are inanimate objects until loaded and used by the real source of violence, people.

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  7. 7. Traveler 007 9:56 pm 08/24/2012

    Since people use guns to protect themselves 1.5 – 2 million times a year, that over rides the small percentage of people who misuses them by a long shot.
    And I think you should go through all these tests before you exercise your right to free speech as you misguided thoughts on guns could help take away guns from law abiding citizens when you are talking with emotion rather than facts endangering the millions who protect themselves every year

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  8. 8. Traveler 007 10:05 pm 08/24/2012

    GG said
    “We can learn a lesson or two from Switzerland: they have a population the size of New York city (~8 mill.), and at least 1 million guns in circulation (of which 400k are assault rifles). The number of yearly shootings in Switzerland is around 50, vs. 1500 in NYC. You explain to me how this works…”

    You proved it yourself, people in Switzerland can protect themselves with their 1 million guns and people there know there is a good chance if they attack someone or break into their house, they can shoot back and they don’t know who is armed and who isn’t and don’t take as many chances

    People in New York are basically disarmed due to the draconian gun laws so the criminals know they can attack with near impunity emboldening them because they know the chance of being fired back at is near zero. The lesson we can learn from the Swiss is to arm ourselves.

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  9. 9. Emiliano 11:00 pm 08/24/2012

    Try out this scenario, Y’all. Obama and Clinton are trying to sell the idea that 90% of the guns going to the Mexican cartels come from the U.S. (whadya think Fast and Furious was all about?) So if we outlaw guns here in the States, that will give the cartels a brand-new market going north across the border—-GUNS!!! Then that would show us, (1), where the cartel’s guns are really coming from (Arab countries, African black market, etc., all already proven)—-plus, (2) we’ll be able to learn how the innocents in Mexico have to live —–and die. 60,000 deaths in Mexico in just the last few years perpetrated by the cartels alone, many of these included beheadings, mutilation, and family-cide. Only half the cops and half the Mexican Army are actually working for the government—-the rest are tied in with the cartels. If that’s how you’all want to live then just keep pushin’ for more gun control. I guarantee you’ll see guns OUT of control, only they won’t be in the hands of the righteous——-

    The gun in question in this case was bought legally, some several years ago, in Florida, I think, by the shooter, and brought to New York by that person when he moved north. I don’t know what the answer is in a situation such as this, but I’m smart enough to know that as a patriotic American and multiple gun owner, we can ill afford to “throw the baby out with the bath-water”. The quickest way I know of to produce 100,000,000 felons overnite is to outlaw firearms in the United States, myself among them. True Americans WILL protect themselves, their family, their property, people they don’t even know, their very liberty, to the death, by whatever means necessary!!!!

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  10. 10. WRQ9 12:35 am 08/25/2012

    I don’t want to attempt to lend credibility to any one of these peoples actions, they speak for themselves. I would like to say however that there are limits to human tolerance, and we have entered an era where we tend to act in an adversarial manner as a matter of course.
    These two circumstances behave in unexpected ways within society. People tend to think their personal manner quirky in a healthy way. This is very unlikely. Unless you are truly a self invented individual, it is likely your quirks have been expressed several, if not many times before. The relevance of your repartee may lend itself to argument, and it may not, in ways you might never imagine. It is more important not to be short sighted with someone you don’t really understand.
    All the rules of decency have been lost to us because a few gifted individuals ignored them with great personal style, and to great effectiveness. We turned this windfall into “The Taking Of Pelham 123″. This has been our cultural style, and we don’t seem to be growing out of it. It is a symptom of our impending cultural breakdown.
    From the simply impolite to the highjacking terrorist, there is a common thread, a sense of entitlement that eludes reason.
    This is not to say that all of these shooters are like this, they may well be breaking the bonds of repression as they act, or indeed retaliating against it in the only effective way the can imagine. The willingness to ignore the rights, or even simple humanity of individuals is what causes this, and it reflects a new tone in American social standard.
    We are free to act as we wish by constitutional right, this is undeniable. We do not all take that to mean we can ignore the effect we are having on others. To some of us, this goes without saying. To others, no amount of teaching will bring about this understanding. Many of us, lie somewhere in the middle.
    We asked for as free a society as we could get, and so we got the most complicated society we could get. Now we must be willing to learn to live within it. We need to anticipate the possibility of both a lesser and greater understanding of circumstance than our own, and be open to the various implications of that. I suppose it means we must choose our freedoms and defend them by our behavior. The abuse of momentary personal power, for example is a particular hotspot for many, and it’s abuse is rarely intelligent. If that sort of thing makes your life worth living, then to me, you are already in trouble. We all have rights by law, some, temporarily have more than others. Some people in this country have never had a moment of appreciable liberty and never will. Simply live with them in mind. I know it’s a “downer” but it makes a life a little more meaningful.

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  11. 11. Monki 12:41 am 08/25/2012

    There are many democracies not “threaten” by tyrants and other fanciful survivalist nonsence that effectively have disarmed populations. If a gun is at hand the stressed or plain nutter is likely to use it. Get rid of the guns and the killing will shift to knives and so on. But at least there is a chance of survival with weapons other than guns. The US Constitutional provision allowing the right to bear arms is the cultural elephant in the room. Sooner or latter kicking or screaming the American public are going to have to be disarmed otherwise I foresee a descent into anarchy.

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  12. 12. phalaris 1:53 am 08/25/2012

    Just how a doctoral student of the history of science feels himself qualified to make such a sweeping sociological assertion is beyond me.

    Or do we have just another left-wing hack living off public money, who senses a chance to get his snout further into the trough?

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  13. 13. adamlin747 2:51 am 08/25/2012

    I am happily suprised that this wasn’t an article on gun control. New York has some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation, and that didn’t help. Most of the worst cities in the nation have the strictest gun laws, we as a nation are finding out that these laws don’t work. We need to find better ways to dealing with such violence then making a law that only keeps guns in the hands of criminals. I applaud Scientific American for taking a non biased approach to this article.

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  14. 14. adamlin747 2:59 am 08/25/2012

    Monki you can’t with any sort of logic say that any unarmed democracy is not threatned by the lack of guns. Just because there is not a tyrant today does not mean tommorow is safe. I have a rock it protects me from bears, do you see any bears? Well then my rock works. That kind of logic is not only that of a simpelton it goes against the very idea of the scientific method. As far as disarming Americans who is going to do the disarming? Most police and military agree with the right to bear arms, and most people who don’t believe in the right do not have the means to enforce it. (If you are hoping the military will just obey an order like that you are in for a suprise as we swore to defend the constitution of the United States when we joined.) I will take free anarchy over an oppressed controlled society anyday.

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  15. 15. elbiar 4:14 am 08/25/2012

    “How can we respond to gun violence?”
    By disarming the citizens as in Scotland or in Australia, and by leaving the carrying of weapons only to the sworn persons, the police etc…

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  16. 16. Trafalgar 4:58 am 08/25/2012

    “This is just the latest of a series of violent, unexpected attacks by gunmen this summer. Each time we struggle to understand why and what we should do.”

    The dude shot one guy (a former co-worker). Then he walked around the corner, saw cops, and pulled the gun back out and tried to aim it at them – and they reacted by drawing their own guns and taking him out like anyone sensible would have done. They fired 16 or so bullets, and probably accidentally hit people nearby, considering how crowded the area was, from what the various news articles are saying.

    In this case, anyone having a gun would have changed nothing, as nobody had any time to react to him pulling his gun out to kill his victim (see ), and he was killed by the police within a couple minutes before he had harmed anyone else. If someone nearby had tried to shoot him, they probably would have hit bystanders as well, and not had the same legal protections that (I assume) the police do.

    P.S. Article has a non-truth in it, specifically, “He then walked down the street to the front of the Empire State Building and opened fire on people standing there.”

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  17. 17. ruspert 5:21 am 08/25/2012

    This instance shows what can happen with the strict gun control laws that New York has in place, an unarmed population at the mercy of outlaws.

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  18. 18. adamlin747 6:15 am 08/25/2012

    And who do you think is going to do the unconstitutional disarming elbiar? Those of us in the military swore to uphold the constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. So I would like to see someone who has more military might than the United States military make that attempt. The second ammendment was not about hunting, it was to protect you from your own tyrannical goverment. Just because the goverment of today is not tyrannical (debateable) does not mean the goverment of tommorow is secure.

    Besides criminals have a way of breaking laws that is how they um become criminals.

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  19. 19. psittacid 10:53 am 08/25/2012

    “How do we respond to gun violence?” We get half of the country to realize that scenes like this are optional and that there is a solvable problem.

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  20. 20. zsingerb 12:05 pm 08/25/2012

    Jeffrey Johnson’s gun only held 7 bullets according to police. “Before police officers killed the suspect, ten people were shot, one fatally. Some victims may have been wounded by police officers attempting to stop the shooter.” Since Johnson shot his victim 5 times, that leaves 2 bullets in his gun. If 10 people were shot, it was the police who shot most of them by accident. Sounds like we need police control, not gun control.

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  21. 21. Gatnos 3:31 pm 08/25/2012

    New York City has the strictest gun laws in the nation. No one can be armed in NYC without the permission of the local government. Mayor Bloomberg would have the whole country disarmed if he had his way. That translates into a city of victims at the mercy of the criminals and sadly the police. This incident is a prime example of why “gun control” is nothing more than feel-good political correctness that will always cost lives.

    The 2nd Amendment is not about hunting and will certainly never be out-dated. The purpose of the 2nd Amendment is self protection. It secures our God-given right of self defense against any threat, be it a criminal, mad dog, wild animal, an invading army or a tyrannical government. The Revolutionary War began when the British attempted to confiscate the colonists’ firearms.

    For those who aspire for a gun free society, I would suggest you move to Cuba or Russia, or China or even Great Britain, where people who defend themselves are thrown into jail and their property confiscated.

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  22. 22. frankblank 10:14 pm 08/25/2012

    If you want to know why anti-gun control arguments are so idiotic, just read the posters here. They are paranoid verging on psychotic. And I say that as someone who has owned a gun for 45 years. These guys make me sick.

    GG – you can’t have gun control in a city if guns are as common and available as flies a few miles outside the city.

    To the idiots that think you can protect yourselves against at tyrannical government with your bedroom full of guns, you are out of your mind. And if you think that’s reason for the 2nd amendment, you are simply ignorant. Learn something: find out what George Washington did when a few pennsylvanians got all rambunctious and rowdy against the tyrannical federal government. And try to avail yourself of a little logic: would you be any more free or safe if all handguns were outlawed tomorrow, and collected over the next few years? You can’t be a “freedom fighter” with your little glockie-wockie.

    To the guy who claims a million and a half instances of self-defense – prove it. And not with a link to a gun website run by a psychotic.

    To the idiots who claim “only criminals will have guns”- Where do you think criminals get those guns? They get them from you. And they get them from the endless number of gun stores, shows, internet sales, etc., that are enabled by the laws you support.

    To the guys who babble about “law abiding gun owners”: Doofus, everybody is law abiding until the moment comes when they are not. And the same with the psychos you guys like to mention in connection with mass murder. Are you willing to delay the purchase of a gun for the length of time it would take to find out if the guy was stable enough to own a gun? No you wouldn’t. You and the froth-at-the-mouth NRA would be going absolutely nuts.

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  23. 23. frankblank 10:18 pm 08/25/2012

    The guy who corrected the article was correct. The murderer here was not wandering around looking for more people to shoot; he was simply the traditional murderer we all know and love: a man with a grudge and a gun.

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  24. 24. Emiliano 12:35 am 08/26/2012

    This for frankblank—-try googling The Dick Act of 1902 if you want the true meaning of the Second Amendment. Even that late in the life of our young Republic, our country’s leaders intended for us to be able to protect ourselves from an overzealous governing body, the same as our original framers did. If you in fact are a gun owner of 45 years as you claim, and you can say in truth that you would never aim that gun in defence of your own freedom, then you aren’t worth the air you consume. As stated earlier by someone with obviously more intestinal fortitude than you, there’s not a man or woman wearing a U. S. military uniform that would raise his or her hand against an American populace trying to defend its constitutional rights—-they’re sworn by their oath never to do so. Google the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. While you’re at it, Google the “OATHKEEPERS”. Are you so blind that you can’t see that the Second Amendment is the only guarantee we have that all 27 Amendments will be observed?

    The figure that was quoted by an earlier poster of approx. 1.5 million annual instances of firearms either stopping or changing the face of threats of robbery or bodily harm or rape or myriad other untoward types of cofrontation, for the BETTER, is a matter of public record, available to anyone who cares enough to look, and so is for you to DIS-prove, not for me to prove.

    I don’t generally stoop to unsavory language or manner in arguing the merits of gun ownership and the use of said guns in matters of self-preservation, but your snotty demeanor says to me that you have it all figured out, without ever checking your facts, making you, Sir, an insufferable pr%@k—–

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  25. 25. G. Karst 1:29 am 08/26/2012

    Most of the bystander casualties will eventually be shown to be a direct result of police semi-auto rapid fire. As zsingerb outlines above it is simple logistics. Most probably .40 caliber from a NYPD issued Glock. Police fired 14 rounds at close range. These rounds at close range will easily punch thru a torso and wound any unfortunates behind. Throw in a few clean misses and ricochets, and it’s understandable, on a busy street. Whether it was avoidable, will be the front and center focus, for the near future.

    It is extremely difficult to “second guess” officers who face an armed killer, with seconds of decision time. A lot more facts will come out, and be judged by people, who will never have to face this situation. GK

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  26. 26. FloriodaJ782 4:18 pm 08/27/2012

    You are totally wrong. Other than the primary target, all the other people were shot by cops. Shame on you. You could care less how many people get killed as long as you make your political points.

    SHAME, SHAME, SHAME. All you liberals care about is to press your power against people.

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  27. 27. frankblank 7:24 pm 08/27/2012

    Emiliano, 1. The Dick Act? I think you’ve proved my points. What did you do, read that insane post on the fourwinds10 website? First, what a congressman says about anything, including the constitution means little beyond it being that particular bribe-taker’s opinion. Congressional legislation, for that matter, has meaning only so long as the legislation is not amended or repealed. What in the world do you think the Dick Act means? Though it refers to “the militia” there hasn’t been any such thing as “the militia” for a long time. And to control the national guard, all the president has to do is mobilize them into the Army Reserve. The second amendment, though more concerned with materiel, was a first step in getting federal control over something the states had proved, during the revolution, that they would use their petty sovereignty to withhold.

    2. How in the world do you think you know that “not a man or a woman wearing a U. S. military uniform that would raise his or her hand against an American populace trying to defend its constitutional rights”? Most of them would do what they were ordered to do. You don’t even really know what “defending their constitutional rights” means; you’re simply pretending you do in order to defend your position on the guns everywhere, guns all the time issue. Does “defending their constitutional rights” mean using the Guard to keep black kids from going to what had been defined as “white schools?” A few southern governors pretended it did. But they found their Guard mobilized, and federal troops enforcing federal law.

    2. On the 1.5 to 2. million gun defenses stopping or “changing the face of” all those robberies, rapes, murders (what does changing the face of” mean?) you are making the claim, so it’s up to your to prove it. It’s not up to me to look it up. Do you think you are the Pope, who’s infallible utterances = the word of God?

    3. Re. facts. You have no facts. You have an opinion based on paranoia.

    4. As to “pr%@k—–”, lol, I am the pr%@k—– with the facts.

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  28. 28. Diogenes11 2:33 am 08/29/2012

    As an Australian, I can see why there are so many more gun-related deaths in the USA – portability and availability to those who are unstable enough to shoot up a movie theatre.

    This explains the greater gun homicide risk in the US than UK or Australia, while death rates from other lethal instruments eg cars, which are less portable as weapons, are similar. Deaths from restricted weapons eg flamethrowers, rocketlaunchers, are similarly low due to lack of availability.

    After the Port Arthur massacre in which a crazy young man killed 35, and wounded dozens, we had a gun buy-back; where owners were given a fair price for weapons handed in. Farmers retain the right to appropriate tools – you don’t need an M16 to shoot foxes.

    Target shooters like me can have a single-shot bolt action .308 rifle, or an over/under double barrel 12 gauge clay pigeon shotgun, with regular licence checks for owner and rifle, and restrictions on storage and transport. The restrictions on me – I can’t own an M60/ Stoner/AK47/9mmGlock/micro-Uzi with 40 round magazine, I can’t leave a loaded rifle or shotgun on my car’s back seat – restrict the availability of such urban WMDs to those who may have a sudden hotheaded moment, or who plan a Columbine massacre.

    No-one needs a pistol in an urban setting, because a generally lower rate of gun ownership means fewer criminals are armed.

    The Swiss setting is different – all assault rifles are for army reservists, therefore less available to known mental patients, criminals etc. There is a much higher sentence for use of one’s army weapon in a crime, so even Swiss bankrobbers tend to use sawn off shotguns etc rather than their high-power rifles. And the Swiss are uniquely Swiss, no more prone to violence than to lack of punctuality.

    In a democracy people as a majority can choose. The question is whether you choose to arm to the teeth against potential rapists, foreign invaders and your own government; or whether you sleep better knowing that your grandson is not going to shoot his sister with your wife’s bedside .38, your teenagers can go and see Batman, or go to school or college without being shot by their peers, and your enlisted son won’t be shot on base by his Unit psychiatrist.

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  29. 29. Heteromeles 11:57 am 08/30/2012

    I’m with G. Karst. So far as I can tell from the reporting, most of the injuries were caused by bullets fired by the police. Since I recently stood in front of the Empire State Building, it doesn’t puzzle me at all that people got hit by ricochets and misses. There’s almost no way a policeman can fire in that area without hitting a bystander, given how many hundreds of people are around the Empire State Building on a given day.

    Whatever one feels about gun defense, if (as seen in the video) a man accused of shooting someone points a gun at police officers, I think it’s perfectly permissible for the officers to shoot back in self defense. Unfortunately, in that particular area, that means other people are going to get hit, because bullets have this bad habit of not stopping when they go through bodies.

    I’m slightly more concerned about the Colorado and Wisconsin shootings, if only that both suspects were on someone’s radar before they committed their crimes, but they weren’t stopped in either case. That suggests to me that our prevention systems (where we get potentially dangerous people into treatment or under restraint before they commit crimes) don’t work nearly well enough.

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