Las Vegas 'good guy with a gun' - victim or martyr?

  • 17 June 2014
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A police officer walks away from the scene of a shooting in Las Vegas on 8 June, 2014.
A "good guy with a gun" is killed during a shooting spree in Las Vegas

Shortly after the shooting that killed 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut, National Rifle Association executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre said: "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun".

The oft-repeated line has become a rallying cry for proponents of looser firearm regulation as well as being a target of derision for those who believe that "good guys" with guns frequently do more harm than good.

The recent shooting spree in Las Vegas by two anti-government zealots, and the fate of Joseph Robert Wilcox, has added fuel to that particular fire.

Mr Wilcox drew his licensed handgun in an attempt to apprehend Jerad Miller, who had just murdered two police officers at a pizza restaurant across the street. He was shot and killed by Miller's wife, Amanda Miller, an accomplice who Mr Wilcox had not seen approach him from behind.

The Millers would later commit suicide after being surrounded by police.

Mr Wilcox was "a good guy with a gun if there ever was one", writes Sandy Goodman for the Huffington Post.

According to the NRA, he says, people like Mr Wilcox are "about the only thing keeping this country from criminal chaos is those good guys with the guns".

He says the truth, however, is that multiple studies have found that those who carry guns - even "good guys" - are more likely to be shot than those who are unarmed.

In addition, he says, gun-wielding good guys aren't that effective. He notes that a 2008 Rand Corporation report found "the best officers of the nation's biggest and arguably best-trained police department" - the New York Police Department - hit their intended target during gunfights 18% of the time (increasing to 30% when a target isn't returning fire).

"While there is little evidence to suggest that carrying a concealed weapon increases (or decreases) crime, it unquestionably raises the likelihood of guns being brandished in public," writes Michael Cohen of the New York Daily News.

"Even worse," he says, "it provides ordinary citizens - with no training in law enforcement and no understanding of what to do during an active shooter situation - the chance to make split-second decisions about the use of deadly force."

The NRA, he writes, has in effect created a nation of citizen deputies, whom it encourages to use deadly force whenever they see fit.

An undated photo of Joseph Robert Wilcox with his sisters.
Joseph Robert Wilcox (right) poses with his sisters. He was shot in the back by Amanda Miller after drawing his handgun and confronting Jerad Miller

"In the case of Wilcox, his intentions were pure," he says. "He wanted to stop a shooter, but in believing the fiction that a 'good guy' with a gun can take the role of a police officer, he became yet another victim of America's gun culture."

Meanwhile, pro-gun supporters are painting Mr Wilcox as a hero whose sacrifice is being co-opted by gun-control advocates.

Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, said that "you cannot go through life without taking risks".

"I don't think we can read anything else into this other than to say, 'Darn'," he said.

Gun-control advocates are "gleefully" trying to turn the Wilcox story to their advantage, says Bob Owens of Bearing Arms.

"It's an absurd belief, offered by individuals full of hate and cowardice with very skewed morals," he writes.

He continues:

The reality of the matter is that nothing in this world works 100% of the time. That does not mean we should abandon principles that have served us since well before our nation's official founding. The right to keep and bear armed saves lives, again and again and again. Firearms are used more times in self-defence every year - estimates range from 500,000 to more than three million - dwarfing the number of times they are used in crimes.

Nick Leghorn of the Truth About Guns says that even though Mr Wilcox died, he may have prevented a greater tragedy:

Reports indicate that the two murderers had plans to move to secondary sites and continue their killing spree, but as we've seen time and again with active shooter situations, the individuals involved immediately give up as soon as they are confronted by an armed opposition. It is tragic that Wilcox had to give his life to stop these two murderers, but there's no doubt that his actions saved countless lives.

Hero or not, writes Gawker's Adam Weinstein, Mr Wilcox probably should have turned and run in the opposite direction - although he admits that due to his own gun-friendly upbringing he might have been inclined to attempt a similar valiant act.

The questions confronting a modern-day gun owner, however, are proving too confounding to ignore, he says. How do you carry your concealed weapon? Are there places you don't take it? When do you draw it? Do you shoot to kill? How do you keep from getting accidentally shot by other armed "good guys"? What do you do when police show up?

Police Pallbearers carry the casket of slain Las Vegas police officer Alyn Beck.
Alyn Beck was one of two police officers murdered by Jerad and Amanda Miller

"The universe of scenarios in which carrying a gun seems prudent or useful just keeps shrinking and shrinking," he writes, "even as the legal freedom to wield personal firepower keeps expanding."

The simple act of carrying a firearm changes one's attitude, he writes. It encourages "a kind of hyper-vigilance that's simultaneously paranoid and arrogant. It encourages armed citizens to seek confrontations and escalate them, confident that they can end them definitively."

The Las Vegas incident is hardly the first time a nearby citizen with a firearm has been drawn into a high-profile mass shooting. In the Tucson, Arizona attack that grievously wounded Representative Gabby Giffords, a witness with a gun said he almost mistakenly shot a man who was aiding the stricken congresswomen. In a Portland, Oregon mall shooting, a man with a concealed handgun decided not return fire because he feared he may accidentally hit someone else.

Although overall gun violence is down in the US, we likely won't have to wait too long until the next mass shooting. Since 2009 the nation has averaged 16 a year (up from five a year during the first half of the 2000s).

More violence, and more opportunities for heroes, for tragedy and for gun politics.