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OPINION | DANA KELLEY: Panaceas and absolutes

by Dana Kelley | July 22, 2022 at 2:47 a.m.

The probability is high that some of the people Eli Dicken saved on Sunday opposed the law that allowed him to do so.

Dicken and his girlfriend were in the food court at Greenwood Park Mall in Indiana when he spotted a man (whose notoriety will not be furthered by being named here) come out of the bathroom wielding an AR-15 style rifle.

As gunshots rang out, Dicken pulled his concealed Glock handgun, pushed his girlfriend to safety, steadied himself against a pole and fired 10 shots at the mass shooter from more than 100 feet away.

The gunman tried to retreat into the restroom, but eight of Dicken's bullets found their mark and he collapsed, fatally wounded.

Within 15 seconds, the mass shooter's attack was over. But that was still long enough for him to shoot five victims, three of whom died.

Indiana's law allowing concealed carry without a permit had only been in effect since July 1; otherwise Dicken might not have been armed. And while that legislation sailed to victory, one in three Hoosiers opposed it.

The indisputable truth is that, by the time a mass shooter in a planned attack on a populated public area opens fire, the only hope at that point is that someone else there has a gun to stop him.

Fortunately in Greenwood, a responsible armed citizen was in the target crowd, and he behaved heroically.

But the best response to a worst-case scenario is a last-resort fail-safe measure, not a policy. It's always better to avoid the worst case in the first place. And that requires healthy discourse involving acknowledgment of real-world actualities, rather than howling over panaceas and absolutes.

We all need a collective gut check about reciting simplistic soundbites instead of deeply probing hard questions.

A New York Times study purports to show that only 5 percent of active shooters are brought down by armed bystanders. Its claim that only a dozen such instances occurred in two decades from 2000-2021 seems suspect since there have been two such high-profile instances in the past two months.

(On May 28, a West Virginia woman at a high school graduation event pulled a lawfully carried gun from her purse and shot and killed a man with an AR-15-style rifle when he began shooting at partygoers.)

But the NYT's statistics are jaded for several reasons, which prompts panacea thinking.

For one thing, there's a huge difference between an unplanned "active shooter" situation in a populated area, and a long-planned mass shooting incident where targets have been chosen and cased specifically for maximum deadliness. The Times' data treat those the same.

For another, it uses the wrong denominator. An armed bystander isn't present at every shooting, so who knows how many other mass shootings would have been thwarted if an Eli Dicken had been present when they occurred? Using the same data, one can claim that in 100 percent of the instances where a Good Samaritan with a gun was present and intervened, the mass shooting was stopped.

Twisting statistics only distorts truths, and does so at the expense of real solutions.

"Get rid of guns" sounds great, but is meaningless. The percentage of U.S. households that own a gun is slightly lower than 50 years ago. That doesn't mean there are too many guns or too few, or there should be more or less. It's just a fact of life in America: Guns aren't going away.

So why are there more mass shootings now than back then? A good place to look for answers would be to analyze what's changed.

One pertinent social difference is there are a lot fewer mental asylums now than there were in 1972, which means a lot more dangerous mentally ill individuals are loose that might have been institutionalized 50 years ago.

It's impossible to know how many more mass shootings there might have been in the early 1970s if there had been no asylums, or how many less there might be today if deinstitutionalization had never occurred.

What is known is that the truly common denominator of most highly planned, selectively targeted mass shootings is their suicidal nature, indicating a serious mental disorder.

A 1984 New York Times news article reported that the release of most of the nation's mentally ill patients was "widely regarded as a major failure" by specialists in retrospect. Even then, interviewed psychiatrists primarily blamed an aspect of the problem that has grown far worse today: "the over-reliance on drugs to do the work of society."

Congress' Bipartisan Safer Communities Act includes new funding for mental health services, and requires the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System to include juvenile and mental health records for gun buyers under age 21.

That law might have prevented the Indiana mall shooter (who had a juvenile record) from buying his guns back in March.

Constitutional-carry laws and common-sense background checks both have a place in reducing gun crime. Recent events confirm it; the larger question is, how long before we as a partisan society learn it?

Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

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