In one of the deadliest U.S. shootings since Fort Hood, where Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan fired into a group of soldiers preparing for deployment, James Holmes killed 12 innocent movie-goers Friday, when he began shooting into a crowded theater in Aurora, Colorado.
Leaving more than 50 injured, those killed included a U.S. Navy Sailor and a U.S. Air Force reservist. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those involved in the tragedy, the victims, their families and those who lived through the terrifying ordeal.
My goal in this article is to deconstruct the shooting from the news I’ve been able to gather and discuss what we as responsible citizens could have done in a similar situation.
The Aurora Shooting
On Friday, July 20th, 2012, James Eagan Holmes, 24, parked his white Hyundai within 25 yards of an emergency exit door behind the Aurora, CO Century 16 theaters. Having purchased a ticket to the midnight premiere of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises, Holmes entered the theater which his car was parked behind. At some point during the movie, Homes slipped out the emergency exit door and propped it open.
Back at his vehicle, he donned an assault vest, riot helmet, gas mask, black clothing similar to that of a SWAT officer and grabbed a Smith and Wesson M&P AR-15, two Glock .40 caliber pistols (G22 and G23), a Remington 870 Express Tactical 12-gauge shotgun and tear gas canisters.
Fully armed, he re-entered the theater through the propped open door, deployed two tear gas canisters and began open firing into the crowded theater. Witnesses describe him walking up the stadium seating staircase, shooting at those closest to him. As he noticed people trying to escape the gunfire through the emergency exit door, he adjusted his fire towards them. Witnesses also describe the gunfire lasting no longer than 1-2 minutes, with 50-60 shots fired.
Holmes eventually made his exit through the same door he entered, where he was arrested by Aurora Police near his vehicle. While the timetable of the shooting is still unclear, audio of the incident shows the first dispatch at 12:39 a.m., when reports started to come in. Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates is quoted as stating that some 25 officers were on scene within a minute and a half. Oates applauded his officers for being able to pick up on a particular piece of equipment that helped responding officers distinguish Holmes as the shooter and not a SWAT Officer. He declined to get into specifics.
After his arrest, Police learned from Holmes that they might find explosives at his apartment. What Police found was a failed diversionary booby-trap he’d set up to kill anyone walking through the door. The trap was set with loud music, triggered to start after Holmes had left his apartment. Ultimately Holmes hoped the music would generate a noise complaint by neighbors and maim anyone who responded.
Investigators believe the explosion from the booby trap was also meant to lure available resources from his real target at the theater and lessen their response time to the shooting. Police have only recently detonated the incendiary explosives at Holmes’ apartment and deemed the area safe for neighbors to return.
Holmes awaits a Monday arraignment at 8:30 a.m. and is currently being held at in solitary confinement at Arapahoe County Jail.
Thoughts on the “Why”
The shooting by James Holmes was one that didn’t seem to have a clear-cut motive, beyond authorities speculating they were based on gaining notoriety or wanting to pay back society for the wrong he’d been caused in his life. I did read reports of Holmes being unhappy, being unable to secure a job anywhere but McDonalds and dropping out of his PhD program at the University of Colorado. Beyond that speculation, nothing concrete has been produced to provide a “why.”
I’ve been intrigued lately by the criminal mind, after reading The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker. In the book, De Becker states that people who commit terrible violence choose their acts from among many options that we’re all capable of imagining.
Just the fact that we’re all capable of being able to conceive terrible violence is evidence that anyone can do the same, even those willing to act on it. The real lesson from De Becker in this situation is that to work towards prediction and prevention, we have to accept that these acts are done by the “we” of humanity not by interlopers who somehow sneaked in.
Something we’ve also been seeing in the news reports from this incident are interviews from people who knew Holmes as a quiet guy, or someone who kept to himself. De Becker talks about this too as a hackneyed myth and that a more accurate statement should be “neighbors didn’t know anything relevant,” but instead news reporters present non-information as if it’s information.
De Becker states that by the frequency of this cliché, you could almost believe that normalcy is a pre-incident indicator for aberrant crime. It isn’t. However, one of the most common pre-incident indicators, is violence in one’s childhood. I’ll save the rest of De Becker’s perspective for a write-up I’ll be doing soon on The Gift of Fear, but it’s given me fantastic insight into the power of intuition and other survival signals that protect us from violence.
Of course, these pre-incident indicators would have been seen by his family and close friends, which I’m sure are being heavily questioned right now. It will be interesting to learn more about Holmes’ childhood as further details emerge, but from what’s being presented currently, he appears to have had a normal childhood.
The Police are also doing a good job in assembling evidence of “calculation and deliberation.” My opinion is that this information will be crucial in the trial to ensure that Holmes doesn’t get painted as mentally incompetent, or a “spur-of-the-moment” criminal. I believe evidence will show that these murders were premeditated and the timeline for purchasing firearms, equipment and ammunition reflects this.
This of course doesn’t suggest anyone buying firearms consecutively is planning something like Holmes did, just that putting the timeline into perspective after the fact is revealing of him ramping up for the shooting. Holmes’ purchases are interesting to look at from the timeline perspective and also from the sensationalism perspective the media is trying to manufacture.
Guns and Ammo
In looking at what Holmes purchased, it’s somewhat clear that he didn’t have much in the way of training to employ his preferred weapons effectively. Most notable is his choice to run a 100 round drum magazine that was recovered from the scene. Anyone that’s had the opportunity to fire one of these can testify to their poor reliability, at least that’s been my experience.
It’s also come out that Holmes’ AR-15 “jammed” on him, forcing him to discard it and choose another gun. However, photos show an AR-15 near the emergency exit door Holmes used with what looks like a regular AR magazine attached. He could have tried to change mags during the malfunction, not properly knowing how to clear it, then discarded the AR when he couldn’t get it working again.
In a span of two months leading up to the shooting, Holmes obtained his firearms from various retail outlets in Colorado. The first Glock was purchased at the Aurora Gander Mountain on May 22nd, the shotgun from Bass Pro Shops in Denver on May 28th and the AR-15 on June 7th. The other Glock pistol was purchased July 6th back at the Denver Bass Pro Shops.
The total ammunition acquired by Holmes from online retailer bulkammo.com consisted of 3,000 rounds of .223 for the AR, 3,000 .40 cal rounds and 300 rounds of 12 gauge for the shotgun. On July 2nd he shopped at online retailer tacticalgear.com and purchased a Blackhawk Urban Assault Vest (black), Blackhawk Omega Elite Triple Pistol Mag Pouch (black), Blackhawk Omega Elite M16 Mag Pouch (black) and a Blackhawk Be-Wharned Knife (silver). All totaling around $300 with shipping.
If you notice in this video, ABC improperly calls the Blackhawk Assault vest purchased a “bullet proof vest” when the screen clearly shows the make of the assault vest from Blackhawk and even displays “Assault Vest” on the screen. It makes me question whether Holmes was truly wearing body armor or an armored helmet.
As many shooting enthusiasts reading this will agree, the ammunition count is not hard to accumulate if you’re taking your training with firearms seriously and practicing your skill-set. Yet the media is painting this with all their buzz words about being enough ammo to for a small army and sparking their debate for another assault weapons ban.
Even one of the blogs I read on a daily basis, Mashable, managed to jump on the bandwagon. “It’s a scary list: Assault rifle with 100-round magazine, powerful .40 caliber pistols, a 12-gauge shotgun. Holmes was armed with enough weapons and ammunition to kill hundreds — if not thousands — of people. Is it a good idea to make it so easy to acquire such weaponry along with its associated ammunition? Maybe instead of gun control, activists should be calling out for ammunition control.”
What I believe is that guns are just tools and like all tools, their impact is in the hands of the user. Just like the 9/11 hijackers were able to commit their heinous acts without firearms, people intent on doing bad can and will use whatever is at their disposal. Restrictions on guns and ammo are only going to hurt the lawful citizens protecting themselves, their families and those they haven’t met yet. Not to mention the 2nd Amendment implications.
Concealed carry is legal in Aurora, like the rest of Colorado, but the Cinemark theater where the shooting took place is a “gun-free zone.” Cinemark apparently has a company policy that does NOT allow its customers to carry concealed. Some critics of Concealed Carry used this incident as an example to show how armed citizens failed to act, yet didn’t bother to research the laws preventing them from carrying that night.
Cinemark is headquartered in Plano, TX and I often go to a local Texas Cinemark carrying concealed. With the Texas Concealed Handgun Law, there have to be very specific criteria met in order to legally prevent patrons from carrying on their premises.
The law states that written communication has to be given in English and Spanish, appear in contrasting colors with block letters at least one inch in height and displayed in a conspicuous manner clearly visible to the public.
That written communication is a card or other document which is written with this exact language “Pursuant to Section 30.06, Penal Code (trespass by holder of license to carry a concealed handgun), a person licensed under Subchapter H, Chaper 411, Government Code (concealed handgun law), may not enter this property with a concealed handgun.”
I’m stating this example of Texas law to convey that as a CHL holder, if I don’t see the 30.06 sign placed in a “conspicuous manner,” I’m carrying in that establishment unless otherwise notified. There are of course other restrictions set up by that law regulating carry into government buildings, sporting events, etc.
To me, if a company chooses to display the 30.06 sign or further restrict concealed carry, I’m going to think twice about spending my hard earned money with them, or take the proper precautions to still ensure my safety and that of my family.
What Would You Have Done?
From reading what I could of eyewitness accounts, the scene was one of chaos and panic; A dark theater erupting with gunfire and tear gas. One particular account I want to share comes from 22-year-old Jennifer Seeger, an EMT student and one of the few people I’ve read about thus far with a sheepdog mentality.
Jennifer described Holmes as wearing a gas mask, a kevlar vest and appearing like he was on the SWAT team. Her details are very well presented in her interview as she describes Holmes entering through the emergency exit at the right side of the theater. His gun came within inches of her seat, which was almost the first he came to as he entered. As he passed her on his way up the stairs, she jumped into the aisle telling people that that when he runs up the stairs, they needed to crawl out.
She also recounted that it was the opposite side stairs he was moving up due to what she heard. As she moved to crawl out herself, she noticed that everyone was running back into the theater because Holmes was shooting people who were trying to escape.
“Why didn’t he take me…I honestly didn’t know what to do or what to think, I just tried to move and get out of the way and pray to god that I didn’t get shot.”
Seeger states that she was one of the last people to get out and ran into a teenage boy who was still alive and moaning. She checked his pulse and noticed it was fading, so she started telling others that “we need to get this guy out of here, he’s really critical.” She tried to pull him out to safety, but was told by others to leave him because the gunman was coming back.
She felt horrible about leaving him. “All I wanted to do is help the guy and I definitely would have given my life for the man.”
Could you have been effective in this situation? Would you have responded like Seeger did, or would you have just added your yelling to the chaos? How long would it have taken you to recognize the danger of the situation and even if you could have been carrying, how well could you have placed the shots you needed to stop the attacker? Don’t forget to imagine the dark theater filled with people running everywhere, mass panic, gunfire and tear gas.
How do you carry, do you practice shooting from that concealment? Do you train under low-light conditions or at dynamic moving targets that could possibly be armored. Do you know your capabilities and the capabilities of your carry gun. Do you know what the ammunition you carry can do? If you carry home defense ammo, have you ever shot with it? Do you know how it will cycle through your gun?
A concealed permit is only a portion of the battle we all face as responsible citizens, I’ve personally seen people who are licensed to carry that couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. Training is even more important than what most tend to focus on, such as what kind of gun to buy. No matter what you own, train to use it in every out-of-the-box situation you can imagine yourself being placed in one day.
Without a Gun or EMS
Something important to ask is whether carrying effective medical equipment to treat gunshot wounds would have saved lives. That’s the first thing that crossed my mind, what if many people in the audience had a pack of Combat Gauze in their back pocket, would they have been able to treat people quickly at the scene until EMS arrived?
As mentioned earlier, the first dispatch was at 12:39 a.m. and shortly thereafter in the audio recordings, you hear an officer ask for permission to take some of the victims by vehicle to the emergency room, as there are no ambulances on scene yet. I’m willing to bet that they didn’t have proper medical equipment in their squad cars to treat people either, but I sincerely hope I’m wrong.
This is what I’ve been preaching for years; when you need it, help isn’t coming. You can just look at typical EMS response times vs. the time it takes for someone to lose enough blood to be beyond saving. Not to mention in a situation Law Enforcement might find themselves in where it’s still to dangerous for EMS to even enter the scene.
At the very least you should get trained in basic First Aid, understanding direct pressure, how to pack a wound and place a tourniquet. Then carry what you need to do so. This is the reason we developed our EDC Trauma Kit, to fit in the back pocket of your jeans when you’re out in town and have hemostatic gauze (QuikClot Combat Gauze), a pressure dressing / makeshift tourniquet and a pair of gloves at your disposal.
The techniques I mentioned would treat the leading cause of preventable death in a situation like this, extremity hemorrhage. AKA, bleeding out. “Keep the blood in the body,” it’s a simple phrase to memorize and one I’ve always remembered since it was taught to me years ago. I have no doubt that when we learn about the causes of death from this incident, it will closely follow the empirical research from WWII until today on the leading causes of preventable combat death; 60% extremity hemorrhage, 33% tension pneumothorax and 3% airway obstruction.
Like you, I wish these 12 people were still alive today and the other physical and emotional injuries could have been prevented as well. My hope with this article is to try to learn from this tragedy and honor the memory of the brave people in the theater that night. There were sheepdogs among the audience and whether you believe in that terminology or not, these people acted to protect their loved ones and help those around them.
I trust we’ll continue to hear about the heroism amongst them as new details get released, but there’s a few I’d like to mention specifically. First off, Jennifer Seeger, whom I mentioned earlier. She was inspirational with the courage she displayed in maintaining her composure while directing people, rather than adding to the chaos. The fact that she mentioned gladly giving her life for another if she could, is something I can certainly relate to.
There were also three heroes who died saving those they loved. 26-year-old Jon Blunk, who shielded his girlfriend Jansen Young; 27-year-old Matt McQuinn, who was shielding his girlfriend Samantha Yowler and 24-year-old Alex Teves, who jumped on top of his friend Amanda Lindgren. These three women made it through the attack because of these brave individuals.
In addition to the fallen were Alex Sullivan, just celebrating his 27th birthday; John Larimer, a 27-year-old U.S. Navy Sailor; 24-year-old Jessica Ghawi, who recently survived the Toronto Mall Shooting; 23-year-old Micayla Medek; 18-year-old Alexander “AJ” Boik, who recently graduated high school; 51-year-old Gordon Cowden, a father of two; 32-year-old Rebecca Wingo; Jesse Childress, a 29-year-old Air Force reservist and six-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan, whose mother Ashley Moser is in critical condition.
President Obama has ordered U.S. flags flown at half-staff at federal facilities, public buildings, military bases and U.S. offices overseas until sunset on July 25th. I’m currently typing this from my house on Sunday, looking out my office window at our flag at half-staff, remembering those we’ve lost and all that we can do to ensure we learn what we as responsible citizens can do to prevent another tragedy like this.
- The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker
- Main photo credit: Karl Gehring / The Denver Post
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