22. Families of Slain Sue Aurora Theater

May 11, 2016

In the news today is a story about a civil suit brought by the families of the killed and wounded against Century 16 theaters, claiming that the theater should have provided more security.

The theater responds that James Holmes was a madman, an ‘evil genius’, who was hell-bent upon destruction, that his arrival was unpredictable and that he was unstoppable.

Two important clues mitigates against that theory.  1) Holmes was wearing body armor and was heavily armed.  2) And when he was confronted at his vehicle by police, he surrendered immediately and without resistance.   From these facts, as a former forensic psychiatrist, I infer that he was very concerned about getting hurt.  Just guessing,  I’d say that like most people who act like bullies, he was himself a cowardly person.  My speculation is that there is a good chance he would have folded immediately if taken under fire.  And of course he might or would have stopped shooting if wounded or killed.

In 2012 the population of Colorado was 5,192,000.  At that time the number of concealed weapons permits existing in the state was 139,560, meaning that as many as 2.7% of Colorado’s citizens habitually go armed.  In a theater reported to have contained 400  patrons, statistically speaking, there would have been, on average, 10.68 armed patrons, had the management of the theater not reduced that number to zero by posting “No Guns” signage prohibiting law-abiding citizens from entering the theater armed.

With everyone in the theater crouching to flee, except the shooter who remained upright, it would have been likely that some of the armed patrons could immediately have returned fire, either hitting the shooter or causing him to stop shooting and flee.  This is not at all unlikely, and in fact is exactly what has happened in some previous active-shooting situations.  One that comes to mind is a shooting in a southern church where the shooter was immediately shot and killed by a young woman congregant who was armed.

In the Gabby Gifford shooting, an armed Safeway patron had emerged from the store and, having heard the shooting and screaming, was standing concealed, having drawn a bead on a man with a gun standing in the parking lot.  The man with the gun was not aiming it at anyone, and turned out to be someone who had taken the gun from the shooter.  The armed patron very wisely had waited until the situation became clear before opening fire, and in the end, holstered his weapon without shooting.

Century 16, as its management argues, may not reasonably have been expected to provide armed protection to its patrons, but in this case, if earlier news reports were right about the sign banning firearms, and its “no guns” policy,  it may have consciously and intentionally adopted a policy that prevented patrons from protecting themselves.  It will be interesting to see whether the courts consider that argument.

There is one further speculative argument.  It has been argued hypothetically that a rampage shooter might intentionally select a “No Guns” area, in which case that policy actually exposes patrons to a slightly nigher risk of harm even when it doesn’t actually  happen.