US President Donald Trump. Photo: Bloomberg
US President Donald Trump. Photo: Bloomberg

Can good guys with guns stop bad guys with guns?

The Florida shooting is yet another pointer that solutions to human behaviour problems are not as apparent as it first seems

Immediately after the school shooting in Florida, US President Donald Trump suggested a solution to prevent such killings in future—arm teachers with guns so that they can take on any armed intruder. The logic of the solution is simple and straight forward—the good guy with the gun stops the bad guy with the gun. This suggestion is in consonance with the gun advocacy groups’ beliefs that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people".

But is the president’s solution compatible with human behaviour? Is it human nature to shoot down another human being?

Battlefields are places where one is expected to shoot down the enemy. But 1947 book Men Against Fire by Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall, changed the existing beliefs about battlefield behaviour. The study found that in World War II only 15-20% of soldiers fired their weapons at enemy soldiers in view, even if their own lives were endangered. This was the first significant study that showed that it is not easy for a normal human being to kill another human, even in war.

It did not matter how long they had been soldiers, how many months of combat they had seen, the percentage of soldiers who engaged in face-to-face killing was minuscule. Many combat veterans have not killed another person. When they did so, it was from a distance from where they couldn’t see the damage caused by the bullet to the enemy. From the Napoleonic to the American Civil War up to World War II, the intimate firing rate remained lower than 20%. The soldiers just were not interested in killing.

These findings questioned the very foundation of the existence of armed forces. Why is it that a member of the armed forces is not willing to kill his enemy, even when he knows that the enemy is going to overrun his position? Does it have to do with our evolutionary roots?

Konrad Lorenz, regarded as one of the founders of modern ethology—the study of animal behaviour—has found that inter-species killing occurs in the animal kingdom, but intra-species killing is rare. Lorenz emphasized that much animal aggression is ritualized, i.e., stops short of serious injury, and functions to establish who would win if fighting were to escalate to serious levels. Many a time when animals with antlers and horns fight one another, they head-butt in a harmless fashion. But when they fight any other species, they go to the side to gut and gore.

Although, a recent study by José Gómez, University of Granada, and work by Jane Goodall among chimps have questioned Lorenz’s views on intra-species violence in the animal kingdom, more experts support the view that almost every species has this hardwired resistance to killing its own kind.

According to Junichiro Itani, the famous anthropologist who has studied intraspecific killing of adults among non-human primates, one of the characteristics of such killing is that there are few counteractions from a third person or from the society toward the killer. Whereas we know that humans bear the moral and social burden of killing a fellow being. These burdens, along with our evolutionary trait of not killing one from one’s own species is what deters an ordinary soldier from firing his gun at another human being, even if he is rushing in to kill him.

If it is not in human nature of even a soldier to kill another person, how do we expect an untrained teacher to fire at an attacker?

When military experts across the world realized the mental block to fire at another human being, military establishments across the world made fundamental changes to the military training programmes. Armies realized that it is important to increase the emotional distance between the solider and the enemy. Therefore, several initiatives were taken to dehumanize the enemy. The less the soldier sees his enemy as a human, higher are the chances of pumping a bullet into him. Many initiatives were taken to make the training experiences mirror what the soldier will face in the actual battle field. Bulls-eye targets were replaced by human-shaped targets that appeared without warning and which fell back on being hit.

According to Dave Grossman, author of the book On Killing—The Psychological Cost Of Learning To Kill In War And Society, the new training programmes bore fruit. The firing rate of soldiers during the Korean war was 55% and it rose to 90%in the Vietnam war. But this came at a huge cost.

The high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among the millions of Vietnam veterans showed that even the new training programmes have failed to make a soldier accept and rationalize acts of killing another human being.

In normal circumstances a teacher is expected to be a caring individual who is involved in the intellectual and psychological well-being of a child. Training a teacher to shoot down a dangerous intruder will involve creating a new aggressive, ready-to-kill identity in that teacher.

It is not easy for any individual to switch between extreme identities, from being a caring person to an aggressive person, in a matter of few seconds. More so for a teacher if the armed intruder is an existing or a past student of the school. The tussle between being a caring teacher and an aggressive individual is bound to induce high stress levels among teachers.

The Florida shooting is yet another pointer that solutions to human behaviour problems are not as apparent as it first seems. One needs to work much harder to solve these human behaviour problems.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

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