Giffords Shooting Gun Q & A

On Saturday someone shot a congresswoman, a federal judge, and several bystanders. The congresswoman is still alive at this time. The judge, a nine year old girl, and four other people are dead. As I mentioned elsewhere, partisans are pointing the finger of blame at each other, but so far it appears the accused shooter is just crazy.  The murder of public officials is a threat to the Republic, the murder of innocent bystanders is awful, and the murder of a child is tragic beyond words.

There is plenty of news coverage, and people far more qualified than I am answering the political charges being made by the left and the MSM. Instead of rehashing the aspects that others are already covering, I am going to try to answer some of the gun-related questions and misconceptions that I have seen from people on both sides of the political spectrum. I should note that I don’t carry a gun for a living,  and am not an expert but rather a hobbyist. However I do own and shoot a number of firearms, read about firearms a fair amount, and have qualified for a concealed carry permit in my home state more than once.

Q: The shooter shot 19 people but the witnesses say that the shooting took somewhere between 8 and 15 seconds. Was he using an assault weapon or machine gun of some kind?

A: No. The weapon was a single 9mm pistol. “9mm” means the diameter of the bullet is 9 millimeters, about .35 inches. The particular pistol is a Glock 19, which is used by police agencies all over the US, as well as some military units and by private people. It fires one bullet each time the trigger is pulled.

Q: Then how did he shoot that many bullets?

A: You can easily pull a trigger 2-3 times a second if you don’t take time to aim or reload. News accounts indicate that he was only 2 feet from the congresswoman, and the other victims were close, and their movement was blocked by tables. He could just keep pulling the trigger until the gun was empty, then reload. In this case, news reports indicate that he had an extended magazine that held about 30 rounds. Assuming he had the genuine Glock extended magazine, it would hold 33 rounds. If he also started with one round in the chamber, he could have fired a total of 34 times without needing to reload.

In fact, it was the need to reload that stopped him. If you fire every bullet in a semiautomatic pistol, the slide locks to the rear. This not only shows you that the gun is empty, it means that when you reload you don’t have to pull the slide back, just let it go forward. This saves time, whether you are shooting in competition or to save your life. Eye witness accounts say that the slide had locked in the rear position and that he had another large magazine in his hand when one person grabbed the new magazine from him and he was wrestled to the ground.

Q: Why does a gun like that come with a big magazine like that?

A: It doesn’t. A Glock 19 comes with 2 magazines, each capable of holding 15 rounds. You must buy larger magazines separately.

Q: Why do they even make a big magazine like that?

A: The extended magazine was originally created for another model, the Glock 18. The Glock 17, 18, and 19 are all 9mm Glock pistols. The Glock 17 was the original 9mm pistol that Glock made. The Glock 18 was a special version made at the request of the Austrian military that could fire in fully automatic mode. Since this uses bullets REALLY fast a bigger magazine was needed. The Glock 19 is a compact version of the Glock 17, and some parts are interchangeable. Since the place where you insert the magazine is the same size and they all fire the same size of bullet, you can use magazines for a Glock 17 or Glock 18 in the Glock 19.

Q: How many magazines did he have?

A: The Washington Post said that he had the magazine that he emptied, which held about 30 rounds, another full magazine that held about 30 rounds, plus 2 magazines that held about 15 rounds. Assuming that the magazines were real Glock magazines, the large ones could hold 33 rounds. (I have seen third party magazines that hold from 29 to 34 rounds.) Assuming all magazines are Glock magazines and were full when he started, plus one round in the chamber he started off with a total of 97 rounds.

Q: But aren’t those big magazines illegal to buy or to own?

A: Some states restrict the maximum size of magazine, usually to 10 rounds. For instance, if you were to buy a Glock 19 in California you would get 10 round magazines with your weapon instead of the standard 15 round magazines. But the maximum number of rounds is a state matter.

Q: Is there some reason for having magazines that big other than to kill a bunch of people?

A: As I mentioned earlier, reloading takes time. The fewer times you need to reload, the faster you can shoot. In some timed shooting events having a large magazine can mean the difference in winning. Since there is also a carbine chambered in 9mm made by another company that uses Glock magazines, this makes the large magazine desirable for some timed competitions that involve a rifle as well. For some people shooting is a sport. In golf some people ride a cart around and get out only to make a shot or get a beer at the 19th hole, while others are in shape and walk the course. Similarly some shooters stand still and plink at stationary targets, and some participate in competitions where they must move and shoot quickly.

Q: News accounts say that the gun was purchased legally. The same news accounts say that the suspect has a criminal background. I thought there were laws against criminals buying guns?

A: There are laws against someone who is convicted of, or pleads guilty to a charge that can get you put in jail for more than one year bans you from owning firearms. This applies even if you never spend a single day in jail. It’s the length of the potential sentence that counts.  Also if you are convicted of crimes of domestic violence, even if the term would be less than a year, you are banned. (Spouses in a divorce can also get an order of protection that requires the other partner to surrender their firearms under certain conditions.)

I know nothing of the criminal background of the alleged shooter mentioned by the shooter. It could very well come down to one of those questions where you say “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” An arrest with no conviction could be a criminal background to someone. It could also be something very minor. When I apply for a concealed carry permit I have to admit that I violated a leash law in San Diego almost 40 years ago. Would someone with an anti gun agenda who had a national spotlight use that leash law violation to imply that gun laws were defective because I had a gun and a criminal background? I guess that depends on whether that person’s ethics trumps their political beliefs.

Update: Since I wrote this answer, CNN has reported that the alleged shooter was arrested in 2007 for possession of drug paraphernalia. Those charges were dismissed. Thus there was an arrest record, but no conviction that would ban gun ownership.

Q: News accounts say that the gun was purchased legally. The same news accounts say that the alleged shooter has a background of mental instability. I thought it was illegal for crazy people to buy guns. What gives?

A: The question on the Federal form that you fill out when you buy a gun asks if you have ever been declared incompetent or involuntarily committed to a mental institution. That’s a bright line where you can say either “yes” or “no.” If you don’t have a bright line like that then you have to start asking who is crazy and who gets to say so. Does your neighbor the cat lady get to report you as crazy for owning three dogs? The diagnostic manual (DSM-IV) that psychologists use says that smoking (well, nicotine addiction) is a mental illness. Shall we take the guns away from all smokers? For that matter, without the bright line, how do we deprive someone of a civil right without due process?

The news sources that I have read say that the alleged shooter started behaving oddly at the local community college he was attending last year. His behavior was so disturbing that the school wouldn’t let him come back without a psychological evaluation. He never got the psychological evaluation. If he had, and if the reports of his behavior are accurate, he might have crossed that bright line of involuntary commitment.

Nobody wants a gun in the hand of a truly crazy person. The problems involved in preventing the insane from getting a gun or disarming someone who becomes insane, and the potential for abuse of the system for political reasons merits an essay all of its’ own. The short version is that a simple system is potentially subject to a great deal of abuse by those who want to take guns from everyone, while a complex system is potentially subject to abuse by people who should have their gun rights removed.

Q: This guy was just a kid! How old do you have to be to buy a gun?

A: Federal law says you must be 18 to buy a long gun, and 21 to buy a hand gun. The alleged shooter is 22, so age was not a legal barrier.

Q: The doctors on TV say that the hole in Congresswoman Giffords’ head is bigger than the bullet. How can that be?

A: There is a whole special field of study about what bullets do to living flesh called “wound ballistics.” It’s fascinating and sickening at the same time. But the part of it that applies to this question is that there are two kinds of holes that a bullet makes, a “temporary cavity” and a “permanent cavity.” The permanent cavity is the hole that is the size of the bullet, or pieces of the bullet if the bullet breaks up. That’s the hole that you expect to see.

What we don’t expect to see is the “temporary cavity.” Our flesh is about 96% water, and aside from the bones most of the body is roughly the consistency of Jell-O, with skin to keep it all inside. If you put Jell-O on a plate instead of in a bowl, and hit it with the edge of a ruler the gelatin will sort of splash out of the way of the ruler, then close in around it. This splashing away is what flesh does as a bullet goes through. When it splashes away the large hole is the temporary cavity. When it closes back around the ruler you have the permanent cavity.

When you cause Jell-O to splash away you get the opportunity to pretend you’re in a paper towel commercial. But when flesh splashes away, you get bruising, swelling, and various other effects that vary with what part of the body is “splashed.” With some parts of the body closing down from the temporary cavity to the permanent cavity takes hours instead of seconds.

Q: An announcer on Fox News said that the congresswoman probably survived the bullet going through her brain because the bullet didn’t explode. Do bullets explode?

A: Bullets that strike a person usually will expand, fragment, tumble, or some combination of those. Some bullets are made specifically to expand when they hit. Others are made so that they will break up into pieces, each piece making a separate wound channel inside. An expanding bullet makes a bigger hole, and a fragmenting bullet makes more holes inside the person. Tumbling is just what it sounds like. The bullet hits an object and changes from a streamlined projectile to a twisted hunk of metal tumbling end over end.

That the bullet passed through the congresswoman’s head without much expansion suggests that it was not one of the types of bullets that are meant to expand or break up into fragments. The cost of ammunition has gone up considerably in the past few years, and the kinds of ammunition that expands or fragments tends to cost considerably more than the basic bullet that you might buy to practice with. It is possible that the congresswoman survived because the person who shot her wasn’t able to afford to buy the fancier kind. However, I have not yet found any account which confirms the type of bullet, so this is speculation.

Real exploding rounds are generally some kind of military ordinance that is larger than what you can shoot from a pistol, or even a rifle. Now, if you get a bunch of good old boys sitting around swapping lies sooner or later somebody will start talking about the magical round they saw somebody make that had fulminate of mercury in the tip. If you manage to make such a beast without blowing yourself up or giving yourself a case of mercury poisoning the odds are that it will blow up when you try to shoot it. Bullets that blow up while still in the gun are often rough on the person holding the gun. If you manage to survive all of that the federal government will lock you up for ten years.

Cross Posted from Beregond’s Bar.