EDIT: I drew most of the information for this post from the Robert Sanchez article linked below. Recently Ms Jeanne Assam herself has commented to say that the article contained some inaccuracies. She wishes to set the record straight. In the interest of honesty, I’ll leave my original text; however, I will also include Assam’s own words whenever her narrative contradicts the Sanchez article.
If you don’t already know who Jeanne Assam is or what she did, I recommend an article called “Jeanne Assam is Still Waiting“, written by Robert Sanchez for the Denver-based online magazine 5280.com.
There are certain parts of this meme that are true. On December 9, 2007, a 24-year-old man named Matthew Murray attacked two churches in Colorado. The first attack happened at 12:30 a.m. at the Youth With A Mission (YWAM) Church in Arvada. There, Murray killed two people and wounded two others before fleeing on foot. Later that day, Murray turned up at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, 70 miles from YWAM, where he killed two additional victims and injured three more. Jeanne Assam, who was present and packing at the New Life Church, confronted Murray in one of the church’s corridors and shot him multiple times. According to Sanchez, the gunman, wounded and defeated, turned his gun on himself. Jeanne Assam says:
We shot at each other and after hitting him 10 times, the last 3 rounds from only about 5 feet away and having no choice, I killed him. He gave me no choice. I don’t care what folklore you’ve read on the internet, you weren’t there. I was. You didn’t get his blood spatter on your clothes. I did. And I was no security guard, I was a trained police officer. He did not kill himself. I killed him.
Assam’s brave actions were widely noted by the media, including liberal- and conservative-leaning outlets, so the meme’s claim to the contrary is simply a lie. Still, her case seems to have new relevance in the wake of the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. If one armed church-goer could make such a difference in Colorado, could the same have happened at the Emanual AME Church where Dylann Roof murdered nine worshipers in June of this year?
Of course we don’t know the answer to that question, and we cannot infer an answer from Jeanne Assam’s special case. You see, there is another lie contained in this meme – a lie of omission – and it greatly affects how we perceive the entire gun control debate.
Jeanne Assam was not an average citizen exercising her Second Amendment rights. Prior to attending the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, she had gone to police academy and served as a police officer in Minneapolis. As a consequence of her training, she knew how to safely use a firearm. Although, according to Sanchez, she was no longer working as a cop at the time of the attack, Assam was still licensed to carry a firearm, and she had been specially appointed by the New Life Church as an armed security guard.
In Jeanne Assam’s words:
I am and was a police officer. My license was still active at the time of the shooting. I was merely a volunteer on that church security team, armed of course, because I am a police officer and the church asked me to be (although they need not have since I am always armed).
According to Sanchez, Assam and her fellow guards were already on high alert the day of the shooting because they had heard about the attack at YWAM earlier that morning. Assam says:
The next morning, same day, [Matthew Murray] emailed a warning email to New Life Church in Colorado Springs that he was coming there to kill next. I was the only person who was never told of this email (until a retired homicide detective told me about it in late 2011. I then verified this information with the Arvada PD who confirmed it was true).
In other words, Assam was not just a gun carrier; she was the ideal combination of professional experience, preparation, and bravery. Regardless of whether she knew about the impending attack or not, her professional training made her ready to respond.
That’s not to diminish the heroism of Assam’s actions, by the way, but it makes an important point that this meme conveniently ignores. Assam simply does not fit most gun advocates’ fantasy of an armed Average Joe (or Jeanne) stepping up to halt a madman in his tracks. Assam’s gun did not make her a hero; her heroism and experience made her gun an effective tool. And there are other facts of the case that are inconvenient for gun advocates’ arguments.
When Matthew Murray died, he was carrying a modified Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle, a Springfield Armory 9mm semi-automatic pistol, and a Beretta .40 cal semi-automatic pistol. An AK-47 assault rifle was found in his car, which might lead one to speculate that he was planning more violence later. All of these weapons were legally obtained, which ought to give one pause. Even while Murray posted many of his violent fantasies online – behind an identity-concealing screen name, of course – the law cleared him to amass his arsenal.
If a gun dealer of average common sense knew what Murray was planning, he never would have sold him a gun, let alone an assault rifle (one hopes). But there are no laws in place that would have revealed Murray’s plan before he committed it; in fact, only a severe violation of privacy would have exposed his intentions – and gun advocates are typically big fans of privacy. So gun advocates who say that everybody should be allowed to own military-grade assault weapons, free from restriction or oversight, are left with a quandary. Either people like Murray continue to get big guns and commit mass murders as a necessary side effect of gun advocates’ opposition to tighter regulations, or everybody submits to unconscionably intrusive psych evaluations and surrenders all of their online passwords before they get their hands on an assault rifle.
Or…or…we could just admit that private citizens don’t really need military-grade assault weapons, and that would solve the problem as well.
Now I’m not saying that nobody should have guns at all (in fact, no elected officials, liberal or otherwise, have launched serious efforts to disarm America, which means that this meme’s Official Lie Count stands at three). If Jeanne Assam had not been packing heat on that fateful afternoon, who knows how many extra people would have died? But if Jeanne Assam’s story proves anything, it’s that guns are most effective in the hands of highly-trained, morally-upright* individuals who have been appointed to the task of public safety. I doubt that many of the people who share this meme have one-tenth the training that Assam has in the safe use of firearms, nor that, placed in a similar situation, they would become the saviors they fantasize about being.
*I included the words “morally-upright” to exclude cops who have used their weapons in an act of police brutality.