“Fourteen-year-old Michael Carneal steals a gun from a neighbor’s house, brings it to school, and fires eight shots into a student prayer meeting that is breaking up. Prior to stealing the gun, he had never shot a real handgun in his life. The FBI says that the average experienced law enforcement officer, in the average shootout, at an average range of seven yards, hits with approximately one bullet in five. So how many hits did Michael Carneal make? He fired eight shots; he got eight hits, on eight different kids…. Nowhere in the annals of law enforcement or military or criminal history can we find an equivalent achievement. And this from a boy on his first try.
“How did Michael Carneal acquire this kind of killing ability? Simple: practice. At the tender age of fourteen he had practiced killing literally thousands of people. His simulators were point-and-shoot video games he played for hundreds of hours in video arcades and in the comfort of his own home.”
Descriptions like this one (from the book Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill by Dave Grossman and Gloria DeGaetano) of the 1997 Paducah, Kentucky school shooter are dramatic, even breathless. Whenever such horrible incidents take place, pundits and attorneys are quick to raise the claim that first-person shooter video games can turn a novice into an accurate and deadly marksman with a real weapon. That issue was put forth following Columbine, Virginia Tech, the DC snipers, and a host of other shootings. But does it make sense? We tried to find out.
There’s no question that George Harris can make you a better marksman. As the director of Sig Sauer Academy in New Hampshire, he designs and teaches a wide range of firearms courses for federal, state and local law enforcement officers as well as for the public. He’s run seminars for the firearms instructors at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, and has been a nationally ranked competitive shooter for many years.
As we drove around his sprawling facility, Harris proudly pointed out the sniper training area used by police departments from throughout New England, and the “shoot house” used to train SWAT teams. A group of federal air marshals practiced firing at a gun range next to the classrooms. At another range down the road, a police unit worked on tactics. The reports of their high-powered rifles and large-bore pistols punctuated our conversation.
Harris has devoted his life to studying how people learn to shoot. His eldest son, a former police officer, is now an executive with a major video game publisher. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that when we asked what seemed to us like a simple question, he gave a thoughtful, complex and nuanced answer.
“Playing some types of video games can help you identify and respond to targets quickly,” he said. (His observations are in line with the experimental work of Daphne Bavelier, Ph.D. that we describe in Chapter 9.)
But what about the traditionally taught components of good marksmanship such as stance, balance, breath control and follow-through? Clearly, those aren’t components of video games.
“Those are important for competitive target shooting, but not for combat situations,” said Harris. Through the window we could see an air marshal a few dozen yards downwind. The instructor had him on his back, shooting targets from unusual positions. It seemed to emphasize Harris’s point.
He added that linking video games to the supposedly precise aim of the shooters in school shooting cases misses some critical factors. The first is that hitting a large target, such as a person, is not difficult at all. It takes little more than the ability to point, especially if the victims are not moving quickly and are close by, as was the case at the schools.
“Beginning shooters have a self-preservation response—a flinch—when they fire a gun. But in these school shootings, the victims are so close to the shooter that jerking the trigger really doesn’t matter,” he added.
As for Lee Malvo, the young DC sniper, Harris said that those shots were also pretty easy for a beginner, especially one who, like Malvo, had practiced with the real rifle. “He had a stable position, a telescopic sight, lots of time to aim, and targets who were standing pretty still,” Harris said.
Which leads us back to the claims made by Grossman about Michael Carneal, the 14-year-old school shooter in Paducah, Kentucky. First, he’s making inappropriate comparisons. Unlike the situations described in the FBI’s statistics, Carneal was not involved in a “shootout.” He was the only one with a weapon; no one was firing at him. He was also much closer to the other students than seven yards. He simply walked up to them and fired.
Grossman also has his facts wrong. According to a report published by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, Carneal did have experience firing guns. “He snuck into a friend’s father’s garage and stole a .22 pistol and ammunition, the gun he ultimately used in the shooting. He had previously fired guns with this young man and his father….After school on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving [five days before the school shooting], Carneal went to a friend’s house, and they used the pistol for target practice on a rubber ball.” (page 140)
But what about his supposed remarkable accuracy? Picture the scene: It’s 7:42 a.m., the start of the school day. Students crowd the lobby of Heath High School. A prayer group has gathered in that lobby for its daily meeting. “Just as the group was finishing its morning prayer, Carneal slowly fired three shots and then five in rapid succession, making an arc around the lobby. He would later say that he was not aiming the weapon but simply firing into the crowd.” (pages 141-142)
So it was not precise marksmanship at all; just bullets shot into a crowd of helpless students.