Law enforcement officials say armed bystanders drawing their own firearms complicated an investigation into a deadly mass shooting in Colorado earlier this week.
Three people were killed on Wednesday when 47-year-old Scott Ostrem allegedly walked in a Walmart superstore in Thornton, a suburb of Denver, and began firing “nonchalantly” at shoppers. According to witness reports, Ostrem then turned and left the store, sparking a manhunt.
Details about the shooting are still emerging. The suspect has a minor criminal history but not much is known about his motive, according to Thornton police spokesman Victor Avila. The Daily Beast reported on Friday that Ostrem may have been a religious Christian who was prejudiced against his Latinx neighbors. Ostrem’s victims are Pamela Marques, 52, Carlos Moreno, 66, and Victor Vasquez, 26. Moreno and Vasquez died at the scene, while Marques succumbed to her injuries at the hospital. Police officers ultimately caught Ostrem on Thursday morning, 14 hours after the shooting occurred. He reportedly attempted to flee but was trapped by traffic.
Avila said identifying and pursuing Ostrem took around five hours, a lengthy period of time made more difficult by an unexpected hurdle: the number of Walmart shoppers who had pulled out their own guns in response to the shooting.
“Once the building was safe enough to get into it, we started reviewing that (surveillance video) as quickly as we could,” Avila said. “That’s when we started noticing that a number of individuals had pulled weapons.”
He added, “At that point, as soon as you see that, that’s the one you try to trace through the store, only to maybe find out that’s not him, and we’re back to ground zero again, starting to look again. That’s what led to the extended time.”
Colorado is a “shall issue” state for concealed weapons, meaning that residents can obtain permits valid for five years, allowing them to carry a hidden firearm freely. While a few federal properties and K-12 schools are among those that ban firearms, residents with guns are legally permitted to take guns into locations like Walmart without much oversight.
The tragic shooting in Thornton isn’t the first time loose gun restrictions have sparked complications. Despite the fact that National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre has claimed that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”, that claim isn’t backed up by data or science.
When used by untrained civilians, guns rarely stop actual crime or prevent further violence. Those who own guns frequently lack the more thorough training required of those who are authorized to carry weapons in a professional capacity. And even that training isn’t guaranteed to deter tragedy — police officers frequently fire their weapons in situations where guns are not required, to devastating ends.
It is unknown if any of those who drew their weapons on Wednesday were security officers.
The danger posed by firearms hasn’t sunk in for many Americans. None of the people who had their guns drawn on Wednesday — apart from Ostrem — actually fired their weapons, something that seemed to upset other bystanders.
“Why wouldn’t they draw their guns and shoot him?” Darlene Jackson, a truck driver and gun owner, said to the Denver Post.
Of course, actually discharging their weapons could have easily worsened the situation. According to a University of Pennsylvania study conducted in 2009, the link between gun possession and gun assault is incredibly high. The study’s authors also found that those who own firearms were 4.5 times more likely to be shot than those without guns.
“A gun may falsely empower its possessor to overreact, instigating and losing otherwise tractable conflicts with similarly armed persons,” the authors wrote. “Along the same lines, individuals who are in possession of a gun may increase their risk of gun assault by entering dangerous environments that they would have normally avoided. Alternatively, an individual may bring a gun to an otherwise gun-free conflict only to have that gun wrested away and turned on them.”
Wednesday’s tragic shooting is unlikely to encourage any major steps towards gun reform in Washington. President Donald Trump has repeatedly indicated his opposition to gun control, as have numerous members of Congress. Following the deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history this past October — a mass casualty incident in Las Vegas, Nevada that left 58 dead and 546 more injured — a number of lawmakers declined to move forward with efforts to limit firearms, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
“Look the investigation has not even been completed, and I think it’s premature to be discussing legislative solutions, if there are any,” McConnell said following the attack. Pressed on the issue, he added, “I think it’s particularly inappropriate to politicize an event like this.”