Howard Unruh. Odds are you’ve never heard of him. He was born in 1921 and raised in Camden, New Jersey, not far from where the poet Walt Whitman lived in his declining years. He was a shy, unassuming, working class kid who took a blue-collar job out of high school, and when World War II broke out, he signed up with the Army.
He was assigned to the 342nd Armored Field Artillery of the 89th Infantry Division. His unit fought in several major combat operations in Europe, including the relief of Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge. By all accounts, he was a good soldier. Followed orders, fought well, killed several enemy soldiers, earned some commendations, and at the end of the war, after three years of military service, he was honorably discharged.
Like a lot of veterans, he had trouble adapting back to civilian life. He suffered from a lot of free-floating anxiety, argued with his neighbors, was mocked and harassed for being gay, kept track of slights and insults in a notebook. Then on September 6, 1949, after breakfast with his mother, Howard Unruh dressed himself in a brown tropical-worsted suit, put on a striped bow tie, and laced up his old Army boots. He loaded the Luger he’d taken from the body of a dead Nazi during the war, left his house, and began to walk down the street shooting people.
He shot people he thought had treated him poorly. And he shot people who were somehow associated with somebody he thought had treated him poorly. And he shot people who just happened to be passing by. He killed thirteen people in all; the oldest was 68, the youngest was two weeks shy of his third birthday. It all happened in a span of around twenty minutes.
Howard Unruh can be considered the progenitor of the modern mass murderer. He never stood trial for his crimes because he was adjudicated legally insane (though by modern standards, he’d almost certainly be considered fit to stand trial). When he died just over eight years ago in the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, hardly anybody noticed. He’s probably only remembered by criminologists.
Here’s why Howard Unruh is important today. He committed his murders with a Luger P08, a semi-automatic pistol which Guns and Ammo magazine called “the most important automatic pistol ever.” It held eight rounds. Eight rounds, which means Unruh had to reload at least twice and probably three or four times (several of his shots missed). It took him around a third of an hour to kill 13 victims.
A week ago Nikolas Cruz killed 17 and wounded 14 in less than six minutes. In 2012, Adam Lanza killed 27 in less than five minutes in the Sandy Hook massacre. In 2007, Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 and wounded 25 others in less than nine minutes during the Virginia Tech shooting. Last year, Stephen Paddock killed 58 and wounded over 400 people in about ten minutes. And just to repeat myself, it took at least twenty minutes for Howard Unruh to kill 13 people.
Do the math. Then consider whether banning magazines capable of holding 30 rounds would reduce the butcher’s bill.
It’s worth noting the very last public statement Howard Unruh made. He was being interviewed by a psychologist. He said:
“I’d have killed a thousand if I had enough bullets.”
Today, he could have had enough bullets.
Since Saturday, I’ve had a raging debate on my FB page (and a kinder, gentler talk on my blog) about this very subject. I’ve been studying the heck out of laws around the world to curtail gun violence, notably looking at Canada and Switzerland and Germany, but perusing others, as well. The one thing I’ve learned the most is that folks who believe in the right to bear arms in America have no tolerance for history lessons, statistics, or international comparisons. There is only one American logic, and I must have heard it twenty times in the last 4 days:
“Guns don’t kill people.”
I assume they would tell you that bullets don’t kill people, and you would rightly assume they didn’t read your whole story.
Thank you, Greg, for being a voice of sanity after a week of absorbing so much of the opposite. The United States of America needs better gun control laws, those in line with the rest of the modern world, where the incidents of murder, mass murder, and gun murder are a fraction of ours. If a bunch of fellas 240 years ago tell us we can’t, it’s time to finally tell them they were wrong.
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Guns don’t kill people…an argument so stupid that it creates a vacuum in the room. Sure, it’s technically correct, but still profoundly stupid.
Let’s just extend that argument. Cars don’t go fast; people go fast. People in cars go faster. Submarines don’t dive; people dive. People in submarines dive faster and deeper and longer. Power tools don’t drill holes; people drill holes. People with power tools drill holes easier and more quickly. Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. People with guns kill more people with less effort and in less time.
And hey, let’s get more specific. Guns don’t kill people; angry men with guns kill people. It’s not mental illness, it’s not violent movies, it’s not video games. It’s angry men who kill people in the U.S., and angry men with guns kill them more efficiently and with less thought. Angry men without guns kill more folks in Canada, in Switzerland, in Germany (where they also have mental illness and violent movies and video games), but because they lack easy access to firepower, they kill significantly fewer people than the angry men with guns in the U.S.
Yeah, it’s the guns. And Tom, you’re doing a good thing by engaging with folks who make stupid arguments.
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Excellent. Well said sir
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Thank you for this. I had never heard of hm. I do know of the young girl in the 70s who lived across from an elementary school & started firing through her window.
Brenda Spencer. Now there’s a sad, tragic story. After an incident in which she used a BB gun to shoot some of the windows of her school, the authorities believed she was depressed and possibly suicidal. They recommended she be hospitalized, but her father refused his permission. That Christmas she asked her father for a radio. Instead, he gave her a rifle and some ammunition. She told the police she thought he’d done that so she would kill herself. It was just a month or so after Christmas that she shot at the kids gathered at the gate to the school.
And of course, she’s best known for telling a reporter the reason for the shooting: “I don’t like Mondays.” Which became a song, a hit by the Boomtown Rats.
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Yes! I watched a documentary recently. I have a morbid interest in these kinds of things but I think it’s the psychology behind it that fascinates me, But I think the documentary was made in the early 2000s. She’s been trying to get released & she finally came forward saying her father sexually abused her. She had never told anyone before except therapists in prison. I don’t if there’s truth to it, but something “triggered” her.