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.