Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"Whoever Heard of a Mass Stabbing?"

This is a question heard from the left a lot during debates over gun control - "whoever heard of a mass stabbing?" It's meant to be rhetorical and a little bit snarky, with the underlying assumption being that if would-be killers were armed with knives instead of guns we wouldn't have mass casualty incidents.

Turns out that that's not entirely the case - it is possible to have a mass stabbing. In, of all places, Texas.

There's a lot we don't know about this incident as yet. Apparently the "stabber" (we call gun users "shooters", don't we?) is still on the loose. Various points will jump out at people, depending on where you stand on gun control:

• While this qualifies as a mass casualty incident, this is 14 injured, not 14 dead. Four were transported to hospitals; some (or all) of those may die depending on the severity of their injuries. Knives are potentially lethal, but they are less lethal than guns - it's harder to kill with a knife, all other things being equal.

• A "good guy with a gun" (to borrow Wayne LaPierre's now-famous phrase) could likely have stopped this attack at any point. I'm sure there will be speculation that this didn't happen because this was a university campus, which are often accused of being gun-free zones. I don't know what the rules are in Texas or on this campus to know whether policy prevented a gun from being present. I will freely concede the point that a victim with a gun, if he or she saw the attacker coming and recognized the threat, could have shot the attacker and ended the spree.

Being a student of self-defense, I ask a different question: were all of these attacks alone and away from other people? Did the attacker sneak up on or otherwise surprise all 14 victims at close range and alone? University campuses are usually pretty well stocked with people, even in the morning. One hopes that this is not another replay of the Kitty Genovese case, with witnesses hiding or running away rather than coming to assist.

I ask these questions because, while engaging someone with a knife is always a dangerous endeavor, you don't need a gun to stop a knife-wielding assailant. You need some skill, willingness to defend yourself, and above all courage. Numbers help a lot. Two modestly skilled but determined people can overcome an assailant with a knife; three can do so fairly easily, and so on. If you're by yourself, you need more skill and knowledge of what you're doing, but it's still doable.

We won't know for a while who these victims were. Were they each alone? Were they all of a particular type? (small and female; older; distracted by cell phones?) Something apparently kept all 14 of these people from being able to stop the attacker - although it should be recognized that many of them may have successfully defended themselves if they were able to escape with only a cut or two. Of course, as soon as they were safely away they would presumably call the police - were all of these attacks within a short span of time?

I don't draw any lessons about gun control from this case - I don't think it's really relevant (although people on both the left and the right will beg to differ). To me this is a prime example of the need for individual practice in self-defense. Well north of 50% of self-defense is simply awareness; since a knife attacker has to get within arm's reach to get you, being aware of your immediate surroundings goes a long way. Unless this attacker is a super-stealth ninja, most if not all of these 14 people could be unharmed now if they had learned a proper self-defense mindset and a set of skills to go with it.

Regardless of the larger national policy debates, I think that's a hopeful truth. We can all do more to protect ourselves; we don't have to wait for the government, or the NRA, or anybody else, to do it for us. The skills needed aren't hard to acquire; they just take time, practice, and focus, much like anything else.


  1. Very well written. This is exactly the perspective I was looking to obtain, because I too have heard the "Whoever heard of a mass stabbing?" reply, and was hoping someone had made exactly this connection. Thank you!

  2. Don't forget the mass stabbing in China on the same day as the Newtown massacre...

  3. Very true, Dan. That didn't get a lot of play in the US, but it was briefly in the news. That doesn't make it any less important!