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Maria Cuomo Cole

Maria Cuomo Cole

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It Could Have Been Less Deadly

Posted: 02/26/11 12:30 PM ET

What happened in Tucson, if you were there?

Seconds felt like an eternity for those on the scene; taut cracks of sound the human mind interprets as construction noise, random shouting and people in motion. Like a short, confined, devastating earthquake or tornado that struck for no particular reason and uprooted lives.

We all heard the news coverage together, but until you spend a lot of time researching a tragedy, you don't get that sense of how small and short and focused an event one of these mass shootings is, how subject to random chance, and how dramatically different such an event can play out if a single element changes.

Because of a film project I undertook more than a year ago, I understand that now. In summer 2009, I was moved by the compelling testimony of Colin Goddard, who was shot four times in his classroom at Virginia Tech in April 2007. Since the tragic incident which left 32 people dead and 17 injured, Colin has become a leading activist for sensible gun laws. Our documentary, Living for 32, tells Colin's experience, from victim to advocate.

After listening to Goddard and other survivors recount their memories of that tormented day, listening to law enforcement experts describe the type of incident those survivors experienced, I developed a deeper understanding of what transpires in mere moments that play out like hours. I also have learned how, with a single alteration, the situations could have been less terrible -- or how they could get even more terrible.

One such scenario was what could have happened if Goddard hadn't dialed 911 on his cell phone the moment his teacher told him to, just before she lost her own life. If he didn't call 911 and get the phone to another student when he was shot, the police response might have been delayed by precious minutes, allowing the Virginia Tech killer to take the lives of more innocent victims. We'll never know, but there's a terrifying logic to the argument.

And in that regard, Tucson could have been less deadly if the killer had fewer bullets to fire before having to reload.

It was all about the ammunition magazine. You don't need a computer simulation to realize that if you exchange Jared Lee Loughner's 33 round ammunition magazine for a 10-round one, the outcome is altered, and people who died may have survived instead. Which ones? I don't know. Homicide investigators either already know or are working with crime lab technicians and medical examiners to sort out the order in which victims were shot, and at some point it will be laid down in a dark 33-step chronology. But no one disputes that the killer was stopped when he ran out of ammunition, when he was tackled and prevented from reloading.

If you understand how rapidly the magazine of a Glock 19 semiautomatic pistol can be emptied, you know what I'm talking about. And I know, because we show it in the film. A police firearms instructor empties a 15-round magazine, reloads, and empties a second one: 30 bullets in 14 seconds, including a break for reloading. Five seconds to empty each 15-round clip, four seconds to reload. That's not hypothetical -- the cameras in our film didn't lie.

The 33-round clip used by the shooter used to be illegal, until the law that the restriction was part of -- the Federal assault weapons ban -- was allowed to expire in 2004 by Congress.

Since the Tucson tragedy, many law enforcement leaders and members of Congress have called for reinstatement of the ban on ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.

When would this not be a good idea? When Colin Goddard called for closing the loophole that allows dangerous people to buy guns without a background check at most states in the nation, the gun rights community argued that the Virginia Tech shooter didn't purchase his weapons that way (although the killers at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado did get purchase their guns that way). I reject that argument as beside the point, but even if we were to accept that, then here is a case where the proposed law fits the crime it seeks to prevent like a glove. If Jared Loughner didn't have a high capacity magazine, he wouldn't have been able to shoot as many people, period.

All elected officials, Republican and Democrat, should support passing the bill introduced by New York Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, whose own husband was killed, her son injured, because of how many times a gun can be shot before being reloaded.

That killer, on December 7, 1993, emptied two 15-round magazines.

He was tackled while trying to load a third.

It sounds gruesomely familiar.