How many guns were in Jonestown?

There were approximately 32 weapons recovered from Jonestown following the deaths – a number which cannot be considered disproportionate in a community of 1000 people – as well as an unknown (but small) number of crossbows.

In the super-heated atmosphere of hyperbole and rumor that emerged from the Guyana jungle following the mass deaths, news coverage focused on the sensational and bizarre. The genesis of the coverage was the report that numerous people in Jonestown had died of gunshot wounds. The story seemed in line with the fact that several members of the congressional party investigating Jonestown, including Rep. Leo Ryan himself, as well as several Jonestown defectors, were killed or wounded by gunfire at the Port Kaituma airstrip.

Even earlier, though, there were reports of gun-running and smuggling of weapons into the jungle encampment, and several apostates and critics described the community as an armed camp. The U.S. Customs Service investigated the reports, but couldn’t come up with much more than rumor. It repeated a statement by an unknown – probably former, probably disaffected – Temple member that she had stored more than 170 weapons in her Northern California house at one point, and that they had been smuggled down to Guyana via private aircraft.

All the reports suddenly seemed to find immediate credibility in the tale told by Mark Lane – one of the Temple’s attorneys who had been escorted from the scene of the mass deaths as they were taking place – that there was automatic weapon fire at Jonestown on 18 November. That report served only to slow the progress of the Guyana Defense Force when it went in to secure the site. Rather than approach Jonestown in vehicles, the troops walked – and sometimes crawled – in order to reduce exposure to machine gun fire.

But all the reports turned out to be false. The State Department turned over a list of only 32 weapons to the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for investigation of ownership records. In three memos from December 1978 and January 1979, ATF reported on its effort to trace as many weapons as it could – including that of the gun that killed Congressman Ryan – and, as the agency noted in its second memo, “there was no evidence to date of any violation of laws under ATF jurisdiction and that ATF had no reason to continue the investigation.” Private ownership of machine guns such as those described would have violated federal law, and indeed, the list of 32 weapons includes only three automatic pistols. (See here for ATF memos to FBI on efforts to trace weapons recovered in Jonestown.)

The reports of heavy gunfire in Jonestown were contradicted by Jonestown survivors and by the recovered evidence. Two men who escaped the rituals of mass death at the Jonestown pavilion reported a few scattered gunshots. Mr. Muggs, the Jonestown chimpanzee, was shot twice and died a few days later. Two dogs died from single gunshots. More significantly, only two people died of gunshot wounds. The location a few feet away from the gun that killed Jim Jones was consistent with the shot either being self-inflicted or fired by a second, unknown party. Ann Elizabeth Moore, a Jonestown nurse, was found just inside the door of Jones’ cabin, where several members of Jones’ leadership group died. Her wound to the head was ruled a suicide.

Another factor contributing to an assumption of the proliferation of guns was the size of the security force. Unfortunately, a definitive number on the size of the Jonestown security force will never be known. According to FBI summaries of interviews with Jonestown survivors, the people who survived the deaths – especially the young men – were generally assumed to be part of security. The members of the Jonestown basketball team who were in Georgetown the weekend of the deaths were all assumed to be part of security. The members of the Temple who lived in Georgetown – again, especially the young men – were assumed to be part of security. The effect of those reports is to inflate the true number, and even those who were on the Jonestown security force were not automatically authorized to carry weapons. In addition, according to some Jonestown tapes and conversations with Jonestown survivors, not all the weapons that members of the security force carried were loaded.

Finally, rumors circulated of Jonestown death squads, of avenging angels, and of people who had been allowed to survive in order to return to the States and kill the real and perceived enemies of Peoples Temple. As with the other rumors, the reports were exaggerated, born in a climate of fear and uncertainty, and – as it turned out – untrue.