Following the slaughter of elementary school children in Newtown (CT), Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, stated: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” This statement was not only highly insensitive in removing the focus from the children and their grieving families, but was also cynical and dishonest, as LaPierre suggested that arming school staff was the only way to avoid such slaughters. Every other advanced country has figured out a way to protect their children without turning schools into armed fortresses.
Consider the logic of arguing that more guns will reduce incidents of gun violence. It is like saying that the best solution to opiate addiction is to make opiates more accessible or that our best means of tackling an influenza epidemic is to expose more people to the agent involved.
Following America’s worst church mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, much was made by gun rights advocates about the confrontation of the shooter by an armed resident as he left the church and the pursuit by truck of the shooter by the resident and another individual. The church shooting was not stopped by the armed man but it has been claimed that the perpetrator may have harmed others had the armed citizen not intervened. That is an unknown but the large-scale shooting (26 killed, 20 wounded) occurred before the armed resident became involved.
Previous incidents illustrate how infrequently armed private citizens intervene successfully to stop a shooting. An FBI study of 160 active shooter incidents from 2000-2013 found that just one of these incidents was stopped by an armed civilian. By contrast, 21 incidents were resolved when unarmed individuals restrained or confronted the shooter. Louis Klarevas, author of Rampage Nation, examined potential and actual mass shootings from 1966 to 2015 and found that just one twentieth of one percent (about one in every 2,000 cases) is successfully stopped by an armed civilian.
If arming civilians produced a net benefit with regard to public safety, we would expect places with more guns to have fewer crimes. The US has about 90 civilian-owned guns per 100 people, the largest civilian arsenal on the planet. At the same time, the US stands alone among high-income countries with a gun homicide rate that is 25 times that of the aggregated rate for other high-income countries. This pattern is repeated at the state level where states with higher levels of gun ownership tend to have more, not fewer, gun deaths. In the five states with the highest gun death rates, half of all homes own a gun. In the five states with the lowest gun death rates, just one in 7 homes owns a gun.
Each year, 90,000 US households are interviewed in the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). This survey, which does not cover homicides or suicides for obvious reasons, reveals about a half million gun crimes a year. In addition, based on surveys of the prevalence of domestic violence, there are likely several hundred thousand gun threats each year against targeting domestic partners and other family members. If the number is 200,000 (a conservative figure), the total number of harmful gun uses a year is in the 750,000 range. The NCVS finds that the annual number of defensive gun uses against attackers is under 50,000. Therefore, criminal and other harmful uses of guns likely outnumber defensive uses by a ratio of at least 15:1.
David Hemenway and Sara Solnick of Harvard used NCVS data to see examine the frequency and consequences of defensive gun uses in 14,000 personal contact crimes committed when the victim was present. They found that fewer than one percent (.9%) used a gun in self-defense. They also found that using a gun for protection, as opposed to taking some other protective action, did not diminish the chances that a victim would incur an injury.
Genuine defensive gun uses are not just infrequent; gun carrying raises the risks of deadly mistakes and confusion during active-shooter incidents. On July 7, 2016, an individual opened fire and killed five Dallas police officers. The officers were on duty to provide security at a demonstration in which the killing of African-American men was being protested. About 20-30 open-carry activists were also on the scene, carrying assault weapons and wearing fatigues and body armor. Police Chief Brown stated that the armed individuals impeded the law enforcement response as they created confusion as to who the shooter was and whether there were multiple shooters.
Another side effect of an increase in gun carrying is more gun thefts from cars. These thefts are skyrocketing—2-3.5 million firearms have been stolen in the last decade– and they are more commonplace in states in which more people carry firearms outside the home. States in the South (e.g., Texas, Georgia, and Florida) with the most permissive gun laws are overrepresented among states with the largest number of guns stolen between 2012 and 2015.
Currently, 12 states do not require a permit to carry a firearm and this list has been growing. Even in states requiring a permit, the vetting and training of permit applicants do not even approach the standards for law enforcement officers. Since May 2007, concealed carry permit holders have killed more than 1100 people and have committed many other crimes, including 31 mass shootings and 19 police officer killings.
Joseph Vince is a former agent with the ATF for 27 years and is one of the leading experts on firearms and gun-related crime. He and his associates state that for a citizen to carry a firearm, training should include mental preparation, knowledge of the law, judgment, as well as expertise and familiarity with firearms. They recommend basic initial training to receive a permit and biannual recertification to maintain the permit. Both training and recertification should consist of decision-making during real-life scenarios, shooting accuracy in stressful situations, and firing range practice.
While half the states require some firearms training in relation to an application for a gun carry permit, most of the features emphasized by Vince et al. are seriously lacking in most states. For example, Florida law does not specify the content of these courses, only the qualifications necessary for instructors. There is no test for retention of the information covered about the law or the handling of a firearm, no test of marksmanship—a few shots are fired down the range or into a barrel—and no training with regard to judgment (when to shoot and not to shoot), no recertification, just an online renewal every 7 years.
Pete Blair trains law enforcement personnel to respond to active shooter situations. Real-world scenarios prepare police officers for high-stress situations. Blair notes that one would expect people without training to “freeze up or not know what to do, and to have difficulty performing actions correctly.” Research and police records show that even trained police officers miss their targets more often than they hit them during stressful combat situations. Several analyses show that, in combat situations, trained officers miss the mark more than 80 % of the time.
Harmful and criminal uses of guns outnumber genuine defensive uses by a wide margin. The average violent attack is over in 3 seconds. Poor training makes it unlikely that a civilian without police or military training will use a gun successfully against an attacker and makes deadly mistakes more likely. Poor vetting means that individuals who pose a serious risk to the public may gain access to arms through legal channels. Yet the gun lobby and a certain segment of gun owners keeps trying to sell the fable of the armed citizen. The evidence is clear that arming the average citizen seriously undermines public safety.