Thomas Gabor–The Myth of the Benefits of an Armed Citizenry.

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.

armedConsider 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.







24 thoughts on “Thomas Gabor–The Myth of the Benefits of an Armed Citizenry.

  1. This was a long post bringing up a lot of issues. All of the issues are not exactly related. An adequate response will take awhile.
    But to start, using the basically statistical approach, how can it be shown that arming Cops improves outcomes. They very rrarely use a weapon to stop an on going crime and their accidents and mishaps greatly out weigh those cases.
    Ignore deterrence and you ignore the big picture.
    How could you justify NATO if no Russians were ever killed.

    • Take your time in responding, Hman. I may also be slow. We all have other commitments.
      The general deterrent effects of police patrol are not believed by criminologists to be significant. Leaders in the field like former mayor of several cities, Patrick Murphy, have even stated that these effects are non-existent. Police in the UK are generally unarmed and practice a service model of policing, with force being a last resort. Focused-deterrence programs are another matter. These focus on hot spots and concentrate resources in one area.

      In my view, there is no analogy with NATO and a rational actor like Russia. The streets are full of less rational actors and many crimes are hidden, whereas a nuclear attack or conventional attack on NATO by the Russians would not go under the radar. Therefore, a response by NATO is almost guaranteed whereas the police apprehend just a fraction of offenders.

      Still, one should not ignore deterrence. However, there are many hidden harms associated with guns that we seldom count, from threats to the copycat effect (one incident triggering the next one), and even the weapons effect, whereby the mere presence of a weapon may lead to a more aggressive response by an individual who is angered. These effects on both sides are hard to measure, so I stuck with the quantifiable ones.

  2. Tom, I agree with most everything you say with a few caveats.

    One, you leave out the element of surprise. Even when all those cops were present in Dallas, the shooter had the element of surprise and positioning and he had a warfighting weapon, IIRC. Surprise is generally the case in active shooter situations, where one is reacting after the bullets are flying. The recent successful school lockdown in California was the exception. Look at Pearl Harbor. Thousands of US soldiers were present and we were still slaughtered because even though the US was on heightened alert to a Japanese attack, no one figured it would be on a quiet Sunday morning. But the basic fact remains: even if more trained, armed citizens could stop attacks, is that the tail wagging the dog?

    I don’t think citizens should be held to cop standards on training. Officers are trained to “run to” an incident. A citizen should only be using deadly force as a last resort. Some training is absolutely necessary (I think Mike and I have discussed that before) but training is a political hot potato; some accuse states of creating expensive, extensive requirements to deter someone from applying for a permit rather than to make sure permit holders are competent. I don’t like the current Federal bill as it makes it look like there is no standard, as we have for driver’s licenses, which give states confidence that if I drive to Colorado, I know what I am doing. I would amend or kill the reciprocity bill.

    Public carry for self defense needs to have a baseline training of familiarity with the law, gun handling, proficiency as well as a background check. My own CHL instructor implored us to train regularly at a level such as the IDPA (International Defensive Pistol Assn, I think). New Mexico requires 16 hours of class and range time (self defense law, case law, how guns work, range proficiency) and a two year refresher class to keep the permit. Keeping a gun in the home for self defense has its problems (and I would prefer not to use mass statistics to condemn individual behavior as not all people are equal) but is less of a public risk and besides, SCOTUS has said we can keep a hand cannon in the home for defense. That said, its not as simple as the NRA would have one believe. Yes, I am familiar with Susan Sorenson’s work at U Penn.

    Theft is my best guess as to why states with more carry have more gun crime. More targets for theft as bozos don’t secure their weapons. But to some degree, “gun free zones” mean guns are left in cars. If I were to legally carry to Albuquerque but five places I need to shop post gun free zones, I have to leave the cannon in the car. Hence, I never take it even though Albuquerque would be one of the few places in NM where I would actually consider carrying for self defense.

    The biggest correlation I have seen between more guns in a state and more gun deaths is suicide. While suicide is not trivial and firearms greatly facilitate impulsive suicides and success at same, it is self-imposed rather than imposed on an innocent victim.

    Nice post. Good for a lot of discussion.

    • Thanks Khal. I will respond in the next day–my apologies. I ask all commenters to jump in and I will respond to all in the days ahead, even if there are new posts on the site. Thank you all for your patience.

    • Khal,
      Agreed, the element of surprise is a major reason why successful defensive gun uses are quite rare. Most attacks are blitz attacks and take about 3 seconds. The inadequate training and preparation of most civilians with guns make it even less likely that guns will be used successfully against an attacker.

      Agreed on the reciprocity bill, which would impose the lowest standard for the entire country.

      Police actually have rules of engagement that are more restrictive than those imposed on civilians in places like Florida. There is no equivalent to immunity under Stand Your Ground. Officers who use deadly force will be placed on administrative leave and the shooting will likely impact their career. In my opinion, when you have laws like SYG which enable the use of lethal force, rigorous training is required. Like the ABA and most professional groups, I believe SYG should be repealed as all the evidence I have seen shows it increases homicide rates.

      Completely agree with your paragraph on keeping a gun in the home. Citizens do have that right but, as you say, there are risks involved.

      I agree that more gun restrictions mean more guns will be left in cars. Personally, I am concerned about all the carrying by millions of people with totally inadequate training or zero training in permitless carry states. That, combined with laws enabling the use of force, is a deadly combination.

      Thank you for your comments.

      • I would like to see a more nuanced version of John Donohoe’s paper, currently in review, that looks for a correlation between the rigor of a state’s CHL laws and gun crime. The assumption, broadly stated, is more liberal RTC, more crime. The most reasonable hypotheses as to why are 1. More gun theft/diversion and 2. More irrational or untrained actors who are armed. But bulk statistics don’t tell us much and people infer to their heart’s content. What worries me about Donohoe’s work and I am not a statistician, is whether one can really do such broad-sweep “synthetic” studies. I think Webster’s work on single states is rock solid and the assumptions well stated. Do you know if Donohoe’s paper has come back from peer review?

        I am all in favor of imposing rigor on CHL, since it is a social contract between the individual and society (and to my knowledge, no court has said the 2A provides a right to concealed carry) but the devils are in the details. Meanwhile, an armed society is…an armed society. Gimme a break with the “polite” B.S.

  3. Wow…with all those number, statistics, and studies one would think America, as we know it, is coming to an end. Even Attorney General Sessions has been routinely warning us of the rising violent crime sweeping our nation. In comments as recent as August when he addressed the 63rd Biennial Conference of the National Fraternal Order of Police, he spoke of the national crime wave. However, with all those claims that something must be done to reduce Americans’ access to firearms, no less an authority than the Washington Post has demonstrated that it just ain’t so.

    Four Pinocchios

    • Alan, please do not attribute comments to me that I have not made. Sessions can answer for his own statements. Gun deaths in the US have risen sharply over the last two years—by about 8,000. Over the last decade, we have seen half the deadliest mass shootings since about 1950. We have daily mass shootings (4+ shot, excluding the shooter). Somebody in Vegas mowed down or injured close to 600 people. You are spending a lot of energy denying there is a problem. If you are interested in solving this problem and opposed to any additional restrictions on guns, what are you proposing we do?

      • I propose we stop looking at the gun. We already have 20,000+ gun laws on the books.
        Looking at criminal homicide I see it heavily concentrated in large urban centers, and among a very small, self-identifying group in those specific areas.
        I’ve watched for decades, hate crime against gun owners, because the simple “definition” is “too many guns.”
        It’s easy to blame “gun availability” and the “gun culture.” Here’s a newsflash. There are three distinct “gun cultures” one recreational, one defensive, and one criminal. Of the three which one “gun control” doesn’t have any effect on?
        Maybe gun critics and politicians need to look at real problems America is having in our inn-cities.
        I have worked in the “real world” at the street level and have seen a lot of poor kids aspire to become drug dealers. It’s a career they see as attainable. It’s a career they see as getting the flashy car, lots of girls, and yes…respect.
        Maybe stop looking at the “gun culture” and look at the family, education, religion. How many inner city kids grow up in a family without a father? How many of the inner city kids graduate from High School? How many of these kids have any type of religion?
        The gun problem you speak of seems to be that you don’t like it that law abiding people can legally own guns. Yes, there are tragedies that involve guns? This doesn’t mean there’s a gun problem in the way there is a diabetes and obesity problem.
        This is the problem. Lets fix this. “Gun violence” or violence that involves a gun will take care of itself.
        I’m not trying to be flippant about school shootings, mass shootings, church shootings, but those don’t represent responsible legal gun ownership.

  4. Another small point. There is a world of difference between guns and laws about guns.
    I have never personally enjoyed any illegal drugs but I nonetheless have serious reservations about criminalixation.
    One can think that alcohol is an evil, destructive force without advocating that the U.S. take another go at prohibition.
    For most of the hinterland, there is effectively zzero gun crime
    That town in Texas probably has not a criminal, gun related homicide in 50 yrs.
    That is what one is up against when trying to talk them into criminalizing their favorite guns.
    There are so many other, hard to mea sure factors. For example, there was an epic flood in Houston recently. There was also an epic amount of volunteer civilian assistance for law enforcement and all firstt responders.
    I cannot prove it, but I have good reason to believe that very few of those guys who showed with their boats and 4 wheel drive rigs did not have a CHL.
    And nothing bad happened. And despite some idiot reporting, looting was virtually non existent.
    These are the people to whom strict gun control must be sold.

    • I suspect that it must seem strange to academics, but Cops have started to really like CHL laws in places like Texas where they exist in conjunction with harsh laws against unlicensed possesion…carry.
      When the laws are done right, they can be the best thing that ever happened to police, redneck relations.
      Is that good or bad. Ask HRC. She undoubtedly would be against such.

      • Tom
        Having a CHL does not equal having more random strangers being armed.
        If the policy is implemented in a smart way, having a CHL really means that Cops have access to an instantaneous background check by their computer.
        A CHL is a contract. Very much so.
        The Cops get your information and you get a safe harbour for gun possession
        In most states, unlicensed carry is a felony. Full stop. Even…especially places like Texas or New Mexico.
        Again, gun possession and laws about gun possession are like unto alcohol,,drugs and their related laws.
        It is just a fact that COPs rarely give traffic tickets to CHL holders if they are sober. Courtesy, and all that. You get to bypass security checks in several situations. Because having a valid current license IS a security check.
        That is not something most redneck libertarians would volunteer for. But in exchange, you do not have to explain why you are carrying

  5. The article mentions 1100 people killed by concealed carriers since 2007. The source of the number does not say where the people were killed. Being out in public is what the permits make legal and a public threat. It also does not compare the number to how many people are killed by people who do not have permits. There are some other numbers from studies floating around saying permit holders have a smaller rate of breaking the law. But maybe John Lott wrote them all.😉

    • Pankr003, The Violence Policy Center actually provides detailed information on all these killings ( The point they are making is that many permit holders are committing serious crimes. This reflects the poor vetting and the inherent risks of having large numbers of civilians packing. As for John Lott….no comment.

    • In most states, having a CHL does nothing to facilitate criminal action. Rather the opposite. Where I live, penalties for any violent or aggressive behaviour go up several notches if you have signed on to the CHL contract.
      It utterly defies logic to get a CHL if one has bad intentions or even a bad temper. You can carry witthout one just like you can smoke weed without a license.

      • I take this back. In Chicago, you more or less have to be a criminal to get a carry license.
        It is silly, btw, to lump all forms of civiIian carry together for statistical purposes as if the llaws were the same.

  6. Hman, I haven’t surveyed the police but more police die in states with more gun ownership. For the life of me, I do not understand why a police officer would encourage more citizens to be armed. It makes their job even more dangerous.

    • Maybe because police officer’s know that the vast majority of the people are good, honest and hard working. They are not against the police and support them in most everything they do. I guess it comes down to…they trust them.

    • You don’t understand why police would be in favor of more citizens being armed? Aren’t you a researcher? There’s a pretty obvious solution for this…..

  7. Thank you for the reference to “Full Report of the Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women.” I found it most interesting.

    The report it talks about “Prevalence and Incidence of Physical Assault” and that relatively few respondents reported an adult caretaker or other adult pulled their hair or threw something that could hurt. Still fewer threatened them with a gun or knife, or used a gun or knife on them. (Exhibit 3)

    When talking about “Rates of Physical Assault Among Rape Victims” it mentions guns or other weapons last.

    Report on “Intimate partner physical assault” only a negligible number reported the use of knife or gun as shown on exhibit 11. Also the exhibit shows they were 7 to 14 times more likely to report that they were beat, choked, drown them, or threatened them with a gun. The exhibit also shows guns and knifes at the bottom.
    However, exhibit 11 indicates an exception of “used gun” and “used knife,” differences between females and males are statistically significant.

    “Physical Assault by an Adult Caretaker”
    Again the exhibit shows only a negligible number of adult caretakers threatened them with a gun or knife or used a gun or knife on them.

    “Violence Experienced as an Adult”
    I quote: “Results also indicate that 1 of 18 U.S. women (5.5%) and 1 of 8 U.S. men (12.5%) has been threatened with a gun since becoming an adult, while 1 of 43 U.S. (2.3%) women and 1 of 20 U.S. (5%) men has had a gun used on them.” (I took the liberty and put in the percentages) Once again exhibit 23 shows guns an knifes at the bottom of the list.

    I did enjoy the reading of your post “The Myth of the Benefits of an Armed Citizenry.”

  8. thanks khal. Very interesting report. I found the comment, “…data showed that in most such events, males attacked females and that gun use in domestic disputes actually equated to fewer injuries.” “They get what they want without causing physical harm,” Sorenson said.

    Sorenson studied more than 35,000 domestic violence incidents from 2013. She found that about one-third of events with external weapons involved a gun. It seems that this number is much higher than the NVCS numbers. Maybe this is how most anybody can work the numbers. I don’t know…maybe.

    Thanks again for the link.

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