On Tuesday, a community in my state of Michigan was rocked by an unbelievable tragedy. A school shooting occurred at Oxford High School, 20 minutes from the school I graduated from, which took the lives of four students and injured seven. It’s another preventable mass shooting in the United States, and the response to this tragedy highlights how different gun culture is in the United States as opposed to the rest of the world.
I waited a few days before broaching this topic because I felt that immediately trying to push out a political hot take didn’t help anyone and wasn’t respectful. However, I feel like it’s time to discuss the American obsession with guns, and look at a popular argument that arises in the States every time one of these things happens: “the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
I want to look at what the rationale for the “good guy with a gun” is and whether that argument is good. Then, I’d like to examine if gun-free zones matter in a shooter’s decision to kill. I want to preface this by saying that I am pro-gun, and I am in favor of responsible gun ownership. However, I am not pro-gun in the sense that I do not have criticisms of the way we view guns in America. I do not worship guns as if they’re some divine force sent straight from a God.
What is The “Good Guy With A Gun?”
The argument goes, as mentioned previously, “the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” The idea behind it is that most mass shootings occur in “gun-free zones,” and that mass shooters would think twice before committing a shooting spree if they knew that someone would have a gun at the location that they targeted. And to be fair, there have been incidences where a “good guy with a gun” has saved people’s lives.
The Washington Times once compiled a list of 11 incidences where this happened. A common justification for this argument is an incident that happened in White Settlement, Texas. A gunman opened fire in a church, killing two people before being killed by a churchgoer. That churchgoer was honored for his actions that day.
So saying that a “good guy with a gun” can’t save lives would be incorrect. And the actions of these people are heroic. This begs a few questions. Could the known presence of a gun prevent a mass shooting? And in a much broader sense, does a gun decrease the risk of harm to a person and save lives? Also, what about gun-free zones? Are they truly magnets for mass shooters? Well…
The Data on The “Good Guy With A Gun"
Let’s first look at whether guns are successful in defending oneself. In 2015, a study was published that looked at 14,000 incidents in which there was contact between a victim and an offender between 2000 and 2011. This study found that just 127 of these incidences resulted in successful self-defense with a gun, which is about .9% of the incidences reviewed. The study found self-defense gun use did not result in any major reduction in risk of injury, but it resulted in a bit of a reduction in risk of property loss, though the study could not conclude that this reduction was unique to self-defense gun use.
Another study, published in 2013, found a “robust” correlation between higher rates of gun ownership and higher firearm-related homicide rates. The study noted that, while they could not find causation, they found that states with high rates of gun ownership also had disproportionately high rates of firearm-related deaths.
In 2019, KXAN, a local news affiliate station in Texas, worked with ALERRT (Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training) at Texas State to compile data on the 316 mass shootings that had happened in the US between 2000 and 2019. They found that out of 50 incidences where a shooter was subdued by citizens, unarmed citizens or citizens who had different weapons stopped 40 of those cases.
A study published in July 2020 found that laws that allowed more people to carry guns in public were associated with higher rates of gun violence. This study also seemed to find a similar link that the aforementioned 2013 study found: states with higher rates in gun ownership also saw a higher likelihood of gun violence. The author of the study, Emma Fridel, spoke to Business Insider about the findings. "In popular culture, you hear people saying, 'Oh, if I had a gun and I was at that Wal-Mart, I could’ve stopped that shooting,’" Fridel said "But that’s probably not true."
Let’s go back to gun-free zones. A popular claim by pro-gun activists and gun lobbyists is that mass shooters specifically target gun-free zones because they’re afraid of the “good guy with a gun.” Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) said in the aftermath of the Aurora, Colorado movie theatre shooting “Was there nobody that was carrying that could’ve stopped this guy more quickly?”
John R. Lott, a researcher whose work is celebrated in right-wing circles, wrote an opinion piece for Fox News, saying that the theatre was targeted because “out of all the movie theaters within 20 minutes of his (the shooter’s) apartment showing the new Batman movie that night, it was the only one where guns were banned.” Lott later added, “gun-free zones are a magnet for those who want to kill many people quickly.”
However, there isn’t any evidence to back up Lott’s point. The Aurora shooter omitted the theatre’s ban on guns and showed no concern for armed citizens in his journal. Actually, he opted for mass murder when he decided to kill in part because firearms allowed him to commit the act easier. “Maximum casualties, easily performed with firearms, although primitive in nature. No fear of consequences, being caught 99% certain,” he said.
Despite this, Lott has continued to be one of the most outspoken researchers against gun-free zones. And yet, Lott and supporters of the position that gun-free zones attract shooters share the same flaw in their logic: that mass shooters are rational people making rational decisions. Lott himself acknowledges that about half of those who commit mass shootings are formally diagnosed with some form of mental illness.
However, for Lott’s logic to work, mass shooters would have to be incredibly rational and calculating in their decision-making. They’d have to be interested in specifically avoiding confrontation to kill as many as they could before the police arrived. In reality, mass shooters are irrational. The mere thought of shooting up a school, movie theatre, grocery store, church, etc. is irrational. Why would irrational actors make a decision that requires rational thought?
The fact is, they don’t. In 2014, the FBI analyzed 160 active shootings between 2000 and 2013. They found the shooters picked the locations of the shootings out of emotional grievance or an attachment to a group, person, or the location itself. Out of the shootings that occurred in commercial or educational areas, the FBI found the shooter had some sort of relationship or link to the area 63% of the time.
It is important to note that the FBI’s study defines active shootings as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and
populated area,” regardless of how many people are shot or how many casualties are involved. This allows us to see more clearly which locations are being targeted, why, and the motivations behind these cases. The definition of active shootings differs from the definition of mass shootings, as the common definition of a mass shooting is an incident in which four or more deaths occur, excluding the gunman.
The Trace, an organization dedicated to reporting on gun violence in the US, published a commentary piece in 2015 that contained findings of their analysis of the FBI study. They found that out of the 65 cases in which a shooting took place in an open space area or a business with pedestrian traffic, 25 of these cases occurred in a location that allowed people to carry firearms.
“But Tristin, you disgusting liberal,” you may shout at your computer screen right now, “that’s less than 50%.” And by God, you are correct. That only amounts to about 38% of the incidences. The reason for this is that The Trace only counted shootings that occurred in an open space area or business with civilian traffic, in which it was undeniably clear that the target location allowed people to carry their firearms.
The big complication in The Trace’s analysis was a difference in state law regarding gun-free zones, as well as the fact that concealed carriers either were unaware of or flat out ignored policies that restricted the ability to carry firearms. For example, The Trace found that out of six mall shootings analyzed, two of them occurred in a gun-free zone, and yet an armed civilian tried to intervene. At that point, those locations were never gun-free zones, which lends credence to the idea that shooters aren’t concerned about that, to begin with.
From what I can see, the evidence is pretty clear. The “good guy with a gun” argument isn’t a good one. There isn’t any evidence that an armed civilian is uniquely effective at stopping a shooting. It seems as if unarmed civilians are more successful at stopping a shooter than armed civilians. The presence of a gun doesn’t seem to reduce the risk of harm. Rather, areas with more guns see more violence.
It also doesn’t stand to reason that gun-free zones are these massive magnets for people looking to kill. There’s no evidence that shooters even consider if their targets are gun-free zones. They usually base their choice of target on some sort of relationship or link they have to that area as opposed to some sort of careful consideration around the presence of firearms. This argument was doomed to fail from the start, as it assumes that inherently irrational actors can make rational decisions.
That these ideas are so prevalent speaks to a uniquely American attitude surrounding guns. Despite the empirical links between high rates of gun ownership and high rates of firearm-related homicides, and the lack of evidence suggesting that guns are beneficial in reducing harm, people still believe that guns are this mythical force that will deter all challenges. They believe that the mere presence of their guns will keep them safe, so much so that they don’t even consider that someone determined enough to attack them has little to no concern over whether they’re armed.
Is the answer to just get rid of all firearms and repeal the second amendment? No. With the number of guns already present in the country, a complete recall would never work. And besides, there are ways to mitigate the amount of these mass shooting cases without completely taking away people’s guns. Universal background checks would be a great start. Increasing the requirements one must meet to gain a permit is another possibility. Considering how many of these shooters are formally diagnosed with mental illnesses, mandatory mental health screenings for anyone trying to buy a gun are something I could get behind.
Though, it doesn’t matter. The only thing this country is interested in is maintaining the status quo. Despite their ability to create change and their cries about never letting this happen again, the people who run this country won’t change anything. If six- and seven-year-olds dying at Sandy Hook changed nothing, do you think this country will care about teenagers being slain by their classmates? Of course not.
The only things they seem to offer are empty thoughts and prayers.
Photo Credit: iStock