Notice a double standard among many gun-restriction advocates. If a proposed gun restriction might conceivably stop someone from carrying out a crime, that’s good enough, even if it has no statistically detectable impact on crime and regardless of how it impacts peaceable gun owners. But if a “good guy (or gal) with a gun” ever fails to stop a crime, then that proves armed self-defense is worthless.
But a reasonable standard is not that something always works perfectly. Seatbelts are a good idea even though often they fail to prevent auto fatalities. Covid vaccines work spectacularly well even though they prevent death only in a small minority of cases, as most people would recover without them. Going to the hospital during a health emergency is prudent even though medical errors kill around a quarter-million Americans each year. I support well-written “red flag” laws to take guns from people who threaten violence, even though such laws prevent only a fraction of crimes.
Yet when it comes to guns many people’s capacity for weighing costs against benefits goes out the window. For example, one local columnist claims that the New York Times provides “data debunking the ‘good guys with guns stop bad guys with guns’ fallacy.” Such sentiments are widespread on Twitter.
What the article claims is that, of 433 active shooter attacks examined, someone shot the attacker 120 times. That combines 98 shootings by on-duty police, 10 by security guards or off-duty police, and 12 by bystanders. If you whip out your calculator you’ll find that’s 28% percent of the time. By comparison, a scientist who stopped heart attacks or cancer 28% of the time relative to the baseline would win the Nobel Prize.
To follow other aspects of the report: Of the 249 attacks that “ended before the police arrived,” the perpetrator left the scene in 113 cases, died by suicide in 72 cases, and was otherwise subdued by bystanders in 42 cases. (This indicates the importance of unarmed civilian responses, as I’ve discussed.) Note that some criminals kill themselves when they realize they’re about to be confronted by people with guns.
When the good guy is disarmed
What the analysis so far ignores is that governments outlaw armed self-defense in many cases by anyone other than police officers. Complaining that good guys with guns do not stop bad guys with guns, in cases where most good guys are legally forbidden to carry guns, hardly is a fair criticism.
How often do mass shootings occur in so-called “gun-free zones,” where criminals ignore the rules? John Lott claims that is almost always the case. Lott’s critics say the figure is much lower, around 12%. Part of the gap is explained by different definitions of a “gun-free zone.” If a private establishment bars guns, Lott counts the case. If a state allows concealed carry but only for a tiny minority of people, that might create a “mostly gun-free zone.” Part of the gap is explained by which crimes are counted. Lott’s critics say Lott skews the stats. Regardless of how the details pan out, some crimes occur where government has flatly forbidden, or nearly forbidden, peaceable people to carry guns for defensive purposes.
Notably, Denver recently banned “concealed-carry weapons in any building or portion of a building that is owned, leased by or to the city,” and also “in Denver’s urban and mountain parks,” reports Axios.
Anyway, even if it is the case that people are legally allowed to carry a concealed handgun in a given area, doesn’t mean an armed person will be in that area during the commission of a crime. Around 14% of Coloradans have a concealed-carry permit, and those people are not evenly distributed throughout public areas.
True, sometimes gun-carrying police officers fail to do their jobs. They failed at Columbine, and they failed again, massively, at the school in Uvalde. Although armed police were inside the school “within the first three minutes of the attack,” reports NPR, “it took about an hour and 14 minutes from when officers arrived at the school to when they breached the door and ended the standoff with the gunman.” The officers involved compounded incompetence with cowardice.
Sometimes people fail. Consider a comparison. Some years ago a study found that “over a period of 6.5 years, doctors in Colorado alone operated on the wrong patient at least 25 times and on the wrong part of the body in another 107 patients,” CNN reports. I don’t hear anyone saying such problems “debunk the ‘good surgeons with a scalpel improve health’ fallacy.”
The swiss-cheese approach
Recently I called for a “swiss-cheese approach” to gun violence that includes some gun restrictions (such as red-flag laws) along with more reliance on people (other than police) armed with concealed handguns.
Some Colorado schools already allow some school staff to carry guns. Dave Kopel, research director for the Independence Institute (which publishes Complete Colorado and which works with the FASTER program to train teachers in armed self-defense), recently told me that, nationwide, “thousands and thousands of teachers have been trained in this program.” He said, “There has never been a single instance of any teacher misusing the gun, having the gun taken by a student, any problem like that.”
Kopel continued, “At these schools, maybe it’s the deterrent effect, who knows, but there hasn’t even been an attempted active shooting at one of these schools that has the armed defenders. So it’s all upside, no downside, if the top priority is saving children’s lives.”
Laura Carno, the director of FASTER Colorado, says her group is working with schools in 37 of Colorado’s 179 school districts. “In the last month, after the Uvalde shooting, we have been talking to dozens of larger school districts that are exploring how they can keep children as safe as possible,” she said.
In gun-friendly Texas, “just 84 school districts out of more than 1,200 have armed school staff,” reports the Texas Tribune. Recently the Tribune ran the headline, “Texas teachers union survey finds that school employees don’t want to be armed.” But if you look at the survey data, you’ll find that 23% of school employees said they do want to be armed. That’s higher than I would have guessed.
No one is saying that all teachers should carry a gun or should be required to do so. The position is that teachers and other school staff who want to carry a concealed handgun and get the requisite training should be allowed to do so. Trust teachers, right?
A good guy with a gun
“Good guys with a gun” have stopped active shooters here in Colorado. Last year, Johnny Hurley “used his concealed handgun to kill a gunman who fired rounds in the busy commercial area of Olde Town Arvada,” the Denver Post reports. Tragically, an Arvada police officer then shot and killed Hurley. According to a lawsuit, summarizes the Post, “Hurley died needlessly . . . because nearby Arvada police officers failed to confront [the] gunman, . . . failed to verify that Hurley was a threat and an officer failed to announce himself as a police officer before shooting Hurley from behind.”
Back in 2007, Jeanne Assam, a security guard with New Life Church in Colorado Springs, shot an active shooter, stopping his murder spree.
Elsewhere, in West Virginia, “a woman who was lawfully carrying a pistol shot and killed a man who began shooting at a crowd of people . . . in Charleston,” reports WCHSTV. Charleston Chief of Detectives Tony Hazelett told the outlet, “Instead of running from the threat, she engaged with the threat and saved several lives [that] night.” Eugene Volokh mentions this case and points to others.
More broadly, people use guns in self-defense much more frequently.
And often the police do act heroically. In Lakewood, officer Ashley Ferris, even while wounded, shot and killed an active shooter who had murdered people at a Denver tattoo shop.
Critics of concealed carry often argue that, if the criminal didn’t have a gun in the first place, we wouldn’t need other people with guns to stop the criminal. Of course it’s possible for criminals to do enormous damage with knives, bombs, and other weapons, but I concede that often a gun makes a given criminal a lot more lethal.
But there is no magic wand to disarm all the criminals. Government can’t even keep illegal drugs out of Colorado prisons. Do we really think we’re going to keep gangs from trafficking illegal guns?
As I discussed in my article on the “swiss cheese” approach, we need to package together a bunch of different strategies that, combined, substantially reduce criminal violence. Letting teachers and others carry concealed handguns is a reasonable part of that strategy. Good people with guns do not always stop criminal violence. But they sometimes do. We should let them.
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