- The shooter shoots himself.
- The Police shoot him.
- An armed citizen shoots him. (See edit below).
To date, I can think of only one exception to this general rule, that of the shooter taken down by unarmed passengers on a French train. In one sense this case is instructive because it shows what courage and a willingness to risk one’s life for others can accomplish. However, it is important also to point out that this was a special case for a couple of reasons.
- First, the shooter had not had time to get started shooting before he was tackled. Frankly, he was a rank amateur.
- Secondly, it was a train car which is a highly enclosed space, so the when he pulled a gun out, he was close enough to be taken down before he could make effective use of it.
- Third, there happened to be a group of friends, sitting together, two with military training. This is an incredibly rare circumstance. One person alone would probably not have been able to take him down successfully, but they already had a team dynamic in place, with an aggressive leader and that made all the difference.
The majority of the time, people who attempt to bumrush a gunman end up getting shot and incapacitated before they can get close enough. That is kind of the point of a gun.
So are guns the answer then? Are the “arm and train all the teachers, hire unemployed veterans to guard our schools,” memes a viable option? Would the world be a safer place if everyone had a gun on his hip?
Just as it is mostly wrong, but partly right, to say that guns are the problem, I think it is also mostly wrong, and partly right, to say that they are the solution.
First, the problems with that position: have you ever tried to shoot one single bad guy with a pistol in a crowded room full of innocent people? What if he is moving, you are moving, and the innocent people are moving? It is not easy. In Special Forces we would conduct a training exercise every year to get us up to speed on that task. It takes a full month of training, 40 hours a week for four weeks, every year, before we are considered up and current on close quarter battle tactics.
This is not to say that every person who wants to carry a concealed weapon needs to reach a professional level of tactical marksmanship, but it does illustrate just how difficult tactical marksmanship is. It is not a question of hitting your target. The trick is not hitting anything else.
For the average concealed carry civilian, it is enough that they have a realistic appraisal of their skills, and not to exceed them (in itself a very difficult and complicated task). This means that you need to train at least once a month, with the weapon you plan on carrying and the holster you plan on wearing. You need to practice shooting under stress so you know how far away you can realistically hit a target without missing. And if you find yourself in a lethal force situation, you have to be willing to hold your fire if you cannot shoot without risking hitting an innocent bystander. Simply having a gun is not the same as having a clear shot.
This is why I do not consider the average concealed carry civilian to be a viable solution to mass shootings. Most people are just not up to the task. They could be, but they aren’t willing to put in the effort. The mere fact of having a gun acts as a mental magic bullet, which is worse than not carrying one (more on that later).
That being said, a general population in which a third or half of the people you meet are carrying a pistol could definitely have a deterrent effect. One person out of a thousand with a pistol is like one person with a vaccine. The odds of him being in the right place at the right time with a clear shot are pretty low. 300 people out of a thousand, and now the odds are stacked against anyone trying to commit a violent crime. A general presence of guns could (theoretically) act as a sort of herd immunity against mass shootings.
However, we must be clear that this is not a solution. It does not prevent violence, it best it merely levels the playing field between psychopaths and ordinary folks. At worst it invites a “Wild West” kind of society where a high level of mutual interpersonal violence is common and accepted as status quo.
The most important problem with the “guns are the solution” position is the same as the main problem with the “guns are the problem” position. That is, both of them miss the point.
The point is that guns are only ever immediate, as problems or solutions. But that is the topic for tomorrow.
*Edit: Many thanks to Joe Wagner for fact checking my lack of awareness. In a 2014 FBI study of 160 active shooter incidents between 2000 – 2013, they identified that in 37 (21%) of the incidents, unarmed citizens “successfully and safely” restrained the shooter before law enforcement arrived. By contrast, only 5 incidents (3.1%) were resolved after an armed civilian engaged the shooter with gunfire. Further, of those 5 incidents, the armed civilian killed the shooter in only 3 incidents, while 1 shooter was wounded and the fifth committed suicide.
While this does not substantially change my assertion that the majority of incidents are resolved by the shooter killing himself or being killed by law enforcement, it does add a fourth category, that of shooing incidents resolved by unarmed civilian intervention, which I had previously thought was a fluke. Additionally, given the fact that unarmed civilians overwhelmingly outnumber armed civilians, it should be noted that the higher numbers of unarmed intervention versus armed intervention (by a civilian) reflects statistical variance. It does not indicate that an unarmed civilian is as likely to be able to end and encounter as an armed civilian.