Why ‘Good Guys With Guns’ Fail to Stop Mass Shootings

WTed Cruz, a Texas senator said that armed police should be present in elementary schools within hours after the Uvalde school shooting which left two teachers and 19 students dead. Former President Donald Trump advocated for armed teachers and metal detectors days later in a speech at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton rejected the notion of having stronger gun laws as an alternative to arming and training citizens.

The political talking point of increasing the presence of police and armed teachers to deter mass shootings traces its origins to 2012—having been famously proposed by NRA head Wayne LaPierre following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children and six staff members were killed. “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he said, as the nation debated tougher gun control measures.

But in the 10 years since, “good guys with guns” have been present or quickly arrived at the scene of nearly every major mass shooting and failed to stop the gunman before he was able to take multiple lives. “Good guys with guns don’t always win gunfights,” says David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center.

In the May 14 mass shooting at a Buffalo, New York supermarket, Aaron Salter—an armed security guard and former police officer—was hailed for his efforts at trying to protect others. At least one of his bullets hit the shooter, but the gunman was protected by an armor-plated vest and he fatally shot Salter—one of 10 victims.

Additionally, there have been armed people at several major mass shootings that took place since Sandy Hook. Security guards and police were also present at Route 91 Harvest Music Festival 2017 and the Mandalay Bay Hotel, where the gunman was found. More than 400 people were also injured and 60 of the victims died. In June 2016 at Pulse nightclub shooting, an armed guard fired on the gunman who was responsible for 49 deaths. (Although initially lauded as a hero, some victims’ family members sued the off-duty officer, alleging he remained outside of the establishment to protect himself.)

School shooters have been stopped by armed guards. A gunman shot and killed 10 students at Santa Fe High School, Texas in 2018, even though there were two officers on the scene. One was also wounded while trying to stop him. Earlier that year, a school resource officer was on campus at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.—although he was accused of hiding during the mass shooting, rather than rushing in.

Uvalde has a more complicated situation. There are multiple accounts and criticisms of the police response. Local police waited for more than an hour before a U.S. Border Patrol tactical team arrived and stormed the classrooms where the gunman barricaded himself—killing him. Texas Department of Public Safety head Steven McCraw said waiting was “the wrong decision, period,” and police conduct is being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department.

However, the first police officer responded to Robb Elementary School within one minute of the initial reports of a gunman with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle—before the shooter had even entered the school.

“Sometimes having a gun is useful but a lot of times it makes things worse, even when there’s a clear bad guy,” says Hemenway. People who are involved in mass shootings tend to be equipped with high-capacity magazines and semi-automatic weapons, which can fire hundreds of rounds. Some—like the gunman in Buffalo—also wear body armor. “Bad guys get such military-style weapons, and now wear protection so that even if you shoot them, they may not get hurt,” Hemenway adds.

Research disputes recent assertions from Cruz and others that armed law enforcement on campus is “the most effective tool for keeping kids safe.” A 2021 JAMA Network Open study analyzed every documented incident from 1980-2019 in which “one or more people was intentionally shot in a school building during the school day, or where a perpetrator came to school heavily armed with the intent of firing indiscriminately.” It found “no association between having an armed officer and deterrence of violence.” “When there’s more guns, more people die,” says Jillian Peterson, one of the author’s of the JAMA study.

Hemenway’s 2015 Harvard University research that examined data between 2007 and 2011 revealed that only 1% of the 14,000 crimes where a victim was involved had a firearm used for self-defense. The Harvard Injury Control Research Center also found that self-defense gun use is “rare and not more effective at preventing injury than other protective actions.”

Moreover, perpetrators are often at a strong advantage in mass shootings; it’s extremely hard to intervene once a killer is on site. Experts say that’s partly because shooters can afford to be much more unpredictable, since they are expecting to either die or be caught. A shooting attack victim, however, will often act in an understandably panicked, chaotic, and confused manner. “The shooter is not necessarily worried about getting out of the situation alive. The common person, or the responding officer, is more concerned with survival. You can’t lose. So that’s a huge disadvantage,” says Emma Fridel, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida State University.

That has led many who have studied mass shootings to conclude that by the time someone with the intent to kill shows up at a school, or a supermarket, or a house or worship with a gun, it’s too late to stop bloodshed. “The best way to prevent problems is to go upstream and really try to prevent things rather than wait until they’re about to happen,” Hemenway says. “There’s no reason why we need to have AR-15s or AK-47s in civilian hands. That’s sort of crazy.”

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