In the wake of the slaughters this summer at a Colorado movie theater and a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, we set out to track mass shootings in the United States over the last 30 years. We identified and analyzed 62 of them, and one striking pattern in the data is this: In not a single case was the killing stopped by a civilian using a gun.
For the purposes of their study, they identified mass shootings as incidents in which four or more people were killed. Right off the bat, this suggests their conclusion is somewhat fallacious. The whole point is that the presence of other armed people on the scene might stop mass shootings from becoming mass shootings. Anyway, I cited a random sampling of examples where exactly that happened. A number of those incidents involved off-duty cops and I acknowledged this explicitly, while making the distinction that Mother Jones's definition of "civilian" seems odd and slippery:
Their claim that "not a single case was the killing stopped by a civilian using a gun" also raises a host of issues being that it is a conditional claim. Notice the word "civilian"? It's true that mass shootings are often stopped by police. But is that because they are uniquely qualified to stop mass shootings or that they stop killers simply by virtue of the fact that they are generally the first people to arrive on the scene carrying guns? ... I suppose the assumption that cops are better equipped to carry guns than civilians hinges on the fact that they are trained to handle guns. But so are military veterans, and there are millions of them who have likely as much or more firearms training as the average cop. Finally, it's also true that there are many people who have never had any law enforcement and military training yet are skilled and responsible firearms owners who are temperamentally well-suited to handle potential threats. Mother Jones makes no serious argument that arming more civilians wouldn't effective in preventing mass shootings.
The author of the Mother Jones piece responded to me on Twitter saying they had reported on the examples of armed civilians stopping shootings from escalating and they were "bogus." Let's take a look at some of the examples in this Mother Jones piece, "Do Armed Civilians Stop Mass Shooters? Actually, No.":
High school shooting in Pearl, Mississippi
Another case, from 1997, in which the shooting was apparently already over: After killing two and wounding seven inside Pearl High School, the 16-year-old perpetrator left the building and went outside near the parking lot. The assistant principal—who was also a member of the Army Reserve—ran out to his own vehicle, grabbed a handgun he kept there, and then approached the shooter, subduing him at gunpoint until authorities arrived.
The Army Reserve's recruitment website encourages you to "discover what it's really like to be a civilian and a Soldier," pretty much underscoring my point that Mother Jones is being slippery here. Further, how does Mother Jones know the shooting was "apparently over"? The killer was stopped trying to drive away, and he was said to have been on his way to a nearby junior high school. Moving on:
New Life Church shooting in Colorado Springs, Colorado
In 2007 a gunman killed two people and wounded three others before being shot himself; the pro-gun crowd likes to refer to the woman who took him out in the parking lot as a "church member." Never mind that she was a security officer for the church and a former cop, and that the church had put its security team on high alert earlier that day due to another church shooting nearby.
You know what word accurately describes a "former cop"? Civilian. Next:
Bar shooting in Winnemucca, Nevada
In 2008, a gunman who killed two and wounded two others was taken out by another patron in the bar, who was carrying with a valid permit. But this was no regular Joe with a concealed handgun: The vigilante, who was not charged after authorities determined he'd committed a justifiable homicide, was a US Marine.
If you follow the link Mother Jones provided identifying the Marine in question, the news report says "it was not clear whether he was on active duty or had finished his term of service." In other words, Mother Jones has no idea whether or not the guy who stopped the shooting was a civilian or not. And here's my personal favorite:
Middle school dance shooting in Edinboro, Pennsylvania
An ambiguous case from 1998, in which the shooter may well have already been done shooting: After killing a teacher and wounding three others, the 14-year-old perpetrator left the dance venue. The owner of the venue followed him outside with a shotgun, confronting and subduing him in a nearby field until police arrived. The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, who himself recently argued for more guns as an answer to gun violence, told me this week that one police source he talked to about this case said that it was "not clear at all" whether the kid had intended to do any further shooting after he'd left the building.
Since it wasn't clear whether the 14-year-old shooter in this instance intended to kill more people, would Mother Jones have preferred that the civilian with the shotgun walked away so we could find out what his true intentions were? Mother Jones is saying this isn't an example of a civilian stopping a school-related shooting from escalating because, well, Mother Jones doesn't want it to be.
Anyway, I asked the author of the Mother Jones piece on twitter, "To be clear, if the shooting in Nevada was stopped by a former Marine -- and you don't know if he was still in the service ... That would be an example of a civilian stopping a potential mass shooting, right?" and further pressed him to define what he means when he uses the word civilian. His response:
@heminator now yr just talking in circles. Maybe try doing a bit of real reporting yourself instead of just parroting NRA talking points.— Mark Follman (@markfollman) December 22, 2012
Normally, I would associate specious conclusions derived from arbitrarily defining words while commenting on facts reported elsewhere with "talking in circles." But apparently this is "real reporting."