In response to last week's massacre in Connecticut, Mother Jones has put together a "study" on mass shootings that makes a pretty bold claim:
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.
There are a couple of major problems here with arguing that armed civilians don't stop mass shootings. One is that when armed civilians are present, they often stop mass shootings before they can become mass shootings. One of the criteria Mother Jones used to define mass shootings is that "the shooter took the lives of at least four people." So then, consider the following:
– Mayan Palace Theater, San Antonio, Texas, this week: Jesus Manuel Garcia shoots at a movie theater, a police car and bystanders from the nearby China Garden restaurant; as he enters the movie theater, guns blazing, an armed off-duty cop shoots Garcia four times, stopping the attack. Total dead: Zero.
– Winnemucca, Nev., 2008: Ernesto Villagomez opens fire in a crowded restaurant; concealed carry permit-holder shoots him dead. Total dead: Two. (I’m excluding the shooters’ deaths in these examples.)
– Appalachian School of Law, 2002: Crazed immigrant shoots the dean and a professor, then begins shooting students; as he goes for more ammunition, two armed students point their guns at him, allowing a third to tackle him. Total dead: Three.
– Santee, Calif., 2001: Student begins shooting his classmates — as well as the “trained campus supervisor”; an off-duty cop who happened to be bringing his daughter to school that day points his gun at the shooter, holding him until more police arrive. Total dead: Two.
– Pearl High School, Mississippi, 1997: After shooting several people at his high school, student heads for the junior high school; assistant principal Joel Myrick retrieves a .45 pistol from his car and points it at the gunman’s head, ending the murder spree. Total dead: Two.
– Edinboro, Pa., 1998: A student shoots up a junior high school dance being held at a restaurant; restaurant owner pulls out his shotgun and stops the gunman. Total dead: One.
These are just a few examples of mass shootings being prevented. I'm sure there are many more that meet this criteria. But, as you can see, in every incident, the would-be shooters were stopped short of killing four people because an armed civilian—or in some cases, an off duty cop—was present.
The individual circumstances of some of the shooting incidents don't always suggest that armed civilians would not have stopped the mass shootings that have taken place. For instance, the Luby's cafeteria shooting in Kileen, Texas that killed 23 people and is the third deadliest in U.S. history is well-known among gun rights activists. That's because one of the women in the restaurant, Suzanna Hupp, whose husband was wounded and mother killed by the gunman, reached into her purse to retrieve her .38 before realizing she'd left it in her truck. The circumstances surrounding the Nidal Hasan shooting—which occurred at Ft. Hood in Kileen just a few miles from Luby's—also raise questions. Despite the fact that nearly everyone on the Army base was extensively trained to use guns, soldiers at Ft. Hood were not allowed to carry them. While planning his attack, Hasan must surely have been aware of this fact and soldiers at Ft. Hood understandably questioned this policy after the shooting.*
Secondarily, aside from being fallacious, 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? Again, Mother Jones provide no data on this. Here's the sum total of their argument on this point:
Armed civilians attempting to intervene are actually more likely to increase the bloodshed, says Hargarten, "given that civilian shooters are less likely to hit their targets than police in these circumstances." A chaotic scene in August at the Empire State Building put this starkly into perspective when New York City police officers confronting a gunman wounded nine innocent bystanders.
There are some terrific, heroic police officers out there and I don't want to diminish their service. But there are also some terrible cops, as well. The fact that police would wound nine innocent people when confronted by a gunman doesn't mean we can assume that armed civilians would have somehow managed to shoot even more people. It might just be the opposite:
Newsweek has reported that law-abiding American citizens using guns in self-defense during 2003 shot and killed two and one-half times as many criminals as police did, and with fewer than one-fifth as many incidents as police where an innocent person mistakenly identified as a criminal (2% versus 11%).
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.
I understand the impulse to do something in the wake of the horror that we witnessed in Connecticut last week. But Mother Jones's "study" is little more than a series of ideological fallacies propped up with cherry-picked data. If Mother Jones is serious about having a debate on guns, they had better hold themselves to much higher standards than this.
*UPDATE: I originally wrote that Mother Jones study was problematic because the list of shooting incidents did not include the Luby's shooting. It turns out that they did include the shooting, but it was only visible after zooming in multiple times on their map of shooting incidents. The article has been revised to reflect that.