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David H. Levitt
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Good guy with a gun? Prevention or defense?

'Hardening' venues is not a solution: Even where partially effective, armed response is not a strategy for preventing loss of life and significant injury

Elisjsha Dicken has been appropriately hailed as a hero for his July 2022 actions in stopping an active shooter in a mall in Greenwood, Indiana using his legally acquired and carried handgun. But even though he acted quickly – and almost certainly prevented additional loss of life and injuries – the shooter was still able to fire 24 rounds from an AR-15-style rifle, killing three people and wounding two others.

Mr. Dicken’s actions are cited by guns rights advocates as an example of the value of a “good guy with a gun,” the notion that the best approach to respond to increasing gun violence is to allow – indeed encourage – responsible, law abiding citizens to carry weapons for self-defense and the defense of others. The notion includes “hardening” schools and other potential targets by placing armed security personnel on the premises.

Available evidence, however, suggests that as heroic as Mr. Dicken’s actions were, the presence of such armed personnel is too ineffective – even where such personnel act promptly and correctly (which is often not the case) – to serve the policy goal of reducing gun violence.

Prevention, not defense, is the better public policy. It is better to prevent shooters from becoming shooters in the first place, by controlling the “who” and the “what,”: barring access to guns for potentially dangerous people and by limiting the types of weapons available to the public. Importantly, all such limitations are expressly recognized as constitutional by recent Supreme Court decisions, as I’ve discussed in detail here and here.

It is increasingly clear that the presence of armed personnel, whether civilian (like Mr. Dicken) or professional, is simply does not work all too often. Several articles confirm that in many recent public mass shootings, armed personnel were present – often before the shooting began or shortly thereafter – yet did not prevent the killing. See here (listing examples, and quoting from a 2021 JAMA study that analyzed every documented incident from 1980 to 2019, finding “no association between having an armed officer and deterrence of violence”), here (noting, among others, the 2019 Dayton, Ohio incident where the shooter was shot to death by police within the first 30 seconds of his first shot – and was still able to kill nine people and wound more than two dozen others), and here (in 25 school shootings studied, none were brought to an end by armed staff, guards, or police officers returning fire) for example.

A partial list of incidents where armed personnel did not prevent the shootings:

– Greenwood, Indiana (July 17, 2022 – mall shooting) – 3 killed before shooter neutralized; 20 year old shooter carrying a SIG Sauer M400 semi-automatic rifle, a Smith & Wesson M&P15 AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle, a Glock 33 pistol, and over 100 rounds of ammunition

– Uvalde, Texas (May 24, 2022 – Robb Elementary School) – 21 killed despite fast response presence of police; 18 year old shooter a tactical vest for carrying ammunition plus a backpack, and all-black clothing, while carrying an AR-15 style rifle and seven 30-round magazines

– Buffalo, NY (May 14, 2022 – grocery store) – 10 killed despite actions of armed guard, who shot the gunman and was himself killed; 18 year old shooter was  wearing body armor and a military helmet, carrying a modified Bushmaster XM-15 rifle

There are many more, including such well-known events where armed security personnel did not prevent the shooting, such as Santa Fe High School in Texas (2018 – 10 killed even though two officers were on site), Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida (2018 – 17 killed even though an armed officer was on campus); Pulse Nightclub (2016 – 49 killed despite an armed security guard). For a fuller – and sad – list, see here and here (noting trends in such events, noting that in nearly all of them the shooter was an adult male who acted alone, that the shooter would likely have been legally prohibited from possessing a firearm if subject to a background check, that the shooter had often displayed prior warning signs, and that assault weapons and high-capacity magazines contribute significantly to the risks).

The point is that all too often – indeed, far more often than not – a “good guy with a gun” is ineffective; even where partially effective, armed response is too late to prevent loss of life and significant injury. “Hardening” venues is not a solution. Prevention is.

Gun rights advocates nonetheless point to a 1993 study suggesting that guns are used in self-defense 2.5 million times annually. This study even made it into Justice Alito’s concurrence in the Supreme Court’s Bruen opinion issued on June 23, 2022 (see page Alito Concurrence at p. 5). But that study has been effectively refuted as being based on poor statistical analysis. It is not a legitimate basis for asserting that public policy ought to support fewer restrictions on possession of guns, especially if those guns are not handguns.

Prevention requires a multi-faceted approach.

– Limit the “who”: those with mental illness, past histories of violence (including domestic), have published warning signs on social media, have made threats to harm themselves or others, have felony convictions, raise age limits (so many of the recent shooters have been under 21 years old) and more. Put these histories into the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System database – and don’t be soft-hearted about it. Close loopholes on unlicensed and online gun sellers (as the recently enacted Bipartisan Safer Communities Act begins do do) so that background checks are required for all sales – again, the Supreme Court has explicitly stated that such checks are fully constitutional.

– Limit the “what”: the Bruen and Heller cases emphasize that the weapons at issue were handguns intended for use as self-defense. The Court, again, made it clear that limits on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines would likely be constitutionally permissible. Consider how many lives would have been saved if, to use one very recent example, the recent shooter in Highland Park, Illinois could not have legally acquired such weaponry.

Each of these approaches, independently, will be helpful. Even without banning a single weapon, restrictions on the “who” will help to reduce the number of inappropriate people who should never have access to any kind of gun. And even without restricting a single otherwise ineligible person, barring access to assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, without more, will help to reduce the severity of incidents when they occur. But combined as a suite of solutions, these measures can be that much more effective.

To be sure, nothing will prevent all incidents. Those who are committed to such a course of action may well find ways to avoid the system. They may avoid social media posts that can trigger application of a red flag law. They may acquire their weapons illegally. But even if these measures deter even a few incidents, that represents saving many lives.

It is past time to put the “good guy with a gun” mantra to rest.

About the Author
David H. Levitt practices intellectual property and commercial litigation law in Chicago, and is a pro-Israel activist.
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