San Bernardino Shooting

Autonomous Terrorism Calls for Autonomous Defense

Unlike Obama's gun control proposals, armed citizens can stop mass shooters who are invisible until they strike.


There is not much the government can do about the sort of terrorist threat that President Obama described in his speech on Sunday. It will always be difficult to stop self-radicalized jihadists, operating under no one's instructions, from carrying out attacks on soft targets too scattered and numerous to secure.

The only viable alternative, self-help, is one that Obama seems ideologically incapable of considering. His proposals for new restrictions on firearms move in the opposite direction, based on the assumption that the problem is too many guns in too many hands.

Gun control supporters generally dismiss the notion that armed citizens can help stop terrorists and other mass shooters. They argue that unbadged amateurs will be frozen by fear, that they will accidentally shoot innocent people, or that police will mistake them for bad guys.

These possibilities do not negate the lifesaving potential of encouraging greater self-reliance in situations where waiting for police to arrive means waiting for coldblooded murderers to kill and kill again. We know from experience that intervention by people already at the scene can make a crucial difference.

A few months ago, UCLA law professor and Washington Post blogger Eugene Volokh listed 10 cases where bystanders used firearms to disable, detain, or scare away gunmen who had shot people or threatened to do so. The examples included a Mississippi high school principal, a Philadelphia barbershop customer, a Colorado Springs churchgoer, and a Chicago Uber driver.

As Volokh noted, such interventions seem to be pretty rare, which is not surprising given that so many mass shootings occur in "gun-free" zones where law-abiding people are disarmed. But bystanders with firearms demonstrably can save lives, which is more than you can say for Obama's gun control proposals.

The perpetrators of last week's attack in San Bernardino did not have criminal or psychiatric records that would have legally disqualified them from buying guns. In fact, one of them passed background checks when he bought pistols from California gun dealers. Obama's recommendation of "universal background checks" in response to the San Bernardino massacre is therefore a non sequitur.

Likewise his suggestion that people on the federal government's "no fly" list should be barred from buying guns. Leaving aside the constitutional problems with stripping someone of his Second Amendment rights based on nothing more than an unverified suspicion, the San Bernardino killers were not on the "no fly" list or the FBI's so-called Terrorist Watchlist.

Obama's other proposal—banning the rifles used in the attack, which he described as "assault weapons" even though they did not qualify as such under California law—at least has something to do with the actual facts of the case. But there is no reason to think arbitrarily prohibiting firearms based on their scary, military-style looks will have any impact on the ability of terrorists to kill innocent people.

Other gun control advocates would go further. The New York Times, in its first front-page editorial since 1920, called for mass confiscation of guns "to reduce their number drastically" by "eliminating some large categories of weapons and ammunition." It did not get much more specific than that, although New York Times columnist Gail Collins claimed "semiautomatic weapons"—a category that includes many hunting rifles and almost all modern handguns aside from revolvers—"are totally inappropriate for either hunting or home defense."

The Los Angeles Times, which is openly contemptuous of the notion that the Second Amendment protects any rights the government needs to respect, demanded a federal ban on "military-style weapons," an unspecified limit on the size of magazines, and background checks when parents give guns to their children. It also would "get rid of most concealed-carry laws."

The reasoning behind that last suggestion is hard to comprehend. In the face of self-directed terrorists who are invisible until they strike, the last thing we should do is prevent law-abiding Americans from carrying guns. Autonomous terrorism calls for autonomous defense.

© Copyright 2015 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

NEXT: Authorities Raid Home of Possible Bitcoin Founder

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. The FBI and most other stats on mass killings don’t include anything less than four shootings or deaths, which might seem reasonable to count as a mass killing. But this guy took a different tack, and counted public shootings which were stopped before the shooter got a chance to graduate to the four level of statistical recognition, and found that most of them were stopped by a civilian, not police. This also makes sense, since police have to be called to the scene, usually, whereas civilians on scene can react almost instantly.

    1. It turns out the death toll of mass shootings where civilians intervene is much lower than when the police do. Which stands to reason, the civilians are right there, the cops have to drive there and then go to work.

  2. This incident, like all such incidents, is being used as an opportunity for greater central control. Gun control is not rooted in any real desire to protect people.

  3. Newspapers in far away cities deciding what rights I can have and how I should be able to defend myself is arrogance beyond belief.

  4. People in far away states telling me how I should live my life is arrogance beyond belief, but the concept of Federalism died a painful death a long time ago.

  5. Guns are sort of an anamist totem that signify all that is wrong with society to most people on the left. Autonomous defense as outlined in this article is a very good idea that will never be implemented on a large scale.

    1. Present company excepted, of course.

  6. An armed civilian is a citizen, a disarmed civilian is a subject*. Obama and the rest of the gun grabbers don’t want citizens, they want subjects. Deep down these proggie assholes long for a return to the days of Feudalism, when the peasants knew their place and all they had to do was claim the divine right of kings as opposed to having to win tedious elections.

    *I saw that on a bumper sticker once

    1. So, human nature hasn’t magically changed because of . . . pretty lies?

  7. So what is stopping terrorists like the California shooters from becoming suicide bombers? Let’s just say that we prevented every terrorists mass shooting from now on through gun control. AWESOME! (impossible). These are people who are hell bent on killing us. They will just escalate their weapon of choice.

    1. I hate to say it, but firearms are really amateur hour. If by some miracle authorities made acquisition of firearms impossible, the jihadis would resort to other much nastier methods. And the statists would blame the gun owners.

      1. I was kind of thinking the same thing.

      2. “I’m afraid your post is off-topic. The only deaths that count are gun-deaths.”

        Meanwhile, the three worst mass murders since 1990 involved no firearms at all: Happy Land night club, Murrah Federal Building, and 9/11.

        1. That’s an excellent point. It is such a tell that they insist on talking about “gun deaths”, like no other kind of violent crime exists. It’s all about framing the discussion and sticking to the narrative.

        2. Meanwhile, the three worst mass murders since 1990 involved no firearms at all

          Neither did the deadliest school massacre in U.S. history.

  8. Strange but true, the following. Regarding the terrorist actions in Paris, the most recent ones, though the following applies to previous episodes too, as well as the latest California shooting, readers may add such others as come to their minds, the presence of an armed citizen, or citizens might have checked the antics of the shooter or shooters. Some will not doubt question my assumption, however it remains that the absence of an armed citizen or armed citizens left victims in the unenviable position of being “sitting ducks”, no question about that..

  9. Progs and commies are delirious is they think criminals, terrorists, and the crazed with comply with their call for mass confiscation of guns.

    Can you see it?

    Criminal one. – lets rob a bank
    Criminal two – I don’t know about that.
    Criminal one – why not?
    Criminal two – we have to turn in those weapons. They’re against the law now!
    Criminal one – damn it – how about knives?

  10. Several good points here. How effective and efficient vigilante citizens would be against terrorists equipped as in San Bernadino is an open question. If they are effective, we can be sure of only one thing: that the terrorists will change tactics as they have in the past. Body armor, switching from guns to bombs, suicide belts as in Paris – there are many options. Wider or narrower access to guns will only affect the casual terrorist.

  11. Nice to see Reason catching up with its commentariat.

    No Soft Targets

  12. When people gather in numbers, alcohol is often present, and it’s become customary to assign the role of designated driver. That’s the responsible thing to do these days. Why not designated shooters? Whether company policy at office parties and business lunches, organized by groups of friends, or just another basic duty of a party host, there should be one or more persons known to be a trained, competent shooter who is obligated both to stay sober, and to carry. Everybody wins. Those who already carry feel validated. Those who are timorous of terrorists feel safer. Bosses and public venues get free security. Who will be the first to sue a company or restaurant after loss of a relative because they failed to designate a shooter?

  13. Mr. Sullum,

    I’ve had thoughts along this same line — in effect, a well-trained, well-armed populace is the current iteration of the militia referenced in the Second Amendment. There’s a reasonable (a Reason-able?) argument to be made for offering gun education courses in our high schools just as we offer driver’s education.

    However, this only goes so far. Even if everyone attending a football game were concealed-carrying, this is useless when a terrorist enters the stadium (or walks up next to one) with an explosive vest or a vial of sarin gas. What is the autonomous defense for that?

    Thanks for your work,

    1. There isn’t…but what is the non-autonomous defense for it?

  14. The Times loonies need a reality check. perhaps to stage a mock raid on Times’ headquarters…… camoed actors rushing the place, “assault weapons” firing dummy rounds, herding people into smaller rooms apparently to be shot…… but one or three “plants” amongt the employees get to play hero, pull out their “guns” and “shoot” back, thus saving the day and driving off the “attackers”….. but that wil never happen, will it? These lunks don’t want to face reality.

    Interesting, the most shrill cries for more “common sense gun safety laws” always come from areas that already have the most restrictive laws…. which never do prevent what they are purported to prevent. NONE of the LA Times’ laws stopped the San Berdoo massacre, did they? The murderes still obtained their guns(complying, ignoring) and brought them into a place that is a no no for guns (ignoring), and still used them for evil. (ignoring), putting into service banned magazines (ignored) to kill or maim dozens (ignored). WHAT guarantee do the Times offer to assure us 1 (or 1000) new laws will work, after their abysmal track record? Either the Times staff are smoking too much wacky weed, or they think WE are. Got news for ya, Times: your senseless prattling is NOT about to disarm the 100Mn Americans who own 400Mn guns to “Mr. and Mrs, America, turn them all in”. No matter the threat to our security and/or longevity we might face in the refusal to comply.

    1. To be fair, California doesn’t have the gun control laws that California wants. It has the gun control laws that can survive the Supreme Court.

      Unless we turn over our 2nd Amendment rights to the 10th Amendment, we’ll never find out if any state’s gun control laws could *really* be effective.

  15. Ah, from the title I thought we were gonna talk about personal armed drones. Little pistol-toting quad-copters hovering about me who can strike out at any time after I designate a target (probably through my Google Glass interface).

    But the “good guy with a gun” myth? Eh. Boring.

  16. It’s not just Obama who “seems ideologically incapable of considering” the basic strategic fact that centralization is best for offense but decentralization is best for defense. When the centrally controlled Maginot line at our airports made 9/11 possible, the bipartisan response was a call for even more empowering of Washington and disarming of everyone else.

    When World War II broke out, Germany surrounded Switzerland with an army larger than the country’s entire population. Switzerland responded by appointing a general (normally, there is no officer with that rank), who went on the radio and told his fellow citizens that anyone who said that their country had surrendered was lying…because there is no person or entity in the nation legally authorized to surrender.

    That’s not the only reason Germany never attacked Switzerland, but it was an important one. Cutting off a beast’s head works only if that’s where its controlling intelligence is.

    That’s why I don’t think terrorists would escalate if Americans mounted an autonomous defense with privately owned guns; I think they would go after easier targets, like most of the European countries. The simple existence of that defense would mean their tactics weren’t working, because the way they do work is to get people to surrender all their defensive capabilities to fewer and fewer people in the central government. *Then* you get out the suicide vests and take out the people who hold that defensive power.

  17. “Unlike Obama’s gun control proposals, armed citizens can stop mass shooters who are invisible until they strike.”

    Except, of course, that they almost never have. Furthermore, in exchange for those rare occasions when they have, many more people are killed due to the proliferation of gun ownership, including the loons who blast away in parking lots because they think something’s amiss.

    The average adult only rarely remembers to follow basic traffic law, but you want him to start blasting away almost invariably without relevant training and under the most difficult circumstances? Reason, you’re a card.

  18. Brilliant. When the Reason Foundation clears out the deadwood, please keep Sullum and Jesse.

  19. If you are hunting a Grizzly Bear or a Brown bear using anything less than a semiautomatic is insane.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.