The Volokh Conspiracy

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Civilians with Guns Intervening in Active Shooter Incidents—the 2016 and 2017 Data

Data from the FBI's Active Shooter Incidents in the United States in 2016 and 2017 report; legal civilian gun carriers tried to intervene in 6 out of 50 incidents, and apparently succeeded in 3 or 4 of them.


[Photo credit: Oleg Volk.]

Backers of laws that let pretty much all law-abiding people carry concealed guns in public places often argue that these laws will sometimes enable people to stop mass shootings. Opponents sometimes ask: If that's so, what examples can one give of civilians armed with guns stopping such shootings? Sometimes, I hear people asking if even one such example can be found, or saying that they haven't heard of even one such example. This prompted me to post in late 2015 about 10 such incidents that I had found in roughly the preceding 20 years.

Thanks to a recent FBI report, we have more data on 2016-17. The FBI found 50 shootings throughout the U.S. that it labeled "active shooter incidents"—"one or more individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area." Of those, four involved situations where the FBI believes that "citizens possessing valid firearms permits successfully stopped the shooter." (Four others involved "unarmed citizens [who] confronted or persuaded the shooter to end the shooting.")

On September 28, 2016, at 1:45 p.m., Jesse Dewitt Osborne, 14, armed with a handgun, allegedly began shooting at the Townville Elementary School playground in Townville, South Carolina. Prior to the shooting, the shooter, a former student, killed his father at their home. Two people were killed, including one student; three were wounded, one teacher and two students. A volunteer firefighter, who possessed a valid firearms permit, restrained the shooter until law enforcement officers arrived and apprehended him. [UPDATE: A commenter points out that the firefighter apparently restrained the shooter after the shooter's only gun had already jammed, though the firefighter apparently hadn't know when he went looking for the shooter; the FBI report did not note this.]

On September 24, 2017, at 11:15 a.m., Emanuel Kidega Samson, 25, armed with two handguns, allegedly began shooting in the parking lot of the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tennessee. After killing one person, the shooter entered the church and shot six people. A citizen who attempted to subdue the shooter was pistol-whipped. During the altercation, the shooter accidently shot himself. While the shooter was preoccupied, the citizen, who possessed a valid firearms permit, retrieved a handgun from his car and held the shooter at gunpoint until law enforcement arrived. One person was killed; seven were wounded. The shooter was apprehended by law enforcement.

On November 5, 2017, at 11:20 a.m., Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, armed with a rifle, exited his vehicle and began shooting outside the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. He then entered the church and continued shooting at members of the congregation. The shooter exited the church and was confronted by a citizen who possessed a valid firearms permit. The citizen shot the shooter twice, causing the shooter to drop his rifle and flee the scene in his vehicle. The armed citizen, together with the owner of a pickup truck, pursued the shooter. The chase ended when the shooter's vehicle struck a road sign and overturned. Twenty-six people were killed; 20 were wounded. The shooter committed suicide with a handgun he had in his vehicle before police arrived.

On November 17, 2017, at 4:30 p.m., Robert Lorenzo Bailey, Jr., 28, armed with a handgun, allegedly began shooting in the parking lot of Schlenker Automotive in Rockledge, Florida. The manager of the auto repair shop and an employee, both possessing valid firearms permits, exchanged gunfire with the shooter. One person was killed; one was wounded. The shooter, shot twice during the exchange, was held at gunpoint by the manager until law enforcement arrived and took him into custody.

In one more incident, "a citizen possessing a valid firearms permit exchanged gunfire with the shooter,causing the shooter to flee to another scene and continue shooting."

On October 23, 2017, at 11:23 a.m., Alan Ashmore, 61, armed with a shotgun and a handgun, allegedly began firing into several homes and a vehicle in Clearlake Oaks, California, killing two people, including his father, and wounding one. Another person was wounded while fleeing out of a residence window. The shooter then shot and wounded a responding law enforcement officer before fleeing in his vehicle. The shooter drove to a nearby gas station and exchanged gunfire with the vendor, who possessed a valid firearms permit. The shooter fled the scene in his vehicle and drove to another gas station where he fired more shots. The shooter then drove to a nearby winery and shot at some employees before surrendering to law enforcement officers after a short vehicle pursuit. The entire incident lasted about 30 minutes. Two people were killed; three were wounded (including one law enforcement officer and one person who sustained injuries incidental to the incident). The shooter was apprehended by law enforcement.

And in one more incident, a man with a concealed carry permit tried to help, but was shot and wounded (and the police seem to have at first thought he might have been one of the bad guys, though fortunately they figured things out quickly enough):

On May 29, 2016, at 10:15 a.m., Dionisio Agustine Garza III, 25, armed with a rifle and a handgun, began shooting at Memorial Tire and Auto in Houston, Texas. One person was killed; six were wounded, including two law enforcement officers and an armed civilian who was wounded while attempting to stop the shooter. The shooter was killed in an exchange of gunfire with law enforcement officers.

A few observations:

[1.] Unsurprisingly, sometimes the good guy with a gun succeeds and sometimes not. Sometimes (as in the Burnette Chapel Church incident) the success might be a lucky break; sometimes a lucky break for the defender might have ended the incident more quickly. And it's impossible to tell for sure how many lives, if any, were saved in the aggregate, because that's generally a counterfactual. Still, the aggregate pattern seems to be that armed civilian self-defense takes place in a significant fraction of active shooter incidents.

[2.] None of this proves that broad concealed carry rights on balance do more good than harm (or vice versa). It's simply a response to claims that I've heard that the good guy with a gun never helps; these incidents further show that there are potential pluses to broad concealed carry rights, and of course there are potential minuses as well.

[3.] Some shootings are in places where concealed carry is not allowed, such as on school premises or in jurisdictions where concealed carry licenses are often hard to get. It's hard to tell for sure how many of the shootings fit into this category, because laws vary from state to state, and rules vary from business to business (plus in some states carrying in a business that prohibits guns is itself a crime). But it's possible that there would have been more defensive uses of guns in some of these cases if people were legally allowed to have their guns there.

[4.] Finally, always keep in mind that active shooter situations should not be the main focus in the gun debate, whether for gun control or gun decontrol: They on average account for less than 1% of the U.S. homicide rate and are unusually hard to stop through gun control laws (since the killer is bent on committing a publicly visible murder and is thus unlikely to be much deterred by gun control law, or by the prospect of encountering an armed bystander). But people talk about them a lot, so I thought I'd offer a perspective on them for those who are interested.

Thanks to Clayton Cramer for the pointer.