The Volokh Conspiracy

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Private Gun Carriers' Self-Defense Against Public Shooters

The El Paso incident from a few days ago, the FBI 2021 statistics, and more.


I had written about this in past years, but I thought I'd update it to reflect the El Paso incident from last week. According to the El Paso Police Department (see also CNN [Andy Rose]), a confrontation between two groups of teenagers at a mall "escalated into a physical fight" and then into a 16-year-old fatally shooting a member of the other group and seriously wounding another member, as well as injuring a member of his own group. Then,

As soon as the shooting ended, the 16-year-old suspect began to run and was pointing the gun towards the direction of bystanders, including 32-year-old Emanuel Duran, a Licensed to Carry Holder. As the suspect ran towards Duran and bystanders, Duran drew his handgun and shot the suspect.

At that time, one off-duty El Paso Police Officer arrived at the area of the shooting and together with Duran rendered aid to the 16-year old suspect and the others that were injured. Investigators found that there were at least two other legally armed citizens in the area of where the shooting took place, but were not involved.

Now in this case, the suspect didn't seem to have planned a mass shooting; he seems to have had a beef with the other teenagers. On the other hand, he appears to have been pointing his gun towards the bystanders, so it's hard to know what would have happened. And something similar could easily have happened with an intended mass shooting as well; for an incident like that from last year, see this WCHS-TV story:

Police said a woman who was lawfully carrying a pistol shot and killed a man who began shooting at a crowd of people Wednesday night in Charleston.

Dennis Butler was killed after allegedly shooting at dozens of people attending a graduation party Wednesday …. No injuries were reported from those at the party.

Investigators said Butler was warned about speeding in the area with children present before he left. He later returned with an AR-15-style firearm and began firing into the crowd before he was shot and killed.

"Instead of running from the threat, she engaged with the threat and saved several lives last night," Charleston Police Department Chief of Detectives Tony Hazelett said.

According to WCHS-TV (Bob Aaron), Butler was a convicted felon, and was thus not legally allowed to own guns. In principle, perhaps he might still have been stopped by (say) a law requiring background checks, which would likely have stopped law-abiding sellers from selling him the gun; but it's not clear whether someone with his criminal record would have much been stymied by that, as opposed to just buying a gun on the black market. Likewise, in El Paso, CNN reports that the gun used by the 16-year-old shooter was reported stolen.

I gathered some more examples from over the years here, and then followed up with data based on FBI reports of mass shootings in 2016 and 2017: legal civilian gun carriers tried to intervene in 6 out of 50 incidents, and apparently succeeded in 3 or 4 of them.

The FBI also has 2021 data (I don't expect the 2022 data until later this year). That reports 61 "active shooter" incidents, of which 12 were treated as "mass killing" incidents, and 4 of those active shooter incidents led to "shooters [being] killed by citizen," all apparently involve gun-wielding citizens (PDF p. 4, 11-12). Two more incidents involved citizens detaining a shooter without using guns themselves. Some of the incidents I discussed in my earlier posts involved gun-wielding citizens stopping a shooter without killing him, but none seem to have occurred that way in 2021.

A few thoughts, which I'd mentioned before, but which I thought I'd repeat:

[1.] Unsurprisingly, sometimes the good guy (or, in the West Virginia incident, gal) with a gun succeeds and sometimes not. Sometimes 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). But it is 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 cases if people were legally allowed to have their guns there.

[4.] Finally, always keep in mind that public shooting situations should not be the main focus in the gun debate, whether for gun control or gun decontrol: Active-shooter mass shootings 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). Likewise, shootings at malls when they're open, whether they involve an active shooter or a fight that leads to a shooting and then the shooter running with possibly ambiguous intentions, are quite rare. But people talk about such public shootings a lot, so I thought I'd offer a perspective on them for those who are interested.

Thanks to Prof. Glenn Reynolds (InstaPundit) for the pointer to the El Paso story.