“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun,” quoth Wayne LaPierre, “is a good guy with a gun.” When he and his acolytes say that—and they say it a fucking lot—they're not talking about trained law enforcement officials, but armed civilians.
LaPierre is the executive vice president—and, oftentimes, the public face—of the National Rifle Association, so it’s safe to say that he’s got skin in the game. His words have become a rallying cry for gun rights advocates, and it’s easy to see why. They’re simple, unfussy, and direct. They’ve got a nice ring to them. The problem is, they’re utter horseshit—a pop-culture-fueled wish-fulfillment fantasy with no basis in reality.
I should know. As a thriller writer, I make my living peddling that fantasy. And as a scientist, I know a thing or two about analyzing data.
LaPierre’s axiom is repeated ad nauseam every time a mass shooting dominates the news cycle. And don’t get me wrong: an armed civilian has, on occasion, had a positive impact on an active shooter situation—but the numbers indicate that it’s exceedingly unlikely. A 2014 FBI report that looked at 160 mass shootings between 2000 and 2013 determined that 56% of them “ended on the shooter’s initiative” (meaning suicide, surrender, or fleeing the scene). 28% ended after “law enforcement and the shooter exchanged gunfire.” And 13% “ended after unarmed citizens [emphasis mine] safely and successfully restrained the shooter.”
So how many were ended by armed civilians? Five, for a total of 3%, although four of those five were actually on-duty security guards. That’s right: out of 160 mass shootings examined by the FBI, only one ended favorably thanks to the intervention of an armed Samaritan. For those playing along at home, that works out to about 0.6%.
The NRA and their proxies claim that this is because most mass shooters intentionally target gun-free zones, such as schools—the implication being that the shooters are afraid of all those good guys with guns—but the FBI’s report indicates no such bias in their decision-making, and a subsequent study by Everytown for Gun Safety concluded that only 14% of the mass shootings between 2009 and 2014 took place within gun-free zones.
Of course, horrifying though they are, mass shootings represent less than 1% of firearm deaths in the United States—and if we expand the conversation to include all firearm deaths, the argument in favor of flooding our streets with guns gets weaker still.
A Washington Post analysis of the FBI’s 2012 homicide data indicated that for every justifiable gun homicide, there were thirty-four criminal gun homicides, seventy-eight gun suicides, and two accidental gun fatalities. That’s one hundred fourteen senseless deaths for every bad guy in the ground.
The good guys are losing in a rout.
The Post’s conclusions, though alarming, are hardly an aberration. In 2008, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine determined that living in a home with guns made you twice as likely to be murdered, and four times as likely to commit suicide.
It’s no wonder the NRA has lobbied hard for decades to prevent federal funding from being used to research gun violence.
Despite their attempts to stonewall, the numbers are clear, and the conclusions are painfully obvious: the more guns we have—on our streets, in our homes—the less safe we become. But, according to a recent Gallup poll, 63% of Americans still feel safer with a gun in the house, and whenever there’s a mass shooting, gun sales actually go up.
Why is that? What makes the idea of a good guy with a gun so seductive? I think the answer lies not in fact, but in fiction.
The modern action hero—think Lee Child’s Jack Reacher or Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne—is the latest iteration in an archetype that’s existed for as long as we’ve told stories. Fifty years ago, they would’ve been PIs. A hundred or so, they would’ve been cowboys. Five hundred years ago, they would have been knights errant—unwavering in their honor, unerring in their sense of justice, unmatched in their skill with bladed weapons.
It’s a potent archetype because it’s aspirational—we’d all like to think that there's a hero inside us, just waiting to be called to action—and because we feel safer believing men (until recently, they’ve almost all been men) like that exist. But despite their gritty, real-world trappings, these characters have more in common with superheroes than living, breathing humans.
I don't care how much you love superhero movies; if some rando put on a spandex bodysuit and patrolled your neighborhood, you'd quite rightly think that he was off his nut. Why don’t we feel the same about an untrained dope thinking he’s John Rambo every time he carries concealed?
Look, I'm from a hunting family. A law-enforcement family. I was raised around firearms, and I’ve seen firsthand what responsible gun ownership looks like. But the fact is, innocent people are dying. We need to do something to stem the tide of gun violence. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and anyone who claims they do is lying—but it's possible to take decisive action without running afoul of the Second Amendment or penalizing responsible gun owners.
A good first step would be to close the private sale loophole by implementing universal background checks. In most states, private sellers (a term that encompasses anyone who’s not a licensed dealer) aren’t required to run background checks, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority (approximately 96%, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence) of repeat gun offenders obtain the weapons they use in the commission of crimes via private sales.
Currently, only eight states (plus the District of Columbia) require universal background checks. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence determined that those states "experience 48% less gun trafficking, 38% fewer deaths of women shot by intimate partners, and 17% fewer firearms involved in aggravated assaults. States with universal background check requirements also have a 53% lower gun suicide rate, and 31% fewer suicides." And if universal background checks were implemented nationwide, those numbers would almost certainly improve, because criminals couldn't simply drive to neighboring states to buy guns.
Seems reasonable, doesn’t it? That must be why the vast majority of Americans—including 84% of gun owners and 74% of NRA members, according to a 2013 survey conducted by the New England Journal of Medicine—support universal background checks.
If only the NRA itself were so reasonable. They’ve sunk millions into opposing commonsense gun control measures. In recent years, they've also pushed through legislation that made it easier for criminals, terrorists, and the mentally ill to purchase firearms, despite the fact that the majority of their members oppose such measures.
Maybe they oughta listen to those good guys with guns.