Note – This article originally appeared in The Trace on August 25th
Late last Friday afternoon on a train bound for Paris, a man armed with an AK-47, Luger pistol, and a box-cutter opened fire after being confronted by a passenger on the way to the bathroom, grievously injuring another traveler. Hearing the gunshots, three Americans and a Briton sprang into action, sprinting through the cabin and throwing themselves at the gunman. In the short, vicious struggle that ensued, one of the Americans was wounded, but the group was able to overpower the gunman. All of the heroes were unarmed.
In the wake of mass shootings, Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association (NRA) frequently returns to a familiar soundbite: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” The corollary of which is that unarmed civilians are helpless “fish in a barrel.” But the heroes on that French train clearly demonstrated otherwise — and the outcome of that active-shooter incident is just the most recent in a list of examples refuting an argument that has become central to the push for expanded gun rights.
An FBI report released in 2014 examined 160 active shooting incidents between 2000 and 2013. As we detailed in a previous article, analysis of such cases provides insights into the role of bystanders in minimizing casualties that an exclusive focus on mass shootings (where four or more people are killed) cannot. Of the 160 incidents in the study, 21 were stopped by unarmed civilians. Six more were stopped by armed guards and off-duty police officers. Only one was stopped by a concealed-carry permit holder, who happened to be a highly trained U.S. Marine. In this highly analyzed sample, unarmed citizens did a better job at preventing tragedy than civilians wielding firearms.
Indeed, armed citizens who have attempted to intervene in active-shooting situations have had limited success. During the Tacoma Mall Shooting in 2005, an armed citizen who attempted to intervene was gunned down and paralyzed for life almost immediately. In 2011, when a gunman opened fire on Gabby Gifford’s rally in Tucson, a nearby good guy with a gun rushed to the scene and came perilously close to shooting the wrong man. More recently in 2014, a man with a concealed handgun tried to stop an armed couple in Las Vegas and was quickly murdered.
Along with armed civilians’ dismal track record of halting active shooters, there is very little evidence that using a gun in any self-defense situation is more effective than alternative means of protecting oneself. A recent study published in the Journal of Preventative Medicine by Dr. David Hemenway at the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed data from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), and found that an individual who uses a gun in self-defense is no more likely to reduce his or her risk of injury than someone who takes no action at all. Firearms also failed to provide any significant advantage in terms of protecting one’s property.
That’s not to say that armed citizens never stop crimes or save lives. But the data shows that carrying a gun for self-defense does not make a person safer — and because more guns equals more violent crime, it also does not lead to a safer country. While rigorous research has already documented this fact, anecdotes can illustrate it in a way that commands public attention. Unfortunately, these stories are too often forgotten in favor of the narratives cast by gun-rights advocates, in which humans are powerless without the aid of a firearm.