The Gun-Free Zone Myth: No relationship between Gun-Free Zones and Mass Shootings

Posted On July 27, 2013
July 27, 2013

This post challenges the belief that ‘gun-free zones’, areas such as schools and work place institutions, are breeding grounds for a mass shooting. The commonly held belief that mass shooters are attracted to gun-free, vulnerable areas is shown to lack evidentiary substantiation. The idea that schools have been made safer by armed guards is also challenged.

Myth:

“…research into gun crimes indicates that establishing ‘gun-free zones’ (at schools, for example) actually makes mass shootings more likely…” – John Lott

“Politicians pass laws for gun-free school zones. They issue press release bragging about them. They post signs advertising them, and in doing so, they tell every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk.” – Wayne LaPierre

“Would you feel safer with a sign on your house saying ‘this house is a gun-free zone’? But if you wouldn’t put these signs on your home, why put them elsewhere?” – John Lott

Overview of Pro-Gun Arguments:

  • Criminals are attracted to areas where they won’t face armed resistance. Mass shooters in particular are interested in maximizing the number of people they can kill, and thus avoid areas where a lot of people carry guns.
  • Mass shootings would be more likely and more deadly in areas where there are no armed citizens ready to take down the shooter. After all, the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
  • Places with higher levels of gun control like cities have higher levels of gun homicides, which stems from a lack of armed good guys. Gun laws only prevent the law abiding from being adequately armed to stop bad guys.
  • Whether gun-free zones attract shooters has no bearing on the effect of gun-free zones. What matters is that shooters cannot easily be stopped in gun-free zones. Whether they attract shooters doesn’t matter when the fact remains that shootings that occur in gun-free zones are extremely difficult to stop specifically because they are in gun-free zones.

Reality

Gun Free Zones do not attract mass shootings

Mass shooters are completely unconcerned about whether or not an area is a “Gun-Free Zone.” A study conducted by Mother Jones found that, in 62 mass shootings over 32 years, there were exactly zero instances of a killer targeting a place because of a gun ban. New data from Mayors Against Illegal Guns confirm this point, by showing that in all 56 mass shootings between 2009 and 2013, “no more than one quarter of the shootings occurred in public spaces that were so-called ‘gun-free zones.” Neither the motive nor the location of a mass shooting, therefore, have anything to do with ‘gun-free zones.’

Instead, data clearly show that a killer’s motives are reliably tethered to the source of their grievances and prejudices: workplaces, schools, religious institutions, and so forth. Mass shooters are simply not the calculating, death-optimizing machines that gun proponents depict them to be. Twelve of the sixty-two mass shootings surveyed took place at a school, and in all but one of them, the killer had direct ties to the school they targeted. Twenty of the sixty-two mass shootings occurred at the workplace, and each involved disgruntled employees taking their grievances out on employers and colleagues. And according to a study done by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, in 57% of mass shootings, the shooter targeted a former or current intimate partner.

These statistics seriously challenge the case that mass shooters dispassionately pursue vulnerable, target-rich environments to maximize their number of fatalities, and are instead shaped by motives directly related to their past.

Even if it appears that there is a relationship between the existence of a gun-free zone and the materialization of a mass shooting, as gun advocates like John Lott claim (to be clear: there is not), we should be reticent to assert causality—places like schools and offices are dense, populous environments that naturally attract shooters who seek to rectify perceived mistreatment or unfairness. That they happen to also be gun-free zones is coincidence.

Furthermore, thirty-six mass shooters in the Mother Jones study committed suicide at or near the crime-scene, and 7 more committed ‘suicide-by-cop’ by engaging in a knowingly unwinnable shootout with police. This is not the sort of behavior that suggests that mass shooters are deterred by the prospect of gun-imposed security. Instead of guns deterring crime, not one of the 62 mass shootings surveyed was ended by an armed civilian, and the presence of an armed civilian often exacerbated the situation by complicating police enforcement and increasing the risk that an innocent civilian may accidentally be killed due to imprecise marksmanship.

It is worth noting, too, that Australia’s gun laws essentially transformed the entire country into a ‘gun-free’ zone. If Lott and his ilk were right about ‘gun-free’ zones increasing the likelihood of mass shootings, we should have seen a spike in the number of mass shootings since the 1996 Australian gun reforms. We might even expect mass shooters, given their ostensibly death-optimizing approach, to move to Australia prior to mass shootings in order to kill as many innocents as possible. Instead, we see just the opposite: in the 18 years before gun law reforms, there were 13 mass shootings in Australia; in the 17 years after, there has not been a single one. Firearm homicides and suicide also doubled their existing rate of decline. There is no way to square this empirical reality with gun proponent’s suggestion that mass shooters are attracted to areas deprived of guns.

Schools are not homicide breeding grounds

 If it were the case that “gun-free” zones attract killers because of their susceptibility to armed violence, we should expect places like schools to carry a high burden of youth homicides—a prediction I will term the “vulnerability” hypothesis.  A 2011 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, however, found that “the percentage of youth homicides occurring at school remained at less than 2 percent of the total number of youth homicides.” Furthermore, less than 1% of all nonfatal firearm violence occurs at schools.

To put the improbability of mass deaths occurring at school in context, consider that the total number of handgun deaths in the United States (1980-2006) was about 32,000 per year. By comparison, since 1980, 297 people have been killed in school shootings. This amounts to roughly 9 deaths per year at school. Essentially, John Lott and other gun-advocates want teachers, professors, and security officers carrying guns in order to deter extremely unlikely events, a policy that has no substantiating evidence and may actually increase the likelihood of gun fatalities.

While there is little evidence to validate the efficacy of armed guards or officers, there is a plethora of research showing that a large armed presence on school grounds institutionalizes the early criminalization of Black and Latino males. Armed officers at schools are quick to make arrests and write tickets, fast-tracking these students into the criminal justice system, rather than college, having an overall negative effect on net educational outcomes. There will be subsequent posts about this in the future, but for now, know that there is a positive association, controlling for a variety of socioeconomic and demographic variables, between the existence of armed guards and school violence, seriously weakening the argument for their presence.

Despite the fact that one-third of our nation’s schools have armed guards or officers, there is no evidence that these measures have deterred or de-escalated mass shootings. Denise C. Gottfredson, a criminologist at the University of Maryland renowned for her research on school violence argues that, “there is no evidence that placing officers in the schools improves safety […] it increases the number of minor behavior problems that are referred to the police, pushing kids into the criminal system.” It’s no coincidence that in both the Columbine and the Virginia Tech shootings there were armed guards who failed to mitigate the shooting spree.

Instead, if we’re interested in cost-effective, life-saving measures for students at schools, consider the fact that 4,600 young people between the ages of 10 and 24 commit suicide each year, with about 2,000 of those suicides involving firearms. Between 1999 and 2010, 800 children under 14 were killed in gun accidents, with one in five injury-related deaths of young people involving firearms. Another 5,000 school-age children are murdered each year, many with firearms. If we’re interested in the lives of school-age children, the $15 billion that would be required to satisfy NRA’s demands for armed guards could be better spent on well-known policy solutions to firearm related youth suicides, homicides, and accidents.  

About Evan DeFilippis

Evan DeFilippis graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a triple degree in Economics, Political Science, and Psychology. He wrote for the university's opinion page, and received an outstanding contributor award twice for his publications on student apathy. He was the University of Oklahoma's valedictorian in 2012, he is one of the nation's few Harry S. Truman Scholars based on his commitment to public service, and is a David L. Boren Critical Languages scholar, fluent in Swahili, and dedicated to a career in African development. He will be starting work as a Project Associate for Innovations for Poverty Action working on a project called the Kenya Life Survey Panel in September.

21 Comments

  1. Pingback: The MAD Theory of Guns | Armed With Reason

  2. NRA_member_0311   August 8, 2013 1:25 am / Reply

    There’s a GAPING problem with your article. You simply dismiss the idea that mass shooters happened to target an area that was gun free out of “coincidence.” That’s a nice little way of dismissing what is more-than-likely a secondary motivation for the location of their rampage. Just because there’s a bigger, more personal motivator for attacking, say, an elementary school, does NOT mean that the fact that its a gun free zone by law is irrelevant. There’s no such thing as coincidence.

    Take Sandy Hook, for example. The Connecticut State Police Colonel said in New Orleans this year at the IACP annual conference that they believe Adam Lanza’s motive for attacking Sandy Hook Elementary was because it was the path of least resistance wherein he could rack up the most kills, as in a video game. One of the primary reasons it was a path of least resistance is BECAUSE it was a gun free zone. Here’s the source:

    http://m.nydailynews.com/1.1291408

    Nice try though.

  3. SomeGuyWhoReadsBothSides   August 10, 2013 6:39 pm / Reply

    Read this study, and note both who the authors are, and note the 1st sentence in the conclusion, if all you read is headlines.
    If you want a more comprehensive understanding of the issue, then read the entire study.

    http://www.cjcj.org/uploads/cjcj/documents/Mass_shootings.pdf

    • Devin Hughes   August 10, 2013 7:39 pm / Reply

      Thank you for sharing. Although I don’t normally make a habit of responding to comments, you are the first to actually provide any evidence supporting your position. I have, in fact, read this study before. There is academic disagreement on whether the 1996 ban actually helped reduce homicides and is responsible for there being no mass shootings since (4 people or more killed in one shooting). Most of the disagreement stems from the fact that Australia’s homicide rate was already falling before this legislation. All of the major studies concerning the law found a statistically significant decrease in suicides (which the study you reference admits, although there may have been other contributing factors). As you appear to be interested in evidence rather than talking points and insults (for which I am much obliged), here are two studies that do find the reduction of mass shootings to be statistically significant: (http://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/12/6/365.full.pdf+html and “Do Gun Buybacks Save Lives: Evidence from Time Series Valuation” by Christine Neill and Andrew Leigh (unfortunately no link to the second (accessed from library), the important part is that it states in the footnotes that the sudden disappearance in mass shootings being due to pure chance alone is well less than 1 percent). Saying that these gun laws had no effect on reducing the homicide/suicide/mass shooting rates is as statistically naïve as suggesting that these laws were solely responsible for the decrease.

      One surprising thing overlooked by all of these studies is that the 1996-7 is at the end of a series of several laws strengthening gun regulations (in 88, 92, and 93). None of the studies that I have read on the issue have considered these laws in their analysis. The homicide and suicide rates peaked around 1985, and fell rapidly after these 3 laws proceeding the 1996 ban. By the time of the 96 law, the downward trend was already set, making it much harder to find a statistically significant effect.

  4. GlassWolf   August 10, 2013 6:43 pm / Reply

    This article ignores reality. The fact is that every mass shooting in recent history, save one, took place in a “gun free zone.” Also, if this article is true, then why did James Holmes drive 20 miles out of his way, past numerous other theaters, to reach the closest, and only local gun-free theater in Aurora? The fact is that gun-free zones don’t work. The only thing they do is give clueless people a false sense of security, and prevent those otherwise legally armed from defending themselves. Criminals don’t obey laws, so why cripple the people who do?

  5. freeballer   September 9, 2013 12:57 am / Reply

    thank you for making these incredibly coherent guide (of sorts) available. I run into the same arguments time and time again.. And although, I think, I’m fairly well informed on the subject of gun control every resource helps. I hope you do more of the series. There’s still tons of myths out there. I don’t think you’ll ever reach the gun nutters, as you pointed out in another post some people’s minds are set and unwilling or incapable of further change (to paraphrase). But you can arm our side with better tools, so we don’t have to be pushed around by nra bullies on social networking sites.

  6. larry   October 21, 2013 8:22 pm / Reply

    You cite places of employment as prime mass shooting locations. The reason shootings occur in the workplace is , even though the don’t have a “gun free” sign is because the employer makes it a “gun ‘free” zone . Normally the shooter is someone who has worked there and they know that.

  7. Jim Roth   January 17, 2014 5:13 pm / Reply

    It’s the other side of the coin that is often ignored. There is a deterrent effect that should be studied. If signs declaring “gun-free” zones really worked, then they’d be proudly displayed in the front yards of homes. That would be abject foolishness, virtually inviting burglary and worse. The idea behind protecting your home or yourself is simple: don’t be an appealing target. If a criminal has an inkling that there might be resistance, he will move to another target that increases his chance of “success.”

  8. William Ashbless   January 20, 2014 5:33 pm / Reply

    MAIG criteria for ‘Gun Free Zone’ is questionable. They discount the Navy Yard shootings as NOT being in a ‘GFZ’. Since the Navy Yard had armed guards/Police on the grounds it wasn’t ‘Gun Free’ Despite the fact that police/guard response was less than optimal.
    You could make that same argument that since cops have guns and they are allowed everywhere in public then there are no ‘GFZ. Their study is flawed.

  9. Skye Con   May 10, 2014 7:54 pm / Reply

    The statistical probability that being a gun free zone (GFZ) is not an enticement to mass shooters is astronomically small. For ease of demonstration,. assume that 50% of potential targets are GFZ and 50% are not. (The fact that less than 50% are GFZ only strengthens the conclusion below). Based on the 50% premise, if one shooting occurred at a GFZ, there is a 50% probability that the choice was coincidental. If two consecutive shootings occurred at GFZ.s, then the probability of being coincidental is 25%. Three consecutive? 12.5%. Four? 6.25%. Five ? 3.125%. Twenty? Astronomically small.

    The author also fails to draw an obvious conclusion from two of his own citations. One statement is that no shooter has claimed that the targets were chosen because of being in a GFZ. He also says that 36 of the shooters died.. He is surprised that 36 dead shooter didn’t address this issue…after they were dead?

    As a final note, I like the civility demonstrated in this thread. Very refreshing!

  10. Kyle   June 8, 2014 9:49 am / Reply

    I would be careful using data from Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Mother Jones. That’s like using data only from the NRA and National Review. MAIG is very pro-gun control and MJ is very far-left and very pro-gun-control. Regarding gun free zones, almost every mass shooting has occurred at one.

  11. Anon   July 2, 2014 9:21 pm / Reply

    For everyone saying “almost every mass shooting has occurred at one [a gun-free zone]”, the article addresses this, albeit in a less-than-ideal way. “Coincidence” was not really a good way to put it. It’s not really a coincidence at all.

    Being a gun-free zone isn’t why it’s an ideal target; it’s an ideal target because there are many people congregated in the same place… which is why it’s a gun-free zone in the first place.

    It would be like blaming crime on police presence because most crime happens where there is a heavy concentration of police. The reason WHY there is more police there is because there is more crime… not the other way around. The reason WHY these are gun-free zones is because these are places where guns are likely to harm the most people… not the other way around.

    • Weer'd Beard   July 5, 2014 11:46 am / Reply

      Except there are lots of large collections of people where there are no rules about the lawful carry of firearms, and people just don’t get shot there.

      We’ve read in constant manifestos and diaries of mass shooters where they factor in police response time into their sick little fantasy.

      Hell the Santa Barbara killer preferred to choose another date where there would have been MORE people on campus, but he elected to not attack on that date because there would have been an increased police presence and he knew he would have been shot sooner.

      The Aurora shooter drove PAST two theaters before he got to his target, because those theaters, tho just as big and crowded were NOT posted against lawfully held guns.

      It isn’t much of a “Gun Free Zone” when somebody is shooting at you, and it’s a bloodbath when you have to wait for police response until there is a good armed person.

  12. nspyraishn   July 5, 2014 6:55 pm / Reply

    First of all, Mother Jones is known to be one of the least reliable sources for academic-grade information. They’re heavily biased, cut corners in their “research” to make points, and ignore real scientific data except when they can frame it to support their claims.

    Second of all, here’s one of the top results I found when I searched “mass shootings in gun free zones”. http://cnsnews.com/mrctv-blog/matt-vespa/study-all-two-multiple-public-shootings-1950-took-place-where-guns-were-banned

    You DON’T KNOW their motivations, we’re not friggin’ mind readers, and for Mother Jones to suggest that their study “proves” otherwise is total bunk. Let’s go with the facts, shall we? The fact of the matter is that all but two of the major shootings in a public area were in gun free zones, and to just conveniently ignore this FACT by speciously claiming that circumstantial evidence can be used to read the shooter’s warped minds…is staggeringly ignorant. Stop trying to prove that your ideology is right by twisting the facts, and start taking the data at face value!

  13. Homeless Australian Dude   July 5, 2014 11:12 pm / Reply

    “You DON’T KNOW their motivations, we’re not friggin’ mind readers, and for Mother Jones to suggest that their study “proves” otherwise is total bunk.”

    wait, you’re telling me your side isn’t full of “friggin’ mind readers”? because all i hear from gun nuts is how mass shooters “target” gun-free zones or how gun-free zones “attract” mass shooters. by definition the people claiming this would have to know what the shooters motivations are (in other words be “friggin’ mind readers”). what the Mother Jones piece shows is that there is no evidence to support the claim that shooters target gun-free zones, unless of course you are a “friggin’ mind reader.”

    “The fact of the matter is that all but two of the major shootings in a public area were in gun free zones, and to just conveniently ignore this FACT by speciously claiming that circumstantial evidence can be used to read the shooter’s warped minds…is staggeringly ignorant.”

    ohhhhhhhhh, FACT. which as we all know know is so much better than mere fact; it’s capitalized therefore it must me truthier. so yes, let’s go with FACT.

    …3 seconds of googling later…

    certainly appears that your definition of FACT is the first blatant lie you stumble upon. your claim (which is actually John Lott’s claim) is easily debunked. Here is a report that shows your claim to be utterly false. http://libcloud.s3.amazonaws.com/9/56/4/1242/1/analysis-of-recent-mass-shootings.pdf. and before you go all ad hom on me and start complaining about how Everytown (which was formerly MAIG) is an advocacy group and that you can’t trust anything they produce, just look at it. they provide all the data up front. it is absurdly easy to fact check every claim in the report. John Lott even tried, but ended up producing even more lies (shock shock). here, i’ll even list the public ones for you where there is no uncertainty whatsoever about whether guns were legally allowed (there are more, but these are the ones that aren’t disputable):

    Crab Orchard, TN, 9/11/2013
    Herkimer, NY, 04/13/2013
    Northridge, CA, 12/02/2012
    Oak Creek, WI, 8/5/12
    Carson City, NV, 9/6/2011
    Tucson, AZ, 1/8/11
    Boston, MA, 09/28/10
    Buffalo, NY, 8/14/10
    Lakewood, WA, 11/29/09
    Mount Airy, NC, 11/01/09
    East Oakland, CA, 3/21/09
    Geneva County, AL, 3/10/09
    Brockport, NY, 02/14/2009

    including the public shootings where guns are allowed that have even the slightest bit of doubt over whether they could have been gun-free would bring the total up to 17. in comparison, there were 14 public mass shootings that occurred in gun-free zones. and this doesn’t include the mass shootings (where 4 or more are killed) that occurred in private residences (which by definition aren’t gun-free zones).

    so to claim that only 2 public mass killings with guns occurred where guns were allowed would be… how best to put it… staggeringly ignorant.

    btw, using the genetic fallacy against Mother Jones while citing John Lott is the epitome of hypocrisy.

    i commend you on your most excellent exhibition of the Dunning-Kruger effect, mate. if we gave your comment an enema it could be buried in a matchbox

    • Studley Riprap   November 7, 2014 2:54 pm / Reply

      Talk about shifting the burden. Don’t tell me, you also argue like this when someone says something bad about Obama. I would imagine your reply starts with “Oh yeah? Well Bush…” Confront the argument at hand – whether or no “gun nuts” are saying something isn’t the argument. The argument is whether the people, in this case, supposing we can know the killers motivation CAN know their motivation. Especially in the cases where the killer is dead, I would suggest this would be relatively difficult.

      But I don’t know what your point is. Even MAIG’s own figures has the number of mass shootings occurring in gun free zones slightly less than half compared to non-gun free zones. So what? What’s your point? You hate guns, you want no one to have guns except the “trusted police” – we got it. We know your stance on that even if you don’t say it. But this article isn’t about banning guns, it’s about the absurd signs promoting gun free zones. And you, and this author, have are spinning a fairy tale that such “zones” would never possibly influence the likelihood of a shooter killing people there. Fine. Then why have these stupid signs? You’re not going to put a “gun free zone” sign on your house, and if you did you’d be branded the biggest idiot from here to Timbuctoo – even if other factors motivate criminals more strongly than something like that… you wouldn’t take the risk. So why are we making our children take the risk?

  14. Studley Riprap   November 7, 2014 2:40 pm / Reply

    I’m not even sure what the point of this article is other than for this guy to prop up his anti-gun agenda by making irrelevant points.

    Let’s say that everything this guy says is true – though I don’t know how one comes to the conclusion that because a mass shooter knew he was going to die (one way or another) that that would preclude him from seeking out a gun free zone where he could kill as many people as possible before that time came (seem to me the opposite would be true). Considering these are MASS SHOOTERS I think we can rest easy in assuming they want to kill multiple people – the argument is not whether or not gun free zones attract mass shooters. The real question is what’s the point of having the signs at all?? AND… is it possible, somewhere in the realm of some sick killers mind, that they WOULD seek out a gun free zone to maximize body count? No.. could never happen.. right?

    So, by his own logic, he has deemed these signs worthless – neither promoting nor disincentivizing mass shootings. However, any rational person would have to come to the conclusion that given the option between two identical populated areas – one a “gun free zone” and the other not a “gun free zone” – that a criminal, looking to kill as many people as possible before being put down, would choose the gun free zone – even if the data, at this point, does not clearly support that idea considering the innumerable variables that would go into any decision to start killing lots of people. I’m not sure how you would extract that data unless the criminal actively told someone. That not every mass shooting took place in a gun free zone seems to be a worthless argument. Not all bowel movements take place in the woods, but some do.

    The old adage “better safe than sorry” would seem to apply in this case. Besides, unless people are actively being checked by someone, few places that have these signs are actually gun free; though many law abiding citizens disarm themselves to “follow the rules,” leaving only rule breakers to have guns.

    The point was made before by another poster, but it is really what this boils down to: no one in their right mind would slap a sign on their house that said “my house is a gun free zone.” We know that criminals rarely fear the police – as police tend to show up AFTER the crime, as opposed to during.. something the modern liberal seems to forget – but what we do know is they are more likely to attack the most vulnerable. This IS a fact, as opposed to the numerous assumptions that have been drawn by the author of this piece from the studies he’s sited.

  15. Studley Riprap   November 7, 2014 3:20 pm / Reply

    “Australia’s gun laws essentially transformed the entire country into a ‘gun-free’ zone.” This is a lie, considering not all guns were banned, and many were still allowed via “legitimate reason.”

    “in the 17 years after, there has not been a single one” – this is true if you discount the 2002 Monash University Shooting and the 2011 Hectorville Siege.

  16. Josh   November 7, 2014 7:15 pm / Reply

    “A study conducted by Mother Jones found that, in 62 mass shootings over 32 years, there were exactly zero instances of a killer targeting a place because of a gun ban.”
    This is a quote taken from your very first paragraph arguing the reality. i’m gonna have to agree with you that none of the killers targeted the place because of its gun ban. someone doesn’t just say, i’m gonna shoot this place because its a gun free zone. i’m gonna have to show that it doesn’t say the reason why they shot the place. and the mass shooting that are in gun free zones? they wouldn’t be mass shootings if someone that wasn’t a criminal was allowed to carry a firearm in that area.

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