The Cruelty of Gun-Free Zones

by John R. Lott Jr.
Law enforcement recognizes that gun-free zones leave shooting victims defenseless.

Tuesday night, President Obama vowed to “help stop more tragedies from visiting innocent Americans in our movie theaters and our shopping malls, or schools like Sandy Hook.”

But before he continues pushing his typical gun-control agenda, he should consider what law enforcement in Europe and the United States advise. It might surprise him.

In November, Interpol’s secretary general, Ron Noble, noted there are two ways to protect people from such mass shootings: “One is to say we want an armed citizenry; you can see the reason for that. Another is to say the enclaves [should be] so secure that in order to get into the soft target you’re going to have to pass through extraordinary security.”

Noble sees a real problem: “How do you protect soft targets? That’s really the challenge. You can’t have armed police forces everywhere.”

“It makes citizens question their views on gun control,” he noted. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Is an armed citizenry more necessary now than it was in the past, with an evolving threat of terrorism?’” 

His comments were made right after the terrorist attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, where 68 people were killed. Kenya bans both open and concealed carrying of firearms by civilians. Yet, obviously, those bans didn’t stop the terrorists.

The vast majority of mass shootings in the U.S. have been extensively planned beforehand — often many months or even years in advance, allowing the perpetrators to find unprotected targets and obtain weapons. Take Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary School killer, who spent over two years studying everything about previous mass shootings: the weapons used, the number of people killed, and even how much media coverage each shooting received. Police described the 7-by-4-foot spreadsheet as sickeningly thorough, even likening his careful study to a doctoral dissertation.

James Holmes, the Aurora, Colo., killer, was another careful planner. He started buying items two and a half months in advance. He visited neighboring theaters, and bought his ticket almost two weeks before his attack. To help prepare, he photographed the layout of the theater where he’d commit his heinous crimes. 

Ironically, President Obama mentioned movie theaters and malls on Tuesday. Holmes appears to have carefully selected the theater he did: Seven theaters within a 20-minute drive of his apartment were showing the premier of The Dark Knight Returns. He chose the only one posting signs banning concealed guns — not the theater closest to his apartment or the one prominently advertising the largest auditoriums in Colorado.

Not only are these killers deterred from attacking where victims are able to defend themselves, but if an attack occurs, it is quickly stopped before many people are harmed.

Mere days before the Newtown attack at the Clackamas Town Center Mall in Portland, Ore., a shooter opened fire in the crowded shopping center, initially killing two people. Nick Meli, a concealed-permit holder, stopped the shooter simply by pointing his gun at him, halting what likely would have become a mass shooting. The national media more or less ignored the event, as they usually do when armed citizens avert such sprees.

The Mall in Columbia, Md., where a shooter killed two people this past weekend before killing himself, also banned guns.

With all the discussions about the weapon used and how the killer obtained it, the simplest fact for the media to obtain is whether the attack occurred in a gun-free zone, but it almost never gets mentioned in the hard-news accounts. The gun-control debate would be dramatically different if the media mentioned this even once in a while.

Finally, consider the advice from PoliceOne, whose 450,000 members make it the largest private organization of active and retired law-enforcement officers in the U.S. It surveyed its members last March and asked, “What would help most in preventing large scale shootings in public?” Their No. 1 answer: “More permissive concealed carry policies for civilians.” (It was followed by “More aggressive institutionalization for mentally ill persons.”)

Yet the media do understand the dangers of gun-free zones — at least when it comes to their own safety. Shortly after the Journal News of Westchester County, N.Y., got national attention in December 2012 for publishing the names and addresses of local gun owners, documentarian and activist James O’Keefe secretly filmed editors of the paper deciding not to put signs in front of their homes saying that their houses were “gun free.” One of the editors, after saying he hated guns, worried out loud that such a sign would make his home a target of criminals. 

When Europe-based Interpol is finally considering the notion of letting victims defend themselves, the debate is changing. So-called gun-free zones shouldn’t be the place where victims are sitting ducks. 

— John R. Lott Jr. is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author of More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press, 2010, 3rd edition).

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