After reading the FBI’s latest report on active-shooter incidents in the United States, two things are increasingly clear. First, the United States has a growing problem with actual or attempted spree killers. And second, armed and alert citizens can be part of the solution.
Let’s begin with the problem. The FBI defines an “active shooter” as “one or more individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.” In many ways, it’s a better metric for our nation’s mass-shooting problem because it includes attempts, not just completed mass killings (which the FBI defines as “three or more killings in a single incident”).
Make no mistake, active shooters are on the rise. In 2016 and 2017 there were a total of 50 active-shooter situations, 20 in 2016, and 30 in 2017. These shooters inflicted a total of 943 casualties, with 221 people killed. Let’s contrast this with previous years. In 2014 and 2015, there were 40 active-shooter incidents (20 each year), which inflicted a total of 231 casualties, with 92 fatalities. Extending the analysis even farther, we find that between 2000 and 2013 there were an average 11.4 incidents per year, with a low of just one in 2000 and a high of 26 in 2010.
In the 14 years between 2000 and 2013, there were 20 more active-shooting incidents only twice. There have been 20 or more incidents every year since. In other words: America, we have a problem.
As I wrote right after the Santa Fe school massacre, the best explanation for the rise in active shooters is the least comforting. That explanation comes from Malcolm Gladwell in a seminal 2015 essay for the New Yorker. In essence, we are in the midst of a slow-motion “riot” of mass shootings, with each shooting lowering the threshold for the next.
Any sophisticated approach to a problem involves discussing potential solutions both left of boom (before the shooting) and right of boom (after the shooting starts). Gun control is a classic left-of-boom approach, designed to prevent attacks before they can happen. Even Gladwell is skeptical of its effectiveness. While he’s said that gun control “has its place,” he also says, “Let’s not kid ourselves that if we passed the strictest gun control in the world that we would end this particular kind of behavior.”
In fact, as the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler found in a now-famous fact check, no recent mass shooting would have been prevented by any of the conventional gun restrictions progressives often propose.
But this isn’t a left-of-boom essay. Let’s talk about what happens when the shooting starts. Here, the FBI provides extremely helpful data. How do shootings end? The most common ways are exactly what you’d expect: The shooters kill themselves or flee, or the police exchange gunfire with the shooter and/or apprehend him. But a surprising amount of the time, citizens stop the killer, and an increasing percentage of those citizens are armed.
From 2000 to 2013, only five times did an armed citizen (who was not a police officer) exchange fire with the shooter. Three times the citizen killed the shooter, once the shooter committed suicide, and once the shooter was wounded. Fast forward to 2016–2017. In that time period, six armed citizens confronted active shooters. They stopped the shooting four times (in one case, the shooter fled to a different site and continued shooting, and in the other the armed citizen was wounded before he could stop the shooting).
The lesson? Armed citizens can make a difference, and as more Americans obtain carry permits, more Americans will be on-scene and able to react. Moreover, what’s missing from the data is any indication that armed citizens make the crisis worse. The stereotype of carry-permit holders spraying panicked gunfire is simply wrong.
FBI data indicate that you can stop a shooting even if you miss, or even if you just hold a person at gunpoint, but you must be prepared to hit your target.
Police can’t saturate populated areas. There are simply not enough cops to go around. The records of their responses are heroic (the incidents include large numbers of police casualties), but, as the saying goes, when seconds count, police are minutes away. But, by definition, people do saturate populated areas. And when an increasing number of those people possess carry permits, the instant response grows more likely.
It’s foolish to argue that “more carry permits” is the solution to our national challenge. I think it’s also wrong to claim that more carry permits isn’t part of the answer. But for carry permits to help, it requires a government to protect liberty and a citizen to exercise that liberty responsibly.
Armed citizens don’t fulfill their responsibilities to themselves, their families, or their neighbors by simply buying a gun, taking the required class for a permit (if a class is required), and tucking it under their shirt or popping it in their purse. Carrying a gun in public means practice. Learn exactly how to handle it safely. Learn exactly how to shoot it, and learn how to shoot it accurately. The FBI data indicate that you can stop a shooting even if you miss, or even if you just hold a person at gunpoint, but you must be prepared to hit your target. And in moments of ultimate stress, you can’t rely on fine-motor skills. Muscle memory is your friend.
For the person who’s unfamiliar with guns, all that sounds daunting. For some, it’s just too daunting to contemplate. That’s fine. Don’t carry. But there are millions of Americans who are ready, willing, and able to defend themselves and others. We want you carrying in public. We need you carrying in public. The odds are that you’ll never have to use that weapon. It will be a lump in your clothes or a weight in your purse, and that’s it. But for some small number of people, that gun will be the difference between life and death. How do we know? Let’s ask the FBI. In the conclusion of the latest report, it declares that the “selfless” actions of both armed and unarmed citizens “likely saved many lives.”
Be a lifesaver. Carry a gun.