Why does Anyone in this City Need a Gun?
The shooting that took place in Toronto (Canada) on Sunday was, in one way, similar to the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Paris on January 7, 2015. In the latter case, people took smartphone videos of fleeing terrorists shooting at policemen and killing an unarmed one. In Toronto, there were several powerless witnesses, and at least one person, apparently from an apartment overlooking the scene, videoed the killer as he was firing from the sidewalk below. In both cases, if a video taker had had a pistol instead of smartphone, he could have engaged the killer, at least slowing him down, and saved lives or prevented serious bodily injuries.
The fact that the Toronto killer was apparently just a madman, and a loser as I called his kind in a previous post (“Mass Killings and the Economic Approach to Human Behavior”), is tragic but does not change the situation as far as saving lives is concerned.
Many people believe it is impossible that armed citizens could end or mitigate a mass shooting. In places like Toronto or Paris, they are right in the sense that carrying guns is a crime for ordinary citizens, so it is unlikely that one could legally and seriously challenge a killer in action. In Canada, if you have been permitted to own a handgun, it can only be carried in a locked case to an approved shooting club; it must otherwise be kept in your home, where it must be locked separate from ammunition, to make sure you don’t use it in self-defense—which would be a crime anyway. It’s even worse in the United Kingdom.
Some states in America are the only places in the civilized world where ordinary individuals are allowed to own convenient handguns, carry them, and use them in self-defense. But here is the question: Does it ever happen that they use them to stop mass killings?
The answer is yes, and is documented in a FBI report, Active Shooter Incidents in the United States in 2016 and 2017 (April 2018). The report documents 50 active shooter incidents over these two years. Shooter incidents are defined as “one or more individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.” The FBI concludes its analysis by noting:
Armed and unarmed citizens engaged the shooter in 10 incidents. They safely and successfully ended the shootings in eight of those incidents. Their selfless actions likely saved many lives.
Not surprisingly, in 6 of these 10 cases, the intervening citizen was legally armed. Only exceptional circumstances or exceptional courage lead an unarmed individual to successfully confront an armed killer in action. Perhaps one has to be familiar with guns to attempt this. The FBI writes:
In four incidents, citizens possessing valid firearms permits successfully stopped the shooter. In two [of those] incidents, citizens exchanged fire with the shooter. In two incidents, the citizens held the shooter at gunpoint until law enforcement arrived.
In another incident, “a citizen possessing a valid firearms permit was wounded before he could fire at the shooter.” In the last of the six incidents, the shooter was met with gunfire but fled to continue his rampage at another location.
Thus, an armed citizen put an end to a mass shooting in four cases or 8% of the shootings. Economist John Lott argues that the FBI missed some of the shootings, and that the real percentage over the past few years is around 15%. In any event, a significant percentage of mass shootings were stopped by armed citizens and many lives were presumably saved.
In many states, individuals without a felony record can now lawfully carry concealed pistols without a license–so-called “constitutional carry.” This certainly adds to the disincentive effect that concealed carry has on mass murders.
The Sunday shooting and the other recent ones in Toronto occurred after three decades of increasingly severe gun controls in Canada, as you can check in my article “Disarming Canadians,” a review of a recent book by Canadian historian R. Blake Brown. It is farcical to hear Toronto’s mayor John Tory, a conservative politician, suggesting“tougher gun laws” in the wake of the tragic Sunday events, and pontificating:
There are far too many people carrying around guns in our city and our region who should not have them.
Why does anyone in this city need to have a gun at all?
He did not mean that cops should not be armed. They have been more and more heavily armed as ordinary citizens were gradually disarmed. He did not mean that the cops who protect him do not need guns. He meant that ordinary citizens should be totally disarmed, hoping that thugs will also disarm, which would (inexplicably?) leave only the cops armed.
It is true that the freedom to have guns means that more guns will be available, including for criminals, if only because lower black market prices. Even if one assumes that the result will be a higher net murder count (which does not appear to be true), it is a strange ethics that forbids to individuals the means to defend themselves in order to wishfully prevent criminals from harming them.
In the 20th and 21st century, the right of ordinary individuals to own efficient guns is very much part of American exceptionalism. When you think about it, it is as banal as it is incomprehensible to the rest of the world that ordinary individuals have the right to own, and in most states to carry, guns nearly as efficient as those carried by their public servants.