In the recent annals of American political rhetoric, there have been few more consequential statements of ideology than NRA chief Wayne LaPierre’s post–Sandy Hook truism that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
The line has gone from crisis PR spin to Republican Party dogma. But while the “good guy with a gun” mantra has the ring of tough guy common sense, the empirical evidence suggests armed cops and civilians do less than nothing to deter mass shooters.
Look no further than Texas Republicans’ responses to this week’s mass shooting in the small town of Uvalde, the deadliest at an elementary school since Sandy Hook. Speaking to Newsmax, Attorney General Ken Paxton, the top law enforcement and public safety officer in the state, said: “We can’t stop bad people from doing bad things. … We can potentially arm and prepare and train teachers and other administrators to respond quickly. That, in my opinion, is the best answer.”
Of course, this is Texas. It’s not like potential good guys with guns were thin on the ground in Uvalde. Law enforcement actually engaged the shooter before he got into the elementary school. Indeed, as the Austin American-Statesman reported, it was actually a school guard—a good guy with a gun—who confronted and failed to prevent the shooter’s entry. For years, though, Texas has encouraged teachers to pack heat. In the wake of a 2018 shooting at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation that encouraged schools to do exactly what Ken Paxton now demands. It mattered little back then that Abbott was responding to killings at a school that already had two armed guards and a plan to put guns in the hands of teachers.
As Republicans like Abbott and Paxton double down on the same pro-gun proliferation response to every mass shooting, evidence accumulates that weapons are rarely effective means of deterring or stopping mass shootings.
Last year, a group of public health scholars published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association examining 133 school shootings from 1980 to 2019. An armed guard was present in about a quarter of the incidents in the study. Those schools actually suffered death rates nearly three times higher than schools without armed guards. Similarly, a 2020 review of gun policy research by the RAND Corporation think tank found no evidence that the presence of more guns had any effect on gun violence. Criminologists at Texas State University found that unarmed staff or the shooters themselves are far more likely to bring a school shooting to an end than someone with a gun returning fire.
So-called good guys with guns fail to effectively deter or end mass shootings for a variety of tactical and psychological reasons.
For one thing, it’s actually very hard to shoot straight in a situation like a mass shooting. RAND analysts have found that even highly trained NYPD officers only hit their intended target in 19 percent of gunfire exchanges. Winning a gunfight with a shooter only becomes more difficult when the perpetrator carries a semi-automatic rifle like an AR-15, as the Uvalde suspect and many others have done. These weapons have a much longer range and are far more accurate than the kinds of pistols typically used by police and civilian concealed carriers, allowing shooters to keep responders far enough away that their own weapons will be of little use. The Uvalde gunman, for instance, managed to overpower two officers whom he encountered on his way to the elementary school.
In the most extreme cases, a single gunman with a semi-automatic rifle can stymie an entire SWAT team for hours: Back in 2015, a single gunman assaulting a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood with an AK-style rifle held off police for the better part of a day before surrendering.
The idea that armed guards and teachers could deter shootings in the first place presumes mass shooters behave rationally, weighing risks, when in fact the opposite is true. As the JAMA authors noted, “many school shooters are actively suicidal, intending to die in the act, so an armed officer may be an incentive rather than a deterrent.”
Considering the long odds of taking down a determined shooter equipped with an assault rifle, armed police and bystanders sometimes have difficulty motivating themselves to actually engage at all, as happened so infamously in the Parkland shooting when two sheriff’s deputies apparently hid from the gunman.
So Republicans’ preferred response to mass shootings operates in the realm of fantasy. The standard-issue liberal response—to ban guns in a country where they outnumber people—is at this point not much more realistic. That’s not to say there is no way to prevent a lot of mass shootings, however.
Civil gun seizure orders, known as “red flag” laws, are a promising but underutilized means of preemptively intervening when gun owners show signs they will hurt themselves or others. If a gun owner makes a threat or behaves dangerously—committing violent misdemeanors or torturing animals, for example—“red flag” laws allow family, school workers, medical professionals, and law enforcement to petition a judge for an emergency temporary order confiscating the dangerous person’s weapons. The laws function like more commonplace personal restraining orders. Many states created civil gun seizure procedures in the wake of the 2018 Parkland shooting (though not Texas), and the NRA even offered limited support for the measures. A 2019 case study of California’s law, passed in the wake of the 2014 Isla Vista shooting, found the orders were used in 21 cases where gun owners had made credible threats of mass shootings. It’s at least conceivable that this law prevented other possible atrocities.
Good guys with guns fail to stop bad guys with guns in the moment because mass shootings are rare, surprising, and unpredictable events. Red flag laws are effective because mass shooters are, by contrast, pretty predictable: They almost always display clear warning signs that they are a danger to society and themselves. The Uvalde shooter was no exception: According to friends, he engaged in self-harm, shot a BB gun at strangers, and expressed a desire to kill. He also posted frequently on social media about his desire for guns. If Texas had the appropriate legal machinery in place, the people in the shooter’s life who had been so alarmed by his behavior might have had an opportunity to act before it was too late.