The Slatest

Civilians Without Guns Take Out Mass Shooters More Often Than Civilians With Guns

Army veteran Richard Fierro isn’t the first to successfully take down a mass shooter.

A man stands outside consoling his daughter.
Richard Fierro, credited with subduing a gunman who killed five people and injured 25 others, consoles his daughter at a memorial. Chet Strange/Getty Images

Richard Fierro became an overnight sensation after he took down the gunman of a mass shooting happening inside an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado, over the weekend. Once bullets could be heard in the club, Fierro catapulted into action, running directly toward the shooter, pulling him down to the ground, and beating him with the shooter’s own gun. By the time cops showed up, the shooter was no longer struggling. Fierro actually feared that he had killed him. He didn’t—the 22-year-old gunman was hospitalized, and has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder and bias-motivated crime.

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It helps to know that Fierro spent 15 years as an Army officer, with three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, making him uniquely qualified to intervene. He now joins a small but mighty number of unarmed civilians that have successfully stopped gunmen in mass shootings. From 2000 to 2021 there have been at least 433 active shooter attacks in the United States—a disturbing rise in recent years—and 249 of those attacks ended before the police arrived on the scene. In 64 of those situations, a bystander either subdued the attacker or shot at them.

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These are figures the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University puts together, working alongside the FBI. Hunter Martaindale, ALERRT’s director of research, told me civilians are responsible for taking down an attacker—including in knife and vehicle attacks—a little over 10 percent of the time. “To me that’s a pretty big number that shows that their actions have an impact,” Martaindale told me.

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So as heroic as Fierro’s actions were, he isn’t a unicorn. Another example? Back in 2018 James Shaw Jr. managed to wrangle away the rifle of a gunman conducting a mass shooting at a Tennessee Waffle House. Shaw initially tried to run away toward the restaurant’s bathroom, but when a bullet grazed his elbow he realized there really wasn’t anywhere safe for him to go. That’s when Shaw noticed the gunman had paused and he decided to make a run for him. Shaw managed to hit the gunman with the bathroom door and wrestle away his rifle.

In the Colorado Spring’s example, Fierro’s efforts likely mitigated mass carnage that could have gone well beyond the five people that have been declared dead. In a similar mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, back in 2016 at Pulse nightclub, 49 people were killed despite an off-duty officer engaging in a gun battle with the shooter. The FBI says in many instances, mass shootings end in five minutes or less. The Department of Homeland Security actually recommends that civilians should attempt to take down an active shooter, if the gunman is at close range and fleeing the scene isn’t possible.

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That’s an incredibly tall order to ask of people in one of the scariest moments of their lives, Martaindale realizes. He told me the success of intervention comes down to the individuals that are at that location, and their ability and willingness to intervene. “You can’t fault them for not doing that type of thing, obviously,” he said. He also emphasized that mass shootings are circumstantial and recommends nobody should be going out of their way to stop a gunman, especially if it means leaving a secured, locked space. Even smaller actions can have a huge impact, like barricading a door and helping victims immediately. “You have many people’s lives that are saved because somebody was there to take them to the hospital faster than an ambulance could have, or put a tourniquet on, or do something to stop a bleed that was able to save somebody’s life,” he said.

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If unarmed civilians can successfully kneecap mass shooters, what about armed civilians? Martaindale told me the data just doesn’t show that the “good guy with the gun” argument, often preferred by Republicans (we’re looking at you, Ted Cruz) bears out. “There are plenty of incidents where people are armed but pulling out that weapon and shooting at that moment might cause more harm,” he said. That’s because bystanders can be in dangerously close range and a civilian also shooting out bullets can make the job of law enforcement confusing—once on the scene they have to figure out where the shots are coming from and who’s responsible.

Based on ALERRT’s analysis, out of 249 attacks that ended before police arrived on the scene, civilians shot at the attacker 22 times—less than the number of civilians who physically subdued the gunmen, which happened 42 times.

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