New Report Debunks Right-Wing Falsehood About Public Mass Shootings

An investigation on shooting rampages by Mother Jones could not identify a single mass public shooting that was ended by an armed civilian, a violence prevention strategy that remains popular in right-wing media. In two instances, however, armed individuals who attempted to stop a shooting were wounded or killed. Mother Jones also deduced that successful attempts by armed civilians to stop public shootings in general, not just those incidents involving mass casualties, were rare.

The analysis conducted by Mother Jones, which examined 60 public shootings that have occurred in the United States over the last 30 years, stands in sharp contrast to baseless conjecture by members of the right-wing media that the solution to prevent mass shootings is a greater number of people armed in public. 

More broadly, attempts by armed civilians to stop shooting rampages are rare -- and successful ones even rarer. There were two school shootings in the late 1990s, in Mississippi and Pennsylvania, in which bystanders with guns ultimately subdued the teen perpetrators, but in both cases it was after the shooting had subsided. Other cases led to tragic results. In 2005, as a rampage unfolded inside a shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington, a civilian named Brendan McKown confronted the assailant with a licensed handgun he was carrying. The assailant pumped several bullets into McKown and wounded six people before eventually surrendering to police after a hostage standoff. (A comatose McKown eventually recovered after weeks in the hospital.) In Tyler, Texas, that same year, a civilian named Mark Wilson fired his licensed handgun at a man on a rampage at the county courthouse. Wilson--who was a firearms instructor--was shot dead by the body-armored assailant, who wielded an AK-47. (None of these cases were included in our mass shootings data set because fewer than four victims died in each.)

Appeals to heroism on this subject abound. So does misleading information. Gun rights die-hards frequently credit the end of a rampage in 2002 at the Appalachian School of Law in Virginia to armed “students” who intervened--while failing to disclose that those students were also current and former law enforcement officers, and that the killer, according to police investigators, was out of ammo by the time they got to him. [emphasis added]

Mother Jones noted that 2012 is already a record year for mass public shootings in terms of the number of killed and injured. The right-wing media's response to each of this year's mass shootings has been the same: “If only more people would have been armed, it would have been prevented.”

But even setting aside the fact that the United States already has the most heavily armed private citizenry in the world, and that laws allowing the concealed carrying of firearms in public are increasingly permissive and widespread, the bottom line is that there is no data to support the right-wing media's armed citizen theory.

This actuality has not stopped Fox News, Washington Times columnist Ted Nugent, discredited gun researcher John Lott, and others from continuing to offer unfounded speculation.     

The day of the July 20 massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado that left 12 dead and scores wounded, The Washington Times editorial board wrote, “The Batman shooter was wearing body armor, and the scene in the theater was dark and chaotic. An armed audience member may have shot another patron by mistake. But he may also have found his mark, and the shooting rampage could have been ended with far fewer casualties.” The column concluded, “In a culture that increasingly glorifies violence, citizens -- more than ever -- need to have the means to exercise their right to self defense.”

On July 25, Glenn Beck hosted Ted Nugent, who is a member of the National Rifle Association Board of Directors, on his radio show to discuss the Aurora massacre and claimed, “If you had more people carrying a weapon. If people had a gun in their back and they were -- and they were licensed to carry it, that guy wouldn't have gotten off more than four shots.” Nugent concurred and compared how one would neutralize the Aurora shooter, who employed tear gas, body armor, and an assault weapon with a 100 round drum clip, to a target practice scenario that involved shooting stationary watermelons. Both men stated their desire to have been in the theater during the rampage.

In an op-ed for The New York Daily News published that same day, John Lott commented on the Aurora shooting by writing, “If one of the hundreds of people at the theater had a concealed handgun, possibly the attack would have ended like the shooting at the mega New Life Church in Colorado Springs in December 2007.”

(The incident described by Lott at New Life Church involved a former police officer, who was serving as a volunteer security guard, wounding a man who fatally shot two people in the church parking lot. The man subsequently committed suicide.)

The proposition that more guns could prevent mass shootings was also credulously echoed on Fox News. During an interview with Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) on July 22, Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace stated, “I've heard more and more people, surprising number of people, to me in the last couple of days, say the problem isn't too many guns, it's too few. And if somebody in that theater had been armed, they could have stopped the shooting.” [Fox News Sunday via Nexis, 7/22/12]

Megyn Kelly, “straight news” anchor of Fox's America Live, pushed the armed citizen theory during a contentious exchange with Fox News contributor Sally Kohn on July 23.

KELLY: Well but there is a question by a lot of people saying, “Wouldn't it have been nice if somebody in that theater had been armed?”

KOHN: With a room full of tear gas and crowded theater? Come on, it would have been worse.

KELLY: Really? There were a lot of military in there Sally. There were a lot of military in there.

KOHN: But they're trained that's different than normal  -- average citizens --


KELLY: They were trained but they were unarmed.

On July 24, Fox's Lou Dobbs hosted terror-inspiring gun blogger Mike Vanderboegh to discuss the Aurora massacre. Vanderboegh asserted that, “The only thing that prevents shootings by criminals is arms in the hands of trained intended potential victims,” which Dobbs called, “a great point.” [Lou Dobbs Tonight via Nexis, 7/24/12]

Even before the Mother Jones analysis of armed citizens and mass shootings, the verdict was in: higher levels of gun ownership cause an increase, rather than a decrease, in the rate of homicide