Taking the gun debate beyond the simple slogans

Does a “good guy with a gun” really stand a chance of stopping a bad guy with a gun? A couple of quality media outlets have taken a hard look.

Start with The Daily Show, in the best bit I’ve seen since Trevor Noah replaced Jon Stewart. Correspondent Jordan Klepper goes through training with a serious but game group that shows him how difficult it really is to respond to an active shooter situation. Even after going through considerably more training than he needs for a concealed-carry license, he fails quite badly in several different situations — a school hostage situation winds up with Klepper gunning down an innocent student (it’s just paint, it’s OK) and getting hit 20-some times by the gunmen. Then the police shoot him a few more times as well.

Some of the jokes are gratuitously vulgar, which I really wish The Daily Show would reserve for occasions where it’s warranted (that said, what’s up with that towel?), but most of it is what the show should be — a riotous smashing of myths and misinformation that clouds our political discourse.

It’s a good send-up of the macho sensibilities that enter into too many gun discussions — I saw a Facebook argument this week that devolved into questioning someone’s masculinity. Frankly, women might be better. The maternal instinct is powerful, and it’s not like it takes brute strength to pull a trigger.

In the real world, it takes a couple hundred hours per year of training to be somewhat adept in these situations. If we have police shooting innocent people at an alarming rate, what chance does your next-door neighbor have?

At Vox, German Lopez builds on this piece to show the ill effects of having guns scattered all willy-nilly in this country. Our arguments and our crimes escalate too quickly into death. (I’m not going to look up all the cases of kids who die in horrible accidents because I will curl into a ball and sob myself to death.)

By this point, some of you have dismissed this entire discussion as “liberal.” That’s what passes for thought these days, with everyone thinking in binary terms.

But there is a counterargument here worth entertaining.

If you’re looking for a reasonable contrarian voice, I have to recommend Eugene Volokh. I may not have thought that a few years ago, but I do now. He’s libertarian-ish, but he avoids the shallow, snarky pieces that pass for contributions from the Cato Institute, and he’s not as cold and esoteric as the inaptly named Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog.

Volokh carefully compiled a list of potential mass shootings that were stopped by the “good guy with the gun,” and he revised it when new information came to light. It’s not a long list, and he adds a lot of qualifiers to point out where we don’t know how much good the “good guy” did.

He asks good follow-up questions: “In what fraction would interventions prevent more killings and injuries, as opposed to capturing or killing the murderer after he’s already done? In what fraction would interventions lead to more injuries to bystanders?”

There are a few examples of the latter floating around, and when you see a piece like The Daily Show’s, you see how easily that can happen. But Volokh’s examples are enough to remind us that we can’t fully discount the impact of the “good guy.”

So the questions in my mind are these: How many guns do we need? Would a more stringent background check have stopped any of the “good guys” in Volokh’s examples?

(Update: The Guardian did a survey to see how many mass shootings could’ve been prevented with more stringent gun measures or at least proper application of the ones we have. The answer: At least a few.)

You’ll never get all of the guns out of the USA. That’s a fool’s errand. But is there a way we could at least increase the percentage of gun owners who are responsible? Could we perhaps even offer training to more people so that they’ll have a chance of stopping a mass shooting?

It’s tempting to think we could even have a “well-regulated militia” of Americans who pass stringent training to carry guns. But I see two problems here:

These people could only stop mass shootings. If a bad guy comes in with a gun drawn, there’s very little an armed bystander or potential victim can do. A bullet is faster than anyone’s ability to draw a gun. (Excluding the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, of course.)

One argument to dismiss: These people wouldn’t be very effective deterrents for the bulk of mass shooters. Most of the people carrying out mass shootings have already flipped the switch in their heads — they have little expectation of going on with the rest of their lives. They often kill themselves before the police can. Columbine had an armed security guard, after all, who did in fact get a few shots into the mix.

Some people may have a legitimate case for home defense. A family friend who lived in a rural home, far from first responders, once used a hunting rifle to chase away a man who had followed her home. Those cases require some thought — can you keep your gun safe while having it close enough to use in a situation like this? (This incident, I should point out, was before cell phones existed, which limited her options.)

So the message for all sides in the gun debate is surely this: Temper your expectations. All of the available worldwide evidence tells us “more guns” will not make us safer. But sweeping all guns out of the USA is impossible, and sweeping them all out of the hands of the “good guys” is undesirable.

We have to meet in the middle. Somewhere.


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