Gun violence is both tragic and memorable. Everybody can relate to the loss of life as families and communities are shattered, and the details of mass shootings are repeated endlessly in news stories. In some cases, though, people are able to defend themselves and the others around them. These stories of defensive gun use don’t generate as much attention because the loss of life was halted, and somebody with a gun was able to make a violent incident much less tragic than it might otherwise have been.
The tragic high school shooting that happened more than five weeks ago in Parkland, Fla., is still in the news cycle. A former student shot and killed at will until he ran out of ammunition, because the only armed officer at the school remained outside. No one else was armed, so the killer faced no substantial opposition and murdered 17 innocent students and staff, wounding 17 more.
In the mass shooting at the Sutherland Springs Baptist Church on Nov. 5, 2017, another most likely psychotic killer killed 27 people in the church sanctuary where no one was armed. When the shooter attempted to flee, he was killed by an armed civilian. That story died within days. The media had little interest in reporting that defensive use of firearms had successfully ended a killing spree.
A more recent case provides a stark illustration of the difference that defensive guns can make. On March 20, a student at Great Mills High School, Md., shot and injured two other students. Within minutes, the student killed himself while an armed School Resource Officer shot him, ending the attack before he could do more damage. We can’t know how many lives that shooter would have taken, because he didn’t have the chance to try.
The vast majority of cases in which guns are used in self-defense, or in defense of others, result in substantially fewer deaths than 27. That’s because the defender is on the scene in real time. Police are almost always too late.
Cases of armed homeowners fending off intruders are widespread, but guns carried in public arguably play a more important role in protecting the public at their most vulnerable.
- A 1997 high school shooting in Pearl, Miss., was halted by the school’s vice principal after he retrieved the Colt .45 he kept in his truck.
- A 1998 middle school shooting in Edinboro, Penn., ended when a man living next door heard gunfire and apprehended the shooter with his shotgun.
- A 2002 terrorist attack at an Israeli school was quickly stopped by an armed teacher and a school guard.
- A 2002 law school shooting in Grundy, Va., came to an abrupt conclusion when students carrying firearms confronted the shooter.
- A 2007 mall shooting in Salt Lake City, Utah, ended when an armed off-duty police officer intervened.
- A 2007 shooter with more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition killed four people at New Life Church in Colorado Springs before he was shot by an armed volunteer security guard.
- In 2008, a man shot four people at a crowded bar in Winnemucca, Nev., killing two, when a patron with a concealed carry permit shot and killed the attacker.
- In 2009, two men broke into an apartment party in College Park, Ga., held everyone at gunpoint, and discussed plans to rape and murder the women. A college student enlisted in the Marines retrieved his weapon from a book bag and shot both of the assailants, one of whom was about to rape one of the partygoers.
- A 2009 workplace shooting in Houston, Texas, was halted by two coworkers who carried concealed handguns.
- A 2012 church shooting in Aurora, Colo., was stopped by a member of the congregation carrying a gun.
- In 2012, a gunman and an accomplice with a baseball bat threatened the patrons of an Internet café in Ocala, Fla., until an armed 71-year-old man fired at them and they fled.
- In 2012, a man armed with a shotgun kicked in a door at a church near Spartanburg, S.C., when a parishioner with a concealed carry permit pointed his own weapon at the attacker while others disarmed him.
- In 2012, a man shot two people at a bar in Plymouth, Penn., killing one of them, until a patron drew his own weapon and shot the assailant multiple times.
- At a 2012 mall shooting near Portland, Ore., the gunman took his own life minutes after being confronted by a shopper carrying a concealed weapon.
- A 2013 middle school shooting in Sparks, Nev., ended when a school resource officer shot and wounded the 14-year-old student shooter.
- A fatal 2014 knife attack by a disgruntled former employee at a food processing plant in Moore, Okla., came to an end when the firm’s chief operating officer shot and wounded the assailant.
- In 2014, a psychiatric patient at a hospital near Philadelphia took out a gun and killed a case worker, then shot and wounded a psychiatrist before the doctor took out his own gun and returned fire.
- In 2015, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of people in Chicago’s Logan Square until an Uber driver with a concealed carry permit shot and wounded him.
- In 2015, a man started shooting both customers and employees of a Philadelphia barbershop until a man outside the store heard gunfire, entered, and shot the assailant. The local police captain said that the intervening man “saved a lot of people in there.”
- A 2015 shooting at an exhibition of cartoon images of Muhammad in Garland, Texas, was halted by a police officer on the scene who shot and killed both assailants.
- In 2017, a man fired several rounds into a crowd outside a nightclub in Lyman, S.C., striking three people. He almost shot a fourth person, who turned out to have a concealed carry permit and returned fire, stopping the assault.
Firearms are crucial for defending against individual criminals who want to harm others, but the most widespread cases of murder are committed by governments, not individuals. Ultimately, it is this potential for government tyranny that inspired the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which the Supreme Court has ruled guarantees an individual right of firearms ownership.
In the 20th century, 169 million people worldwide were killed by democide — murder carried out by governments — according to University of Hawaii researcher Rudolph Rummel. Another 64 million were killed in warfare between countries, according to Matthew White in the online Historical Atlas of the Twentieth Century. By contrast, White ventures a rough estimate that worldwide civilian homicides in the 20th century totaled only 8.5 million.
“If preventing death by firearms is the goal, the problem is not civilians with guns,” said Libertarian National Committee Chair Nicholas Sarwark. “It’s criminals with guns. And governments with guns.”