This thought has been with me for nearly two decades. On December 7, 1993, a bitter and unstable man named Colin Ferguson boarded an eastbound Long Island Rail Road train at the Jamaica, Queens, station. As the train pulled into the Merillon Avenue station in Nassau County, Ferguson pulled out a Ruger 9 mm pistol he had bought legally in California (which had a 15-day waiting period) and began walking down the aisle, calmly shooting passengers as he went. He killed six people and wounded 19 others before three passengers tackled him while he was reloading.
I had been an LIRR commuter not long before this happened, and I remember clearly my reaction to the slaughter, and I remember as well the reaction of many New York politicians. Much of the political class, and many editorialists, were of the view that the LIRR massacre proved the need for stricter gun control, and even for the banning of handguns. I shared—and continue to share—the view that muscular gun-control regulations, ones that put stumbling blocks in front of criminals seeking firearms, are necessary. But I was also seized by the thought that, had I been on the train, I would much rather have been armed than unarmed. I was not, and am not, under the illusion that a handgun would have necessarily provided a definitive solution to the problem posed by Colin Ferguson. But my instinct was that if someone is shooting at you, it is generally better to shoot back than to cower and pray.
Would a civilian firing back at Ferguson have wounded or killed innocent people? Quite possibly yes. Is that a risk potential victims quaking under train seats or classroom desks might accept? Quite possibly yes. Especially when you consider the massacres that have been prevented or interrupted by armed civilians before the police arrived.
Many of the worst American massacres end not in the capture of the gunman but in his suicide. In the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, for instance, the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, killed himself as the police were set to capture him. But in other cases, massacres were stopped early by the intervention of armed civilians, or off-duty or retired police officers who happened to be nearby.
In 1997, a disturbed high-school student named Luke Woodham stabbed his mother and then shot and killed two people at Pearl High School in Pearl, Mississippi. He then began driving toward a nearby junior high to continue his shooting spree, but the assistant principal of the high school, Joel Myrick, aimed a pistol he kept in his truck at Woodham, causing him to veer off the road. Myrick then put his pistol to Woodham’s neck and disarmed him. On January 16, 2002, a disgruntled former student at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia, had killed three people, including the school’s dean, when two students, both off-duty law-enforcement officers, retrieved their weapons and pointed them at the shooter, who ended his killing spree and surrendered. In December 2007, a man armed with a semiautomatic rifle and two pistols entered the New Life Church in Colorado Springs and killed two teenage girls before a church member, Jeanne Assam—a former Minneapolis police officer and a volunteer church security guard—shot and wounded the gunman, who then killed himself.
And so I put a question to Stephen Barton, who described feeling helpless in the Aurora theater: Would he rather have been armed, or at least been in the theater with armed patrons, when the massacre started?
“Intuitively it makes sense for people to have that reaction, to want to defend themselves,” he said. “It’s easy to say that if more people had guns to defend themselves, they could take criminals down, but I don’t think concealed-carry weapons are the answer.” In a dark and crowded theater, he said, facing someone wearing bullet-resistant armor on much of his body, a gun, even in trained hands, would have been unlikely to do much good.
I put to Tom Mauser a variation of the question I had asked Barton. What if a teacher or an administrator inside Columbine High School had been armed on the day of the massacre? Unlike the theater in Aurora, the school was brightly lit, and not as densely packed. If someone with a gun had confronted Harris and Klebold in the library, he or she would have been able, at the very least, to distract the killers—perhaps even long enough for them to be tackled or disarmed.
“That kind of speculation doesn’t solve anything,” Mauser said. “I don’t know if that person might have shot my son accidentally.”
But the worst thing that could have happened to Daniel Mauser did, in fact, happen. The presence in the Columbine library of a well-trained, armed civilian attempting to stop the killers could hardly have made the situation worse. Indeed, the local police—who waited 45 minutes to enter the school, while a SWAT team assembled—were severely criticized for the delay.
But Mauser remained implacable. “We know that if the country adopts this vision that everyone should be armed—that administrators and janitors in school are armed, that people are walking around armed—we won’t be safe,” Mauser told me. “In Aurora, if five people in that theater had guns, they could have just ended up shooting each other or innocent people in the crossfire. It just makes sense that if people are walking around armed, you’re going to have a high rate of people shooting each other.”
Earlier this year, a man who was upset with the anti-gay-rights position of the Family Research Council entered the group’s Washington, D.C., headquarters and allegedly shot and wounded the building manager (who subsequently tackled the gunman). At the time, Washington’s mayor, Vincent Gray, said: “We don’t need to make more guns available to people … The more access they have, the more they threaten people.”
The District of Columbia does not allow for concealed carry, though its residents can now apply for a license allowing them to keep handguns at home, thanks to the 2008 Supreme Court ruling in a case brought on behalf of a D.C. man who wanted a gun for self-protection.
I called Gray to ask him about his assertion that more guns mean more violence, noting that he himself travels the city with armed police bodyguards, a service not afforded the typical Washington resident. “Well, first of all, I’ve never even seen the guns that the security people have. When I travel outside the city, I don’t have security. I would be fine without security,” he said. “But we have 3,800 police officers to protect people. They may not be at someone’s side at every moment, but they’re around.”
I asked him whether he could envision a scenario in which an armed civilian might be able to stop a crime from occurring. “There are those who believe that if they have a weapon, they can combat crime, but I don’t think that way,” he said.
The police, of course, have guns to stop crime. So why couldn’t a well-trained civilian also stop crime? “If you have a gun on you, that’s just another opportunity to use it,” Gray said. “It’s the temptation of the moment. I just think the opportunity is there to create more violence.”
In 2004, the Ohio legislature passed a law allowing private citizens to apply for permits to carry firearms outside the home. The decision to allow concealed carry was, of course, a controversial one. Law-enforcement organizations, among others, argued that an armed population would create chaos in the streets. In 2003, John Gilchrist, the legislative counsel for the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police, testified, “If 200,000 to 300,000 citizens begin carrying a concealed weapon, common sense tells us that accidents will become a daily event.”
When I called Gilchrist recently, he told me that events since the state’s concealed-carry law took effect have proved his point. “Talking to the chiefs, I know that there is more gun violence and accidents involving guns,” he said. “I think there’s more gun violence now because there are more guns. People are using guns in the heat of arguments, and there wouldn’t be as much gun violence if we didn’t have people carrying weapons. If you’ve got people walking around in a bad mood—or in a divorce, they’ve lost their job—and they get into a confrontation, this could result in the use of a gun. If you talk to emergency-room physicians in the state, [they] see more and more people with gunshot wounds.”
Gilchrist said he did not know the exact statistics on gun-related incidents (or on incidents concerning concealed-carry permit holders specifically, because the state keeps the names of permit holders confidential). He says, however, that he tracks gun usage anecdotally. “You can look in the newspaper. I consciously look for stories that deal with guns. There are more and more articles in The Columbus Dispatch about people using guns inappropriately.”
Gilchrist’s argument would be convincing but for one thing: the firearm crime rate in Ohio remained steady after the concealed-carry law passed in 2004.