The Myth of the Imperiled Bystander

When someone suggests eliminating gun free zones like schools and shopping malls, one of the imagined scenarios that prompts people to shriek and hike up their skirts is the specter of innocent bystanders being hosed down with lead. Like most such things, this is not a real-world eventuality. With millions of armed citizens in the nation and hundreds of thousands of defensive gun uses, you’d be hard-pressed to find a “non combatant” hit by a stray bullet…unless they were hit by a cop . . .

Given how the media go to great lengths to paint gun owners in the worst possible light, if collateral injury or death were common in defensive gun uses, they’d constantly be highlighted on the evening news. The very fact that there are no (or so few) such incidents  is a testament to their rarity. Like so many professed fears of the anti-gun crowd, this isn’t founded in reality.

That said, if an armed citizen should stop an active shooter, but inadvertently wounds or kills a bystander, the bystander was still within the danger zone created by the active shooter. That injury or death would have to be weighed against the lives saved by ending the threat, particularly if the criminal was a likely spree killer.

Further, the individual defending himself has a moral right to armed self-defense. If an innocent bystander is hurt or killed in the process, our laws recognize that that death is the fault of the criminal, not the person defending their own life. Expecting a man or woman to be defenseless in order to prevent the theoretically possible injury or death of someone else is itself immoral. An individual may choose to hold their fire, but they are not obligated to, either morally or legally.

A person bent on murder is by nature a greater threat to the innocent than someone engaged in self defense. To spell it out for those driven by emotion rather than logic, a spree killer who succeeds in killing looks for another target, a defensive shooter stops shooting once the threat is neutralized.

Spree shooters who meet no resistance kill far more than those who are actively opposed. As an example consider two incidents, one in a mall in Oregon, the other in a school in Connecticut. At the shopping mall, the active shooter was held to two victims by a man with a firearm. At the school, the gun free zone allowed the murderer to take down over ten times that amount. At least two adults confronted the killer in the school. Unarmed, they were simply shot down.

This sad calculus is born out over the history of mass shootings. It’s almost always someone with a gun – police or an armed citizen – that stops a spree killer, and the sooner they are stopped, the more lives are saved.

Bad guys with guns are only stopped by good guys with guns, and cops aren’t the only good guys. Like so many other concerns about firearms in the hands of private citizens, the actual statistical value of an armed citizen opposing a mass murderer is real, and the downside of innocent bystanders being struck is only theoretical. The armed citizen mowing down a crowd is a myth – it simply doesn’t happen in any statistically meaningful way. This myth like all the other myths about self-defense with a firearm should have no bearing in a debate about banning gun free zones.