The Asymmetrical Nature of Good and Bad Guns

In the wake of last week’s tragedy, and the ensuing proliferation of ideological tweets and comments and posts and other ephemeral boastings, I saw multiple arguments of this flavor: “Let’s be real, how often do you hear about some upstanding citizen with a gun saving the day?” Apparently I wasn’t the only one, as Eugene Volokh stated more eloquently:

What examples can one give of civilians armed with guns stopping such shootings? Sometimes, I hear people asking if even one such example can be found, or saying that they haven’t heard even one such example.

Eugene points out that such examples will be inherently rare, “partly because mass shootings are rare, partly because many mass shootings happen in supposedly ‘gun-free’ zones (such as schools, universities, or private property posted with a no-guns sign) in which gun carrying isn’t allowed, and partly for other reasons.”

Some of those “other reasons” may include 1) the difficulty of reporting about any shooting that never even begins to occur because of the possibility that someone may be armed, and 2) the lower level of reporting about any shooting that does begin to occur but is stopped or limited by someone who is armed.

We are talking about a mass shooting that does not happen, and comparing it to a mass shooting that did happen. There is an inherently asymmetrical nature that makes us far more likely to learn about and remember things that did happen – even if they are relatively rare events – compared to things that did not.

News, by its very nature, usually involves things that did happen. A particularly severe car crash might make the local news; dozens of incidences of cars almost crashing probably won’t. If something doesn’t happen, it’s impossible to prove that it could have. If nothing terrible and irreversible happens, reporters probably won’t find out about it. And, quite frankly, people aren’t as interested in less tragic events anyway.

This does not prove that mass shootings are ever deterred. But it should make any honest person hesitant to suggest that if they’ve never heard about deterrences, then they must never occur. That is not even a good argument regarding things that do happen – it’s very hard to maintain a proper perspective about all the things going on in our complicated world; I would never assume that car crashes don’t happen in Canada just because I never hear about them. But it’s a particular poor argument regarding something that is inherently asymmetrical. How come I never hear about something not happening?

Fortunately, gun rights supporters do not merely have to assert that it’s possible that gun owners prevent shootings but we just inconveniently never hear about it. Eugene’s post proceeds with multiple stories of shootings that started but were probably limited by gun owners intervening at the right time. There is also the more recent Oregon mall shooting, and an even more recent shooting in San Antonio.

(The San Antonio case seems to have involved a security worker, but even if it had been a voluntary citizen, it would have gotten the same amount of attention. Public shootings that are limited to one injury just don’t get plastered all over the news as much as shootings that leave twenty children dead.)

In each of these cases something terrible happened (i.e. enough to make the news), but a gun owner intervened, probably stopping it from becoming worse than it was. I say “probably” because of course it’s impossible to know what would have happened if the gun owner hadn’t intervened, but it seems likely that at least some of these instances prevented further deaths. If we have examples of mass shootings being limited, it also seems likely that there might be examples of individual or even mass shootings being completely prevented, and thus not happening to make the news at all.

In fact, there are entire websites devoted to such “stories of self-defense.” Some of these stories may have other factors and may not truly involve guns saving lives, but I find it reasonable to think that at least some of them do. Furthermore, given the relative rareness of “mass” shootings (about 20 per year in the US according to these statistics), it strikes me as plausible that at least as many mass shootings are curtailed or even completely prevented by the presence of armed citizens.

This does not mean that every type of gun ever invented should be legally carried everywhere. It does not explain why gun violence is higher in the US than in various other countries. It is not the final word in the complicated gun debate. (For a long, thoughtful post on the larger issue, see Megan McArdle.) But it is an important factor to keep in mind. Just because you never hear about something doesn’t mean it isn’t out there.