HEALTH
10/29/2018 09:29 pm ET

Armed Guards Won't Stop Mass Shootings Like Pittsburgh

President Trump's suggestion to put armed guards in places of worship doesn't have much evidence to back it up.

On Saturday, after a gunman killed 11 people and injured six others in a Pittsburgh synagogue, President Donald Trump called for armed guards in places of worship. 

“If there was an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop him,” Trump said.

The president’s call to arms echoed his response to the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, earlier this year, when he suggested that armed guards could prevent school shootings because potential perpetrators are “cowards” and ultimately don’t want to come under gunfire. “They’re not going into a school when they know they’re going to come out dead,” the president said in February.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto (D) was quick to say that he didn’t think more guns were the answer to hatred-fueled mass shootings. 

People who study mass violence typically reject this type of assertion, too.

“Unfortunately, [the] president’s statement is a common conjecture after mass shooting,” said Jaclyn Schildkraut, an associate professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego and national expert on mass shootings.

Other than one or two anecdotal examples, “there’s no evidence to suggest that anybody armed, let along a security guard, has been successful in stopping or completely averting a shooting,” Schildkraut said. 

Suicide is common in mass shootings. 

In reality, many mass shooters are suicidal and do not expect to survive their attack in the first place.

“To what degree does having armed guards deter people who want to be shot anyway?” asked Adam Lankford, a criminologist at the University of Alabama.

According to research Lankford published in the journal Justice Quarterly in 2015, 48 percent of the perpetrators of 185 public mass shootings between 1966 and 2010 either died by suicide or were killed by law enforcement officers. Of those deaths, 80 percent were suicides and 20 percent were caused by officers.

A wish for suicide can’t even be ruled out even among mass shooters who were killed by law enforcement.

“Often, that is the deliberate strategy of ‘suicide by cop,’” Lankford said, referring to an individual intentionally provoking a police officer into shooting him.

While Robert Bowers, the 46-year-old accused gunman in the Pittsburgh shooting, did not die during the attack, he did exchange gunfire with the police before he surrendered and was taken into custody.

Of the nine other mass shootings that have occurred in 2018, five ended with the perpetrator dying, while at least one surviving suspect reportedly intended to kill himself, according to a review of Mother Jones’ database of public mass shootings. (The database included incidents that took the lives of at least four people, not including the shooter, and occurred in public, among other criteria.)

Armed guards and police aren’t that accurate.

Putting aside the intent of the shooter, the notion that an armed guard with an undetermined level of training could prevent all deaths and injuries by neutralizing an attacker during a mass shooting overstates how accurate even the most highly trained police officers are with their weapons under duress. 

According to an analysis published by the RAND Center of Quality Policing, the average hit rate for New York City Police Department officers is 30 percent when no gunfire is returned. Once police officers are under fire, accuracy falls to 18 percent.

In the case of a 2012 shooting outside the Empire State Building, for example, NYPD officers injured nine bystanders with bullets or bullet fragments while taking down the shooter. 

Armed guards don’t stop shootings, they move them.  

On a few occasions, having an armed guard on the premises has proven to deter an attack, but even that isn’t necessarily a blueprint for widespread safety. On the night he attacked Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the shooter first stopped at, then bypassed, Disney Springs and EVE Orlando, both of which had visible security outside, then went on to kill 49 people and wound 53 others at Pulse.

Security at Disney Springs and EVE Orlando didn’t stop a mass shooting that evening. They just relocated it. 

In a more recent example, security measures deterred a gunman who tried to enter a predominately black church last week, but he went on to kill two people at a nearby Kroger supermarket. 

“When we talk about setting up armed guards, one of the most likely effects is something we refer to as displacement,” Lankford said. “There is not necessarily going to be a meaningful effect on the total number of people killed.”

Still, some synagogues have stepped up security in recent years. While the Tree of Life synagogue had an open-door policy, aside from police presence during high holidays, many synagogues use security measures like gates, armed guards and metal detectors, especially in large cities like New York and Los Angeles. 

Pittsburgh’s mayor said the city’s response will focus on guns, not guards.

“The approach we need to be looking at is how we take the guns — the common denominator of every mass shooting in America — out of the hands of those looking to express hatred through murder,” Peduto told reporters Sunday.

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