WASHINGTON ― For a few hours after a gunman shot a member of Congress and four other people at baseball practice in the Northern Virginia suburbs on Wednesday, lawmakers were unified against the political vitriol that seemed to drive the attack.
But when questions inevitably shifted to how lawmakers would respond to the bloodshed of yet another mass shooting, it became clear that the brief display of agreement was more symbolism than substance.
Democrats and Republicans both were quick to stake out their standard positions in the seemingly intractable debate over gun violence. At a press conference shortly after the shooting, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) expressed concern that “there are too many guns on the street,” and called for legislative action “to protect all of our citizens.”
For some Republicans, however, the immediate answer to the violence ― the 153rd mass shooting of this year, but the first of 2017 to involve lawmakers ― was more guns.
Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) told a news outlet in Buffalo, New York, that he’d be carrying his pistol in his pocket “from this day forward,” though it was unclear if he also planned to do so in Washington, where concealed carry is strictly regulated. Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.), who was at the scene of the attack, said the shooting showed the need for a reciprocity law that would give members of Congress from states with more permissive gun laws the right to carry firearms in D.C. as well. Virginia allows concealed and open carry of firearms, but Loudermilk pointed out that most lawmakers and their staffers are based in Washington.
It may make sense for politicians to be concerned about personal security, given mounting hostility and an apparent uptick in threats to members of Congress. But some of these lawmakers already have their own security teams to usher them through a heavily armed society.
Besides, arming more civilians is hardly a solution to mass shootings, which have become more frequent in recent years. The more-guns argument is grounded in a controversial belief that allowing more people to carry weapons in more places is a good way prevent violence ― a belief based on scant evidence.
“There’s no empirical evidence to support the idea that more guns would make things better, and my study says it would make things worse.” Stanford law professor John Donohue
Economist and gun-rights advocate John Lott first attempted to give empirical support to this theory in a paper and 1998 book, More Guns, Less Crime. Lott claimed his research showed that as the number of people with concealed-carry permits went up in a state, crime rates went down. Gun lobbyists and lawmakers across the country eagerly adopted Lott’s writing to push pro-gun legislation, and still appear to be using it to make it easier to own guns and carry them pretty much everywhere.
But other researchers have questioned Lott’s work, and study after study in the years since has contradicted his conclusion and cast doubt on the supposed correlation between concealed-carry laws and crime.
A paper published this week, from Stanford law professor John Donohue, found violent crime is higher in states that allow concealed carry ― building on his previous research that shows more guns actually led to more crime.
“There’s no empirical evidence to support the idea that more guns would make things better, and my study says it would make things worse,” Donohue told HuffPost in an interview.
There are a few simple reasons for this, said Donohue.
“Once everybody’s carrying guns, a lot of guns get lost and stolen, which means they’re in the hands of criminal right away,” Donohue explained. “Also, criminals start becoming a lot quicker to shoot when they think a lot of guns are in circulation, for the same reason police in the United States shoot a lot more people than police in England or France or Germany or Italy ― they’re afraid that they’re gonna meet somebody who’s got a gun.”
The National Rifle Association often repeats the quote: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” Using that logic, gun advocates argue that the objective should be to increase the number of good guys who have guns.
But there are already an estimated 300 million firearms, or more, in civilian hands in the United States ― 112.6 guns per 100 residents, according to a recent survey ― and it’s hard to argue we’re safer because of it. While the U.S. has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world, it endures far more gun violence than any other developed nation.
There’s a distinct difference between the black-and-white rhetoric of the law-abiding “good guy” gun owner and the practical implications of a wholesale loosening of gun laws, said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
“The reality of the policy is that the standards for legal gun ownership and carrying loaded guns in public is so low that you very commonly get individuals who don’t hit the threshold for legal prohibition to own a gun, but if you look in their background you see problems,” Webster told HuffPost. “If you’re not a felon, you’re a so-called legal good guy with a gun.”
Such a broad definition misses the “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people out there, who have anger issues or other issues of impulse control or histories of reckless or violent behavior,” added Webster. “When the door is open to so many people to carry guns legally, it only takes a relatively small number of those who aren’t such good guys.”
The gunman in Wednesday’s shooting, for example, was a legally licensed gun owner in Illinois, although authorities haven’t said where he got the weapons he used in the attack. Despite a history of criminal charges involving firearms and domestic violence that were ultimately dropped, he was still considered “good” enough to have a gun ― until he started shooting.
The gun lobby’s reductive thinking may be useful to increase sales, but it gets dangerous when it’s used to promote policies that affect millions of people.
“The NRA is always playing a game of checkers and the world is a game of chess, and if you play checkers in a world of chess, you almost always lose,” said Donohue.
Beyond the possible effects of a heavily armed populace on crime, there’s also reason to be skeptical of the idea that armed bystanders ― lawmakers or otherwise ― would be able to successfully intervene in a mass shooting.
A 2014 FBI study on 160 active-shooter incidents from 2000 to 2013 found evidence of just five instances in which armed individuals who were not law enforcement personnel engaged with gunmen. Only one of those involved a civilian with a valid firearms permit who was not a security guard.
“It’s a hard enough thing for a well-trained officer or military person to respond to fire,” said Donohue. “It’s not a very easy thing for just your average Joe to do.”
When untrained gun owners do get involved in tense active-shooter scenarios, there can be a fine line between success and catastrophe. In 2011, an armed bystander rushed to confront a man he thought had just carried out the mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, that nearly killed then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). He later admitted he nearly shot the wrong man.
With mass shooters increasingly using military-style weaponry to inflict vast casualties ― the gunman in Wednesday’s shooting was reportedly armed with an SKS rifle ― there’s also a good chance that someone carrying a concealed handgun would be “outgunned,” said Webster. Although the Capitol Police officers who neutralized the shooter had the benefit of training, they were armed with pistols. The perpetrator had the advantage of a rifle with better range, power and accuracy.
It’s not yet clear how Wednesday’s shooting will affect the gun debate in Congress. Democrats were not particularly optimistic that lawmakers would be moved to act at all, noting that they hadn’t been able to pass any gun legislation following high-profile mass shootings in Tucson or in Newtown, Connecticut, which left 26 dead, including 20 young children.
Some Republicans seemed satisfied to say they should continue to do nothing.
“We’ve got plenty of gun laws. I own a gun; I don’t go around shooting people with it,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters on Wednesday. “Bottom line: People get shot, run over by cars, stabbed. It’s just a crazy world.”
This article has been updated to reflect that, counter to earlier reports, the Arlington gunman used an SKS rifle, not an AR-15.