Guns in America: Armed Civilians Complicate Cops' Job By Getting In the Way of Police Investigations

Armed citizens "absolutely" distracted police by drawing guns during the Colorado Walmart shooting on Wednesday night that left three dead, police said—the latest example of law enforcement struggling to deal with armed civilians in the middle of a crisis.

In the midst of the Colorado manhunt, police officers wasted precious minutes poring over surveillance footage, becoming frequently distracted because the tape showed several armed people whose movements needed to be tracked before cops could rule out each as a suspect, reported The Denver Post.

In the end, it took more than five hours to identify the alleged gunman, 47-year-old Scott Ostrem. The revelation defies a widely held belief among gun advocates that a "good guy with a gun" can stop a bad guy with a gun — ultimately keeping people safe. At the Colorado Walmart, the "good guys" with guns created red herrings.

Related: This Gun Bill Would Mean States Can't Stop People From Carrying Firearms Without a Permit

1103_Walmart_Shooting A woman who was shopping with her child during a shooting at a Walmart leaves the area in Thornton, Colorado. Reuters/Rick Wilking

Cops worked "as quickly as we could" to identify the suspect, said Thornton Police spokesman Victor Avila. He did not quantify the extra time it took to ID the suspect because of the guns in the hands of "a few" others in the store.

"As soon as you see [a gun], that’s the one you try to trace through the store, only to maybe find out that’s not him, and we’re back to ground zero again, starting to look again," Avila told The Denver Post. "That’s what led to the extended time.”

Avila did not immediately respond to whether the people who were shot had guns or whether weapons were deployed in self-defense. 

It's not the first time cops have complained about the growing law enforcement challenge of citizens carrying or wielding guns. After a gunman killed five officers at a rally in 2016, Dallas Police Chief David Brown said it's hard to know who the "good guy" is versus who the "bad guy" because so many people are carrying guns.

In Ohio, a police union leader said there are practical problems with assessing a threat when people walk around with guns in a high-stakes situation. A South Carolina police chief, Skip Holbrook, warned that widespread gun ownership adds to an "incredibly stressful and dangerous" job.

"When responding to 'person with a gun' calls, officers have few details to help them quickly determine an armed individual’s intent and whether that person poses a threat to public safety or the individual," Holbrook wrote in The State.

Officers aren't always sure how to handle armed citizens, even with a warning. Minnesota motorist Philando Castile told a cop that his legal firearm was in the car, but then was fatally shot by Officer Jeronimo Yanez when he reached for his ID.

Gun-rights groups like the National Rifle Association often highlight stories featuring armed citizens who use guns in self-defense, particularly in the case of a home intruder or robbery. The gun lobby asserts that 2.5 million crimes are stopped by gun owners, but the Bureau of Justice Statistics' National Crime Victimization said that number is incredibly low, closer to 68,000 times.

Evidence from the Violence Policy Center indicates that individuals who use weapons in self-defense are more likely to cause an accidental gun death than stop someone from committing a crime — and keep police from doing their job.

There are an estimated 320,000,000 guns in private hands in this country.

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