Good Guys With Guns May Be Heroes—But They're Not Our Solution | Opinion

This past weekend, America experienced yet another mass shooting at Greenwood Park Mall in Indiana. Fortunately, an armed citizen was able to stop the shooter with his own, legally possessed gun. But his heroic success is rare, and while we applaud his courage and skill, "good guys" with guns can only (maybe) end future shootings. What we really need is to prevent them.

While it may ultimately be the case that "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun," the truth is America's "good guys" have more guns than ever before, and sadly, they have not always stopped the shooter in time. The Texas House of Representatives preliminary report revealed that in Uvalde, Texas, 376 police waited to engage the active shooter for 77 minutes due to systemic failures and miscommunication. Such failures were also seen in Parkland, Fla. in 2018, when 17 students and staff were killed.

And the good guys' inability to stop the shooter isn't always a failure, sometimes the shooters are at a tactical disadvantage. Most recently in the Highland Park parade shooting and Las Vegas Route 91 Harvest music fest, the shooters were elevated and difficult to reach. A regular good guy is not able to safely or effectively respond when bullets are raining down.

Of the 433 active shooter cases since 2001, an armed bystander shot the attacker in just 22 of the incidents. In almost half of those, the "good guy" was a security guard or an off-duty police officer. But even these "success stories" are tragedies—because if a good guy is responding, shots have been fired. People are likely injured—or worse—dead. Communities are shattered. And in the process, a regular good guy has been asked to do something none of us should ever have to do—stopping the bad guy likely means ending a human life.

Success is not achieved if people die. That's not safety; that's salvaging.

Gun deaths are on the rise, and it's not because America lacks good guys or guns. America has more guns than people. The problem is that America has not safeguarded who has guns. The good guy model, where we rely on armed citizens to respond to shootings, allows the government to shirk its core function of promoting public safety.

By not proactively keeping guns away from the "bad guys," gun death and injury is now a public health epidemic. But it doesn't have to be this way.

Some important safeguards on gun access have been achieved by recent legislation like the bipartisan Gun Control Act, signed by President Joe Biden this summer. States are gradually implementing components of the law, which includes Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) or "red flag laws" that allow a judge to remove a person's guns from their possession if that person is a danger to themselves or others; more thorough reviews of gun applicants; increased mental health funding; funding for crisis intervention programs; and a requirement for gun sellers to register as licensed firearm dealers.

But we must continue to keep guns away from people who should not have them. The Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits felons, domestic abusers, and other dangerous people from having guns. But the effectiveness of the GCA depends on a strong background check system. Our current background check system needs at least two major improvements.

We need universal background checks, which is supported by nearly 90 percent of Americans. Currently, sales from non-licensed dealers, which may sell at gun shows or online, are not subject to a background check. Some studies estimate these sales account for nearly 50 percent of all gun sales, and a disproportionate number of those guns are used in illegal activity.

Community members attend a vigil
Family, friends and community members attend a vigil in Indianapolis, Ind. on April 18, 2021, to remember the victims of a mass shooting at a local FedEx facility. JEFF DEAN/AFP via Getty Images

We need better enforcement after the gun sale. One study estimated that at least 100,000 convicted felons illegally possess firearms. Governor Greg Abbott stated that Texas law enforcement should redouble their efforts to keep guns away from dangerous individuals, and has highlighted "lie-and-try" legislation that makes it a state felony to provide false information when trying to purchase a firearm.

We know guns are trafficked in the U.S., therefore in addition to state-led efforts, it is crucial that states and the federal government partner together. With the rise of so-called Second Amendment Sanctuaries across the country, a dangerous lack of coordination may be looming. If local, state, and federal agencies don't work together to continuously enforce our existing laws, then they just make it easier for the bad guys to get a deadly weapon.

In addition to regulating purchase, safe or secure storage laws can have a meaningful impact. Research shows child access prevention (CAP) laws are associated with a 17 percent reduction in gun-homicides committed by young people. Thousands of guns are stolen each year, and then in turn used in crimes. Safe storage is critical to keeping guns in the hands of responsible gun owners.

AR-15s, which contain large capacity magazines (LCMs), were used in 33 of the 49 high-fatality mass shootings that took place between 2004 and 2017. LCMs allow shooters to fire hundreds of bullets before needing to reload. And when a shooter has to pause to reload, victims may flee (as they did in Parkland) or a good guy gets the opportunity to stop the shooter (as in the 2011 Gabby Giffords shooting).

At this junction, AR-15s will continue to be in circulation. Therefore, we urge a licensing framework, similar to that in Connecticut, to make sure the gun owner understands the rights and responsibilities that come with owning this very powerful, and potentially very deadly, weapon.

States that have adopted licensing measures see a reduction in their gun death rates. Why? Because these policies stop more of the bad guys from ever having guns in the first place. And that makes it possible for the good guys to either keep their guns holstered, or if needed, to stop a shooter.

We know these laws can save lives. We need to start right now.

Jennifer Necci Dineen is associate professor in residence of public policy at the University of Connecticut and the associate director of the University of Connecticut's ARMS Center.

Kerri M. Raissian is associate professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut, director of the University of Connecticut's ARMS Center, and co-leader of Connecticut's Scholars Strategy Network.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.