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Good Samaritan Gun Use

A multiple victim public shooting last week outside the court house in Tyler, Texas, stemming from a custody dispute, resulted in the murder of two people and the wounding of four others.

Killings like this frequently make the news, and this story was carried by all the television networks and most major newspapers. ABC and NBC evening news coverage was fairly typical; they noted, respectively, that “David Hernandez Arroyo (search) fired off more than 50 rounds. He killed two people before police shot him dead” and “A gunman killed his ex-wife and a bystander and wounded four others between--before being shot to death by police.”

Of the 71 unique news stories found by a computerized Nexis search of stories in the four days after the attack, 38 percent mention that an AK-47 (search) or high-powered rifle was used by the attacker. As usual, gun control groups called for more gun control.

Eric Howard, with the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence (search), said “These are military-style weapons that pose a significant risk to civilians and the police officers trying to protect the public.”

Only two stories mentioned that the AK-47 was a semi-automatic, not a machine gun, and, while it is understandable, none of the articles provided context by explaining that Arroyo’s weapon functioned the same as deer hunting rifles, firing the same caliber bullets, at the same rapidity, and doing the same damage.

Seems like pretty standard media coverage. But what makes this case different is that 21 percent of the news stories actually mentioned that a citizen licensed to carry a concealed weapon used his gun to try and help stop the attack.

The citizen, 50 year old Mark Wilson, was one of the two people murdered. As CNN reported, “Everyone here agrees, Wilson saved lives.” Fox News' website quoted the sheriff as saying "if it hadn't been for Mr. Wilson, [Arroyo's son] would be dead."

Wilson, a licensed concealed handgun permit holder, heard Arroyo’s shots and saw the commotion from his apartment window. He grabbed a handgun and headed toward the attacker. Arroyo had already wounded several police officers and there was no one left to prevent his rampage.

Arroyo had also shot his 22-year-old son and was about ready to shoot him again from very close range when Wilson fired his gun, hitting Arroyo several times in the chest. Arroyo was wearing a bullet resistant vest and flak jacket and Wilson's shots did not seriously wound him. Yet, Wilson’s shots forced Arroyo to come after him, and it used up a couple of minutes of his time. Unfortunately, in the exchange of gunfire, Arroyo eventually fatally shot Wilson. With police arriving, Arroyo fled the scene and was later shot to death by police as they pursued him.

Neighbors described Wilson as “one of the nicest, sweetest guys I've ever known.” Others pointed out that “He's not going to sit back and -- when he could do something about it, and just let it happen” and called him a hero.

It is not remarkable that someone such as Mark Wilson was there at the scene to stop the attack before police arrived. For example, in about 30 percent of the multiple victim public school shootings that have captivated Americans’ attention starting in 1997, people used guns to stop the attacks before uniformed police were able to arrive on the scene. Few people know about these cases because only about one percent of the news stories on these cases mention how the attacks were stopped.

What is remarkable is that this heroism--an act of defensive gun use (search)--did receive some national attention. Undoubtedly, much of the coverage came from the fact that Mark Wilson was killed by Arroyo, but it still doesn’t take away from the fact that many stories admitted that he had saved at least one life and a few stories quoted police saying that he had probably saved multiple lives.

Of course, gun control advocates draw their usual conclusion from all this. Kristen Rand, legislative director for the pro-gun control Violence Policy Center (search) in Washington, D.C., claims the Tyler shooting last Thursday shows that criminals are undeterred by people potentially carrying concealed weapons. But, in fact, more nearly the opposite is true. When Arroyo faced the choice of continuing to shoot others or defending himself, he was forced to defend himself. Making Arroyo's attacks more risky caused him to change his behavior.

More generally, though, it is strange that Rand points to one case as evidence that deterrence doesn't work. In the book, The Bias Against Guns, Bill Landes of the University of Chicago Law School and I examine multiple-victim public shootings in the United States from 1977 to 1999 and find that when states passed right-to-carry laws, these attacks fell by 60 percent. Deaths and injuries from multiple-victim public shootings fell on average by 78 percent.

Many people find it hard to believe that 18 national surveys by academics as well as national polling organizations show that there are 2 million defensive gun uses each year. After all, if these events were really happening, wouldn't we hear about them on the news? Yet when was the last time you saw a story on the national evening news (or even the local news) about a citizen using a gun to stop a crime? ABC’s and NBC’s news coverage continued this pattern, but at least some CBS and CNN news reports provided some balance and Fox News’ website also gave the full story.

This misreporting actually endangers people's lives. By selectively reporting the news and turning a defensive gun use story into one that merely says "police shot him dead," the media give misleading impressions of what actions saved the lives of people confronted by violence. As Wilson's case demonstrates, defensive gun use is not a guns-rights myth. Guns have been and are used by law abiding citizens to protect and save their own lives and the lives of others.

John Lott is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of The Bias Against Guns (Regnery 2003) and More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press 2000).