In early January of 2015, two fanatics attacked the offices of a satirical publication in Paris, Charlie Hebdo. They murdered 12 people, including two police officers, wounded another 11 and escaped. According to some accounts, the two slain policemen were unarmed and helpless to fight back. The attackers were killed in a gunfight with police after taking a hostage in a signage company outside Paris. At the same time, a related group of fanatics took hostages in a Jewish delicatessen in Paris, where they, too, were neutralized by French police, but not before more innocent casualties were tallied. These events resulted in, among other things, one of the most influential rabbis in Europe calling for more Jews to be armed, and for many in the region—and in the United States—to publicly speculate whether armed citizens might have been able to reduce the incident’s casualty count.
The perpetrators in Paris were heavily armed, with sources reporting shortly after the incident that they possessed AK-47s, a submachine gun, pistols, a shotgun and explosive devices. Skeptics scoffed, “How could one defender with a pistol defeat that sort of firepower?” If that’s the question and the Charlie Hedbo massacre is considered Case One, the answer is Case Two, which took place in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1993. In that incident, four terrorists armed with fully automatic assault weapons and hand grenades attacked the Saint James Church. Their sudden, violent assault killed 11 victims and wounded 58. But a single armed citizen named Charl van Wyk was able to draw his personal carry gun, a five-shot snub-nosed .38 Special revolver, and open fire. He wounded one of the attackers, and all four were so jarred off their plan by this unexpected return of gunfire that they broke off the attack and fled.
Case Three: Last year in Moore, Oklahoma, a man went berserk in a food plant and attacked a female worker, literally decapitating her. He then went after a second woman. Hearing the screams, Chief Operating Officer Mark Vaughan availed himself of a firearm, ran to the scene and shot down the killer.
Sometimes, taking the perpetrator at gunpoint is enough to stop the screams. More than 15 years ago, I debriefed Joel Myrick, the hero of Case Four. A vicious teen had stabbed his mother to death the night before to gain access to his estranged father’s locked gun cabinet. He subsequently showed up at the high school in Pearl, Mississippi, and opened fire. Hearing shots and screams, Vice Principal Myrick ran to the parking lot and retrieved his Colt Officer’s .45, with which he confronted the escaping killer. The young monster, who had killed two young victims and wounded 11, surrendered as soon as he looked down the barrel of the vice principal’s sidearm. He had been on course, with the stolen .30-30 rifle and more ammunition, to a nearby junior high school when Myrick captured him.
More recent was Case Five, the Clackamas Mall shooting in Oregon, in which a psycho with a semi-automatic rifle opened fire. Nick Melli, a young man with security guard training and carrying a .40 pistol on a permit, drew and took aim at the gunman. Melli didn’t fire, for fear of hitting innocents behind the perpetrator, but the gunman at that point fled through an employees-only doorway and down an inside hall, where he then committed suicide. What could have been a high-casualty mass murder was apparently aborted by the mere sight of an armed citizen.
Good Guys With Guns
Sometimes, it becomes necessary to shoot the perpetrator to stop or prevent a massacre. When a man tried to shoot up a church for the second time, Case Six went down. Jeanne Assam was an ex-cop working volunteer security for the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 2007, when she heard the opening volley of shots and literally “ran to the sound of the guns.” Armed with the 9mm pistol she was licensed to carry as an armed citizen, she shot the killer on the run and dropped him, at which time he shot himself, concluding the matter. Assam was hailed for her courageous act, which indisputably saved many lives.
Case Seven would be ignored by the same mainstream media that focused intensely on a mass murder in a theater in the same city three months later. In Aurora, Colorado, in 2012, a crazed gunman showed up at a church there and opened fire by surprise, killing a helpless woman. Before he could claim any more victims, however, he was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer among the parishioners, who was carrying his own handgun. The incident occurred at the New Destiny Christian Center.
Another off-duty cop cut short a massacre in Case Eight, the mass shooting at Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2007. Kenneth Hammond was having dinner with his wife in a mall restaurant when he heard the shots, and responded. The killer had slain five helpless victims and wounded four when Hammond spotted him and opened fire with his subcompact 1911. The carnage ended there: Hammond pinned the gunman in position with judicious shots, making him forget about inflicting death and focus on preventing his own until the first responding officer arrived. The gunman was eventually killed by SWAT officers. It should be noted that, for most intents and purposes, there is very little difference in cases like these between an off-duty cop and a competent armed citizen—each is the proverbial “good guy with a gun.”
Sometimes the good guy isn’t supposed to have a gun but does. Case Nine occurred in Pennsylvania last year, when an enraged man entered a psychiatric clinic and shot a caseworker dead and wounded one of the doctors before the latter drew a small-caliber pistol and shot the man down, limiting the death toll to one. The doctor recovered and, declared a hero by local police, suffered no consequences for being armed in a “gun-free” zone. I was on a panel with three psychologists that discussed this case for the “Ethics and Psychology” podcast. The general consensus was that the Pennsylvania doctor had done the right thing and prevented a massacre.
Mass murders stopped by armed citizens go back a ways in history. Let’s return 100 years to Case Ten in 1915, when The New York Times ran a headline that read, “Kills five, wounds 20, and is himself slain.” Some of the wounded later succumbed to their injuries. The incident occurred in Brunswick, Georgia. Believed to have snapped under the pressure of financial losses, a businessman opened fire in the street, blasting anyone he could see, including the police. An attorney named Eustace Butts procured a shotgun and another citizen, E.J. Minehan, a .32 revolver. Opening fire almost simultaneously, they both shot the gunman, who fell, eventually dying of buckshot wounds to the kidneys. The armed citizens had cut short the massacre and saved many lives; the dead madman’s pockets still held more live ammunition.
The lessons are clear. One fights fire with fire, and defeats force with force. Criminals make a point of striking in places where police are absent, and the police can’t repeal the laws of time and motion to get to the scene in time to stop the murders. If someone collapses with a heart attack, a citizen first responder with an AED is more likely to save him than a long wait for a paramedic unit. In exactly the same way, an armed “good guy or gal” who is at ground zero of the attack can stop the carnage sooner. History often proves this to be true more often than not.