To put that in perspective, in the last forty years the number of mass firearm murders in the United States rivals the combined total of Super Bowls played, NBA champions crowned, and Olympics-summer and winter-held. If you're not in the habit of marking time by the passage of major sporting events, perhaps it's more relevant for you to consider that public shooting sprees in that time period outnumber the combined total number of Miss Americas crowned, Oscars for best picture presented and nominees for President of the United States selected by both major political parties.
Any way you look at the numbers, the apparent inability of government at all levels to prevent mass slaughter is frightening. That's why it's not surprising that many concerned gun owners would like to take matters into their own hands, suggesting, for example, that some of the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre might have been spared if students and professors had been allowed to carry guns on campus.
There is certainly truth in the claim that armed citizens have on occasion averted crime and saved lives. But given the nature of a firearm encounter and the variety of potential outcomes, it's very difficult to know if return fire from an armed citizen would turn out to be a good thing or a bad thing.
Even well trained law enforcement professionals occasionally make mistakes in the chaos of a shootout. It's uncommon but not unheard of that threatening but unarmed individuals are mistakenly shot when deadly force wasn't even necessary. And when guns are blazing from both sides, there is always the chance that victims who would have otherwise avoided danger are caught in the crossfire. The chances of such unintended consequences increase considerably when the crossfire is initiated by a shooter who doesn't have the experience or training that might minimize deadly mistakes.
Some have argued that even the possibility of armed response would be enough to deter many would-be killers. That seems overly optimistic to me. Nearly every one of these episodes has a very predictable and violent ending-the murderer is killed by either external or self-inflected gunfire. These murderers are obviously not afraid of facing the business end of a gun. It's even likely that some would prepare for and enjoy the challenge of a shootout against a relatively under-equipped and less prepared opponent.
Ultimately, it's impossible to mathematically determine if the possibility of return fire from potential victims is a net positive or a net negative. Historical data is non-existent and projections of lives saved and lost would be entirely subjective. But this is a decision that shouldn't be determined by that mathematical calculation anyway. That question-how many lives are saved by return fire from potential victims-isn't even the right question to ask. The question that ought to be asked is this: Is return fire from armed civilians the best we can do to prevent or impede mass shootings?
Unfortunately, that's a question our leaders in Washington have decided to ignore. There are a variety of reasons for their silence. Many believe government intervention would do more harm than good. Others believe it's a problem that should be dealt with at state and local levels. But too many have made the political calculation that it's a topic too hot to handle in the run-up to a presidential election.
That's too bad. I don't know if serious debate and discussion in Washington would make a difference. But I do know that there's got to be a better way than every man for himself.