Mainstream media often mock the idea of armed civilians going up against active killers. Zbrojnice.com has an entire category of articles that are dedicated to describing engagements of individual armed civilians against wannabe mass murderers. This analysis summarizes the most important data that we can gain from these cases.
Zbrojnice.com is a Czech language website that deals with practical, legal, cultural and social issues of civilian firearms ownership. This article was translated to English from Czech original.
Česká verze článku: Analýza: Vybrané zásahy ozbrojených civilistů proti aktivním vrahům
Let’s start with a summary of information that is well known to zbrojnice.com readers already.
- According to FBI statistics, armed civilians were successful in 94 percent of engagements with active shooters. They stopped the perpetrator in 76 percent of cases and helped to mitigate loss of life in a further 18 percent (note: list below includes also cases of police officers being rescued /defended by armed civilian in situations that do not fit the FBI active killer definition).
- Presence of an armed defender at the site of the attack is crucial for mitigating the number of casualties, regardless of whether that person is civilian or a member of law enforcement.
- Legislation in most countries of the world prevents law abiding civilians from carrying, and often merely owning, firearms for protection. That applies to most of Europe, large parts of the United States including California and most other countries including Latin American ones with extremely high murder rates (Venezuela, Mexico, Brasil).
- Restrictive firearms legislation doesn’t affect perpetrators’ ability to commit an attack. All recent terror attacks in the European Union were committed with illegal firearms that were mostly smuggled in from the Balkans. Quite often not only the firearms but also the perpetrators were in the EU illegally, as was the case with the Bataclan terror attack.
- For perpetrators, firearms are easily replaceable by other means. Attacks involving explosives, incendiary devices or heavy vehicles/trucks are more dangerous than shootings when looking at the average number of casualties.
- Most mass murderers are motivated by desire to achieve notoriety or fame. They often choose firearms because they know that mass media coverage of incidents involving firearms is considerably more intense compared to attacks where other means were used.
Select engagements of armed civilians against active killers
The list below includes basic information about armed civilian engagements of active killers that were described in detail within dedicated articles on zbrojnice.com (please use Google Translate to read those). These incidents include most of the cases listed in FBI “active shooter yearbooks” as well as some other cases from outside the US.
Note: The list above was updated in March 2020. The rest of the article, including analysis and graphs below, remained unchanged and doesn’t reflect new cases added to the list above.
Firearm legislation in countries where armed civilians’ engagements took place
There is a whole set of Czech language articles on zbrojnice.com dedicated to US concealed carry laws. Until 2010, the United States had less concealed carry permits per capita than the Czech Republic. Armed civilian engagements against active killers became more frequent especially after 2014, when the number of concealed carry permits per capita reached about double the amount of the Czech Republic. Many US states however prevent legal concealed carry for civilians even today, while there is widespread „gun free zone“ legislation in the majority of those that do permit concealed carry. Active killers purposely choose gun free zones to commit their crimes as they know that their prospective victims cannot effectively defend themselves. The overall US statistic is distorted: in reality the engagements happen typically in states with relatively high numbers of legally armed civilians while only a fraction took place elsewhere.
Israeli concealed carry laws were liberalized significantly over the past several years, as described in detail in a separate article.
South African legislation can currently be called somewhat „dynamic“ due to ongoing legislative efforts to disarm law abiding civilians.
Kenya is the last country included in the list of armed civilian engagements. Kenya has relatively permissive concealed carry laws.
Time to engage perpetrator
Some firearms training providers have put forward their own proposals for more demanding firearm proficiency testing as a prerequisite to gain a concealed carry license. According to them, the test should also include evaluation of the skill to rapidly draw a firearm and immediately engage a target. The table thus includes an estimate of how fast the armed civilians had to engage the perpetrators (column „reaction time“).
- The red label shows cases in which the engaging civilian had to commence shooting immediately after the attack had started. In most of these cases the engaging armed civilian had been in imminent danger and could not choose to retreat. Exemption to this seems to be the case of Cicero, IL, where the armed civilian himself was not in immediate danger but did not hesitate and shot the criminal who had severely wounded a police officer and was continuing to fire at a second officer with his illegal submachine-gun.
- The yellow label shows cases where the engaging civilian had to react very fast, typically within around ten seconds. Usually the armed civilians in these cases were not in imminent danger and had the option to withdraw from the location of the attack. However, once they had decided to engage the perpetrator, they had to act swiftly.
- Green labels denote cases in which the armed civilian did not engage immediately after the commencement of attack. In most of these cases the civilian was nearby, e.g. in a different part of the shopping mall or outside of a building, however the civilian decided to engage the perpetrator before the police arrived.
- In the vast majority of cases, the engaging civilian had the opportunity to withdraw from the crime scene. An exception in this regard was the case of Aaron Guyton. Guyton locked the entrance of a church and had some time to prepare for the following engagement. He could, however, not escape from the church and waited while the perpetrator was breaking down the doors.
- In eight cases, the engaging civilians had not been at the crime scene initially but they succeeded to move to the area and engage the perpetrator before the police did.
- Eight further civilians were close to the scene of attack in a different part of the building or nearby. They deliberately moved towards the noise of gun fire (or screams in case of knife attack), ignoring the opportunity to withdraw.
- Specifically in US some civilians found themselves within a “gun free zone” where an attack commenced. They ran outside to collect their legal firearm (e.g. towards their vehicles in front of a school) and then purposely returned to engage the perpetrator despite being under no obligation to do so.
Firearms proficiency of engaging civilians
While there is a plenty of information as to how the engagements unfolded, including its duration, the level of preparedness of the involved civilians is largely unknown. Local media usually do not refrain from reporting on off duty status or prior military service of the civilian in question. However, in most cases it is impossible to find out whether the armed civilian just got their (list includes also female armed civilians engagements against active killers) concealed carry permit or if they had experience from advanced dynamic shooting classes.
- In eight cases across the USA the persons acting had some kind of link with security forces, typically police (former, off duty or otherwise police trained) who were armed with their private firearm. Concealed carry limitations do not apply to police officers (active or former) in many US states. These special rules allowed Donald J Moore (off duty police officer) to engage in New York as well as Jonathan Morales (off duty border patrol agent) in California. Morales was actually specifically asked by his rabbi to carry his firearm to the synagogue as other Jews in the congregation could not acquire a permit under local gun control laws.
- Two of the acting civilians in the US had previously attended advanced active shooter engagement training. Juan Carlos Nazario did so due to his private security job while David George did so on his own initiative.
- There are not many details known about firearms proficiency of civilians acting in Israel, however it is fairly safe to assume that they passed prior military training. Three of the civilians engaging in Kenya also had prior military training. It is possible that also some of the US civilians who engaged active killers had prior military training, however there is no detailed information available.
- In two cases, the engaging civilians were firearms instructors: Stephen Willeford in the US and Inayat Kassam in Kenya. Neither of them were at the scene when the respective attacks commenced. Both of them deliberately moved towards the scene and saved dozens of lives (Kassam -in cooperation with other armed civilians- saving at least 600 people).
- In 23 other cases, no further details of civilians’ training is available; judging from available information, their proficiency was ranging from minimal level to past active firearms training.
Thousands of lives saved
Approximately 2000 lives were saved by the engagements of armed civilians mentioned in the table above:
- Charl van Wyk on his own repelled four heavily armed terrorists, wounding one of them. The terrorists wanted to use hand grenades and stolen military rifles to kill as many people as possible and then to set the church ablaze along with all remaining civilians inside.
- Abdul Haji, Harish Patel, Dominic Troulan, Inayat Kassam and Peter Bonde (and officer Nura Ali) saved at least 600 people, that being the number of probable victims; they helped to evacuate more than a thousand people in total. They entered a mall when police at the scene decided to wait for a SWAT team. While it is not known if they managed to hit any of the heavily armed terrorists in the mall (the perpetrators even had an RPG and a 88mm recoilless rifle in their arsenal), the terrorists had to take cover from the civilians’ fire. Instead of causing more carnage, the terrorists remained pinned down until the SWAT took over. Police SWAT itself handed the battle over to military special forces two days later. During the final stage of the battle, the mall partly collapsed.
- Jean Assam and Stephen Willeford saved countless people in churches. Willeford, unfortunately, managed to engage the perpetrator only before he attacked a second church; there were 46 wounded, 26 of them fatally, at the first church.
- In most other cases up to several dozen of lives were saved.
- In most cases where police officers were rescued, only the officers’ lives were in imminent danger.
Most of the cases in which armed civilians engaged active killers don’t fall into mass murder statistics because the number of casualties is lower than the definition.
Engagements that ended tragically for the armed civilians
Articles dedicated to individual engagements by armed civilians provide irreplaceable study material for all active holders of a concealed carry permit.
Below, I want to focus on, and pay tribute to, those whose engagements ended tragically for the armed civilians:
- Joseph Robert Wilcox (USA) had been acting as a typical law abiding armed citizen: i.e. with restraint. Even though he had an opportunity to shoot the active killer right away, he ordered him to surrender at a gunpoint. Unknown to Wilcox, the perpetrator had an accomplice. Neither did Wilcox know that the perpetrators he was facing had already murdered two police officers in an adjacent building. While holding one criminal at a gunpoint, Wilcox was shot in the back by the female accomplice. Out of 250 cases of active shooters listed by FBI between 2000 and 2017, there were only four incidents with multiple perpetrators.
- Wilcox himself wasn’t in imminent danger and most probably could have escaped from the location of the attack. His engagement attracted the criminals’ attention for a while, allowing other people to escape the scene. Subsequently, the two perpetrators chose to commit “suicide by police”.
- Ari Fuld (Israel) did not make any mistake. It was his bad luck that a knife wielding terrorist randomly chose Fuld as his first victim and started stabbing him in the back. Before bleeding out, Fuld made sure he would remain the terrorist’s last victim.
- Fuld had no chance of escape. His engagement clearly prevented the perpetrator from continuing the attack and claiming more victims.
- Jemel Roberson (USA) repelled an active killer from a bar. He inflicted a gunshot wound and apprehended the perpetrator. While local police were providing first aid to victims, an overzealous officer from a nearby county arrived at the crime scene and shot Roberson, who was holding down the perpetrator, dead.
- Roberson was employed as a security guard at the bar. The commencement of the attack didn’t give him any other option than to engage the perpetrator, but later he could have chosen to let the criminal flee the scene. Instead, he managed to apprehend the perpetrator in line with his job. His actions saved the lives of many people inside of the bar.
- Byron Wilson (USA) attempted to engage a military veteran with full auto AR15 (illegal since 1986 across the US) and was gravely wounded, just like two police officers who arrived later (police forces even abandoned attempts to engage the perpetrator directly, secured the area and awaited arrival of a police sniper to deal with the situation).
- The perpetrator in this case had been walking along the street and indiscriminately shooting at people and cars in sight. While engaging armed civilian Wilson, the perpetrator moved to cover, which prevented him from finding further victims.
The cases above show that armed civilians have been quite successful in engaging active killers in the past. However, one must not forget that compared to US, the countries in the European Union suffer from a high percentage of attacks committed by groups of perpetrators instead of individuals, which would make any engagement exponentially more difficult. This however remains a moot point as most EU countries effectively ban average citizens from possessing and carrying firearms for personal protection.
It is clear, that every minute during which a perpetrator has to take cover because of incoming fire they are unable to attack more potential victims.
Every second that the perpetrator has to focus on the engaging person (notwithstanding if civilian or law enforcement) they can’t cause further harm.
Time is what victims lack though, whether at Bataclan (police engagement 2 hours and 40 minutes after commencement of attack), Christchurch (police didn’t engage the perpetrator before Abdul Aziz got hold of one of his firearms after which he fled) or in Parkland (head of police response prohibited officers from engaging the perpetrator, engagement started “by mistake” as police from a nearby county arrived and ran directly into the building).
Edit: The list of selected armed civilian’s engagements was updated in March 2020. The rest of the article, including analysis and graphs, remained unchanged and doesn’t reflect new cases added to the list of selected cases.
Interviews in English:
- Callum Long-Collins: A man whose guns were confiscated for committing a thought-crime
- Tomasz W. Stępień: In Firearms United we expect the EU to go hard after legal gun owners in 2020
- MEP Dita Charanzová: I don’t understand how the EU Commission managed to avoid responsibility for its past failure to deliver legislation on deactivation of firearms
- Jim Smith: Legally armed and properly trained populace assist the government with safety and stability
- Pia Clerté: It is not possible to have any tool for the purpose of self-defense in Sweden