Abcarian: Good guys with guns stop bad guys with guns? Tell that to the grieving families in Uvalde

A memorial outside the Uvalde elementary school features life size photos of the 19 children killed.
A makeshift memorial outside an Uvalde elementary school features large photos of the 19 children killed in the mass shooting on May 24. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

Can we finally put to rest the dangerously wrong aphorism that "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun"?

Nineteen “good guys with guns” milled around outside a classroom in Uvalde, Texas, some for more than an hour last week, waiting for a janitor with a master key to open the door while children desperately called 911, may have bled out and the 18-year-old gunman squeezed off at least 16 more rounds.

A “good guy with a gun” who worked as a security guard at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., was powerless last month to stop an armed 18-year-old who wore a bulletproof vest.

A “good guy with a gun” who worked as a high school resource officer in Parkland, Fla., in 2018 took cover outside, rather than confronting the armed 19-year-old who mowed down 34 people, killing 17.

If you spout the “good guy with a gun” nonsense, as former President Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) did Friday at the National Rifle Assn. convention in Houston, you are basically saying that mass shootings are simply the cost of living in gun-drunk America, that shootouts are acceptable, that nothing can be done.

And, anyway, consider the source. The saying was popularized by National Rifle Assn. Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre after the 2012 slaughter of 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. LaPierre suggested that the only way to keep schoolchildren safe was to put armed officers on every campus.

This line has been adopted uncritically by the gun lobby. "We know from past experiences that the most effective tool for keeping kids safe is armed law enforcement on the campus," Cruz said hours after the Uvalde shooting.

This is ludicrous.

What many studies tell us: There is no association between having armed officers on campus and the severity of shootings.

A study published by the JAMA Network last year found that “an armed officer may be an incentive rather than a deterrent” to a school shooter, since many of the shooters are “actively suicidal.”

Just about everything appears to have been botched in the law enforcement response to the horrifying events at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. The mental image of bloody children whispering desperate pleas to 911 operators as a crowd of officers just outside their classroom did nothing is truly the stuff of nightmares.

Prior to the 1999 mass killing at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., law enforcement protocol dictated that officers secure a scene’s perimeter and wait for a crisis negotiator to arrive. At Columbine, this proved disastrous. In its wake, the FBI developed new, lifesaving protocols, which require officers to stop a shooter as quickly as possible, even if it means delaying help for the wounded.

Officers are expected to put themselves in harm’s way to save lives.

“A first responder unwilling to place the lives of the innocent above their own safety should consider another career field,” says the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement in material that was provided to officers receiving active-shooter training in the Uvalde school district. In such situations, the New York Times reported, officers are expected to “display uncommon acts of courage to save the innocent.”

As parents outside the Uvalde school begged and pleaded last week for the police to save their children, nothing of the sort seems to have happened.

"The levels of failure are just incredible, beyond belief," Anthony Barksdale, a former Baltimore deputy police commissioner told CNN.

“It’s hard not to see how someone doesn’t get fired for this, for these very, very bad calls," Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) told Politico.

On Sunday, the Justice Department announced it would investigate law enforcement's response to the shooting, which seems to have been as weak as the response in Parkland, where multiple officers were faulted by state investigators for, among other things, taking too long to put on their bulletproof vests, failing to move toward the sound of gunshots as protocol demands, and in one case, staying behind a car “in a position of personal safety.”

One person singled out for criticism in the Parkland catastrophe is Scot Peterson, a former sheriff’s deputy who was the school’s resource officer. Security video footage shows him hiding outside school buildings while the shooter rampaged inside. Peterson said he did not know where the shots were coming from, but in a taped 911 call he identified the building under siege. (Peterson, who resigned, has been charged with felony child neglect, negligence and perjury.)

While we’re burying the myth of good guys with guns, let’s also shoot down the widespread belief that law enforcement officers have a constitutional obligation to protect us.

As the Supreme Court has affirmed, they do not.

Student survivors of the Parkland shooting sued Broward County and five public officials, including Peterson, claiming their response to the shooting rampage was so incompetent that it violated the student’s constitutional rights under the 14th Amendment’s due process clause. The students lost their case.

As it turns out, government agencies such as school districts and police have no legal duty to protect anyone who is not in their custody. Sure, truancy laws require children to be in school, but that is not the same as being incarcerated, courts have ruled.

The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is to prevent him from getting his hands on one in the first place.


This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.