In the days and weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings, the National Rifle Association has repeatedly stated that many Bostonians who did not possess guns probably wished that they had them in their homes during the tense “shelter in place” manhunt. That statement is in large part a straw-man argument. Much of what occurred during those unfortunate days disproves the NRA’s usual narrative about guns and public safety.
Let’s begin with the obvious: Had everyone in Boston been armed the day of the bombings, the bombings would have still occurred. The initial violence resulted from explosives hidden in common, everyday backpacks unobtrusively discarded in the crowd. (Fortunately, no one has yet made the argument that the only way to stop a bad man with a bomb is a good man with a bomb, although the logic is about as sound as its corollary.)
The only way that everyone carrying guns in public would have lessened casualties that day would have been the likelihood that many people would just choose to stay away from supposedly peaceful public gatherings were they to become armed camps. Army Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey, currently on tour to train the Afghan army, sees the NRA vision as wanting to turn American civil society into a gun-toting version of what he sees every day in Afghanistan. “It is a philosophy,” writes Mr. Dempsey, “that offers false comfort to frightened individuals and would do nothing for our collective safety.”
The only people shot during the incident and its aftermath were carrying firearms. In fact, slain MIT police officer Sean Collier was reportedly shot precisely because he was armed and the Tsarnaev brothers wanted another gun. Transit officer Richard Donohue, who was critically injured during the shootout in Watertown, was apparently hit by friendly fire from other “good guys with guns.” Another officer, Sgt. John Macellan, was penned down during the shootout because he was unable to retrieve his gun from its case because, as one press account had it, “high adrenaline can impair fine motor skills.”
Bottom line: Good guys with guns can sometimes unintentionally arm bad actors; they are often incapable, in the fog of exchange, from acting effectively; and they can even increase a situation’s lethality by turning public spaces into multidirectional fire zones. The participants in Watertown were trained police; adding armed civilians without police training would be fraught with peril.
Meanwhile, the owner of the Mercedes SUV that was hijacked and the owner of the boat where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was apprehended — both of whom were unarmed — walked away uninjured from face-to-face encounters with one or both of the alleged bombers. Had the owner of the hijacked vehicle been armed, he would probably have been as unable as Officer Collier to react in time to get his gun, and would possibly have suffered the same fate. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was reportedly only subdued by the police once he was no longer able to fire his gun, an opportunity that might not have occurred had he been armed that night with the high-capacity magazines of which the NRA is so fond.
It has not yet been revealed where the Tsarnaevs (neither of whom reportedly could legally own a gun in Massachusetts) procured their guns, but if it turns out that they did so through an unregulated gun show, it would be further proof that one of the things that could very well stop a bad guy with a gun is effective background checks for people with domestic violence convictions or who have been investigated for active terrorist affiliations.
Yet, the NRA continues to debate the straw man. The only thing that prevented a capable, law-abiding resident of Watertown from having had a gun sufficient for defense of their house during the lockdown was personal choice. That would still be true of every law-abiding American had Congress passed the background check law defeated the very week of the bombings. In point of fact, there was one Class A (large capacity) gun permit for every 36 households in Watertown the night of the gunfight. The people of Massachusetts through their legislature and personal choice have enacted sensible gun safety laws, and their rate of gun possession ranks 48th in the nation. Correspondingly, those sensible decisions have resulted in Massachusetts being one of the states least prone to gun violence (49th).
Had Massachusetts the same rate of gun deaths as the state that ranks third from the top in terms of gun ownership instead of its position as third from the bottom, 758 more Massachusettsans would have died from gun violence in 2012 than was the case. That is the bottom line on whether more guns in the state would have promoted public safety.