FBI data on good guys with guns called ‘garbage’ as critic finds many more cases
Mercedes Perez crashed her car into another car on a San Antonio street in 2021, then jumped out with a gun and began blazing away at neighbors who came out to see what had happened.
She killed one man — the car’s owner — and wounded his wife and son before another neighbor heard the shooting, grabbed his gun and ran to the scene, where he killed Perez with a shot to the neck.
John Lott, founder of the Crime Prevention Research Center, said it’s a case of a good guy with a gun stopping a bad guy with a gun.
Yet the incident was left out of the FBI’s database of active shooting incidents.
Mr. Lott says it’s one of dozens of such incidents missing from the bureau’s statistics, which he said has fueled a false narrative that rarely do good guys with guns stop shootings.
The FBI says the rate of active shooting incidents ended by good guys with guns is 4.4% over the years. Mr. Lott says it’s 34.4%.
The FBI’s conclusions are widely cited, particularly as new shootings revive old debates about gun control and whether more access to weapons is safer or more dangerous.
When an armed citizen does intervene and it draws national headlines — as happened at an Indiana mall food court last year — news accounts are quick to point to the FBI’s findings as evidence that it’s a rarity. The FBI’s numbers also have been used in court cases, and they pepper legislative debates on Capitol Hill and in state assemblies.
Mr. Lott said the numbers are so distorted by shoddy work and judgment calls that they’re not just worthless, they’re misleading.
“It’s garbage,” Mr. Lott told The Washington Times. “They should be embarrassed.”
The FBI’s active shooter definition is different than all shootings, or even mass shootings. The FBI says it covers instances in which someone with a firearm is “actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.” The point is to zero in on instances in which there is an ongoing use of a weapon and where there’s a chance for intervention to affect the outcome.
Instances of self-defense, drug and gang violence, hostage situations, and domestic disputes are discounted.
Mr. Lott said there are several sources of error.
The first is the FBI’s reliance on news accounts, which he said are less likely to cover good guys with guns.
Then there are the judgment calls about what meets the definition of an active shooter case. The FBI says it’s supposed to be when a gun is used in a confrontation outside of a criminal incident such as domestic violence or drug dealing. There are also judgment calls about who qualifies as a regular citizen, or “good guy.” The FBI says a security guard doesn’t count.
When those judgments are bungled, the data suffers.
In 2019, for example, the FBI counted 30 active-shooter incidents and said none was stopped by an armed citizen.
Mr. Lott said the bureau missed 11 incidents altogether and misclassified one. That was a Dec. 29 shooting at a church in White Settlement, Texas, that the FBI listed as stopped by a security guard. That meant it didn’t count it as a good guy with a gun.
Mr. Lott, though, spoke to the shooter, Jack Wilson, who said he wasn’t a security guard but just a member of the congregation. Mr. Wilson also said probably 20 other members of the congregation were armed that day, too.
Discrepancies on good-guy incidents
In 2021, the FBI listed 61 active-shooter incidents, with perhaps four that were stopped by armed citizens. Mr. Lott says he found 112 total incidents, 55 of which were stopped by a good guy with a gun.
That included a Syracuse, New York, case in August in which a man threatened people, then fired at them. Another man, identified by local press as Richard Morose, a property manager, returned fire with a legally possessed handgun and killed the attacker.
“It appears that Mr. Morose saved the lives of several individuals,” the district attorney’s office said, according to Syracuse.com.
Yet the FBI didn’t include it in its count.
Another August 2021 case the bureau left out of its calculations involved a man, upset at a Florida barber shop, who came in with a gun and pointed it at customers. The barbershop owner shot the man in the hip, then other patrons disarmed him, according to a report by Florida Today.
From 2014 to 2021, Mr. Lott said he counted 124 cases the FBI missed in which an armed civilian stopped an active shooter.
Asked whether his numbers might be skewed toward good-guy incidents, Mr. Lott said looks for all kinds of active-shooter cases. But for some reason the FBI seems to flag the other ones.
“The cases they’re missing are systematically just the ones where people use guns to stop the attacks,” he said.
The FBI, in a statement to The Times, said it “works proactively” to spot incidents that should be included. But it acknowledged limitations to its efforts.
“There is no mandated database collection or central intake point for reporting active shooter incidents, which exists for other crimes,” the bureau said. “The active shooter incident research in this report is valid as of March 25, 2022. If additional incidents meeting FBI criteria are identified after the publication of the document, every effort is made to factor those incidents into future reporting.”
Building the FBI’s database
The bureau builds its data with help from Texas State University’s Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center.
An FBI spokesperson wouldn’t reveal how much ALERRT is paid for that work. Mr. Lott said he figures they’re embarrassed at how much they spent for iffy data.
“I’ve spent thousands of dollars on putting together our list. They’ve spent I have no idea how many millions of dollars doing their news searches,” he said.
ALERRT declined to answer questions from The Times, referring a reporter to the FBI.
But the outfit did speak this year with The Washington Post, which also raised questions about Mr. Lott’s findings.
In reviewing one 2019 case Mr. Lott flagged, in which a man opened fire at a dental office in Tennessee, a patient used his concealed weapon to shoot and then detain the attacker. ALERRT told The Post that because the attacker was shooting his wife, it was a domestic incident and therefore didn’t qualify under the active shooter database rules.
ALERRT also dismissed a case in which a man opened fire at a strip club, hitting three people, then a bouncer with a handgun followed the man outside and shot him in the back, killing him. The researchers told The Post it was discounted as a retaliation murder.
The Post’s fact-checker, in its write-up, questioned the utility of the FBI’s data and concluded that it is difficult to draw conclusions about good guys with guns because the data is so susceptible to judgment calls.
A level of interpretation
FBI officials released their first active-shooter report in 2014, based on data dating to 2000. They catalogued 160 incidents between 2000 and 2013 that involved someone killing, or attempting to kill, people in a populated area. Gang and drug-related shootings were excluded.
Analysts said five of the incidents — about 3% — ended with an armed citizen exchanging gunfire. The study also counted 21 incidents — 13% of the total — when an unarmed citizen disrupted the shooting.
The FBI has updated its report regularly in the years since. From 2014 to 2021, it has counted 252 active-shooter incidents and says 11 were stopped by an armed citizen — or 4.4% of the time.
Mr. Lott’s numbers for that period are 360 incidents, with 124 stopped by a good guy with a gun — or 34.4% of the time. In 2021, the data he has the most confidence in, he says it was 49.1% of the time. And looking only at incidents in places where carrying weapons isn’t heavily restricted, the rate is closer to 60%.
He said it makes sense to discount shootings in places where gun control laws restrict possession of a weapon, making it less likely an armed good guy would be on hand in any given situation.
Subtracting those cases out, he identified 81 total active-shooter incidents in places where citizens are legally allowed to carry weapons. He said an armed citizen intervened to stop the attack in 47 of those — or 58% of the time.
“You have to differentiate places where people are legally allowed to carry,” he said.
Mr. Lott’s work on that particular issue has drawn fierce criticism over the years.
Indeed, after a spate of shootings this month, gun control activists blamed Mr. Lott.
“It’s terrible to recirculate this piece whenever there’s a mass shooting, but ppl inevitably ask why there’s no progress on policy reforms. One reason is John Lott, who has provided the empirical justification for looser firearms laws since the 1990s,” Mike Spies, who specializes in gun control journalism, said on Twitter, linking to a piece he did for TheTrace.org and The New Yorker discounting Mr. Lott’s research.
Mr. Lott has spent years pressing the FBI over its data. In one exchange in 2018, the FBI told him it is making judgment calls.
“The selection of cases for inclusion in these reports is the result of a consensus vote of analysts and law enforcement professionals using the methodology stated in the original 2013 study,” Shayne Buchwald, an FBI official, told Mr. Lott. “In some cases, a level of interpretation is required with which all may not agree. The FBI notes your differing opinion in the stated cases.”
Mr. Lott flagged the issue again when he worked for the Justice Department as a senior adviser for research and statistics during the latter part of the Trump administration. The data remained unchanged.
“It could be just sloppiness, it could be ignorance, but that doesn’t explain why they don’t fix them once I gave them the links and the stories,” he said.