At the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises on July 20, 2012, I noticed a man in the emergency exit pop a smoke grenade. My training as a marine kicked in, and I knew to run fast. But had I been armed, I wouldn’t have taken a shot. It was so chaotic, I might have hurt somebody else. Or people might have thought I was a second shooter. After Sandy Hook, I heard the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre say he wants to put armed guards in all schools. I disagree. Columbine had one, yet 13 people were still killed.”

– Jacqueline Keavney Lader, a former marine who survived the theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado (Glamour, March 2013, p. 232)

Thoughts of heroism are a powerful force in human psychology. Is there a single man, woman, or child among us who doesn’t dream of rushing in to save the day? We all desire to defend the innocent and deliver a fatal blow to evil. This is essentially the plot of every action movie ever made, which shows just how entrenched this idea is in the human psyche. It’s also why the presumption that you can defend against crime by arming more citizens is so hard to kill. When we watch tragedy after tragedy on the news, it’s a knee-jerk reaction to say to ourselves: “If I had been there and had a gun, I could have prevented that from happening.”

After all, it looks so easy in the movies. We don’t take into consideration the fact that those scenes in the movies have been well-scripted and rehearsed over and over again. In real-life, things are a lot messier, and the odds of someone using a gun to actually take down an armed attacker are “extraordinarily low.” (Miller, 2016) Sadly, real life renders our fantasies of being a gun hero to little more than a delusion.

Why Anyone Using A Gun for Self-Defense Is Always At A Disadvantage

There are several things working against anyone trying to save the day with a gun. We’ve built these points around the concept of a mass shooter, but they apply just as much to any other self-defense situation:

1.) The aggressor always has the jump on things. They always have a big advantage. It’s their plan. They know what they’re going to do before you do. You can only react. To understand how big of an advantage this is, try the following experiment in your backyard using paintball guns:

  • Position yourself 10 yards away from your opponent and face each other.

  • You activate the safety on your gun and securely holster it inside your clothing. Then cross your arms or hold a book out in front of you. Your opponent, however, gets to have his gun out and pointed straight at you, safety off, paintball in the chamber.

  • A neutral person says go, and you each try to tag the other.

You can run this experiment a million times, the outcome is always the same: The one allowed to think ahead and prepare will always plant a kill shot square on the other before his opponent has a chance to even draw his weapon.

2.) Attempting to confront an attacker exposes oneself to injury. It’s an either-or proposition: You can fight or flee, but you can’t do both at the same time. This means having a weapon leaves you exposed, and makes it much more likely you’ll be shot.

3.) In real life, things are confusing. As Liz Brody states, “Interview survivors of mass shootings and you hear these phrases a lot: Gunfire, they explain, rarely sounds like what it is, especially in the middle of a work meeting, class lecture, or shopping trip. Even the sight of a shooter spraying bullets can be weirdly confusing, they say. Many who have lived through the terror recall thinking it was a joke. A drill. Anything except the awful truth: that they might have only a few seconds to live.” (Brody, 2016) It simply isn’t possible to instantly spring into action, and anyone who was on such high alert would be a community danger because of their risk of overreacting to everyday stimulus.

4.) Fear and adrenalin make it harder to function properly. As Amanda Ripley states, “In life-or-death situations, human beings often lose basic motor skills that we take for granted under normal conditions.” (Ripley, 2013) People tend to bobble things or become clumsy, and they operate at a thousand frames a second, which makes them more prone to rash decisions or to firing off “prayer” shots without taking the time to focus on what they are actually doing. They may get tunnel vision or lose some of their faculties. While attackers may also experience some of this, since they’ve planned the attack and aren’t being taken by surprise, they are usually affected to a much lesser degree.

5.) There are many ways you can do more harm than good. Not only is it very easy to hit an innocent civilian with the crossfire, but how do the others know you’re not a second shooter? All they know is that an ordinary looking person is shooting people, and now a second ordinary looking person on another side of the room has a gun and is shooting. This confusion can prevent others from escaping and may even drive them towards the attacker, rendering them sitting ducks. It also might get you shot by mistake by another person with a weapon.

6.) The attacker has usually planned the attack. Armed guards? No problem, simply shoot them first. Worried someone may be armed? Come in from the back so that anyone would have to turn first to confront you, giving you the edge. Smoke grenades, armored vests…it’s easy for someone who has planned an attack to further distort the odds in their favor

The bottom line: Guns are an offensive weapon, not a defensive weapon. People need to understand that. This greatly diminishes their usefulness in true situations of self-defense. As Amanda Ripley states, “Winning a gunfight without shooting innocent people typically requires realistic, expensive training and a special kind of person, a fact that has been strangely absent in all the back-and-forth” on gun safety. (Ripley, 2013) Your average armed citizen lacks this training, nor are they likely to be the 1 in 100 people who performs well under pressure. Even if both of these conditions are met, success is far from certain.