On Sunday morning, a gunman opened fire on churchgoers at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The gunman, identified by authorities as Devin Patrick Kelley, shot and killed 26 people; had it not been for two bystanders, he might have killed more.
After leaving the church, where victims aged five to 72 lay dead, the shooter was met with gunshots in the parking lot. Officials say a neighbor, identified as Stephen Willeford, grabbed his rifle after hearing the sound of gunfire, ran across the street barefoot, and shot the attacker. Texan Johnnie Langendorff joined Willeford in a car chase, ending when the gunman drove off the road.
"He just hurt so many people, he affected so many people's lives," Langendorff, who pursued the shooter in his truck, told reporters. "Why wouldn't you want to take him down?"
Langendorff's response was the subject of heavy praise by conservative media outlets like Breitbart and Townhall. "In the hands of a 'good guy,' a gun is what finally put an end to the massacre," wrote Townhall's Leah Barkoukis.
Though the civilians' response was admirable, it doesn't offer a real blueprint to solving America's mass-shooting crisis.
The National Rifle Association has, for years, pushed the myth of the "good guy with a gun" as a solution to preventing mass shootings. In the aftermath of the Newton, Connecticut, shooting, for example, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre told reporters at a press conference, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun."
But even in the case of actual heroics, as in Sutherland Springs, research shows a few good guys won't end mass shootings. As Jared Keller wrote in Pacific Standard in 2016, calls to increase gun ownership for self-defense after mass shootings overlook the real statistics: Concealed carry owners carried out at least 29 mass shootings from 2007 to 2012—twice the number of permit holders who prevented attacks.
For every well-intending gun owner, there are countless more who initiate attacks, rather than stop them. Reviews of studies from the Harvard Injury Control Research Center show that, where there are more guns, there are more homicides. And the United States has a lot of guns—enough to arm every single person in the U.S.—as well as the highest gun homicide rate of any similarly developed country.
While more Americans carry guns, they do not generally stem the tide of mass shootings. A 2014 Federal Bureau of Investigation report found that only seven of the mass shootings from 2000 to 2013 ended because a bystander came to the rescue. Research has shown that civilians are hardly equipped to respond to a high-stress situation. Even the police, trained for this kind of situation, make grave errors, evident in the shootings of unarmed black men.
Still, just one day after the Sutherland Springs shooting, the myth of the "good guy" shooter has once again taken hold.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, for example, told Fox News that professional security or armed worshippers might have prevented the shooting: "The reality is, if somebody is willing to kill someone, changing gun laws probably doesn't affect that person. What you have to do is you have to allow citizens to protect themselves."
Some lawmakers have called for prayers, others for gun control; for the moment, the conversation remains unchanged. Research shows that policies such as universal background checks, bans on assault weapons, and dedicated federal funding for firearms research can help protect America more than any single gun-wielding citizen, heroic as their actions may be.