DENVER, CO - MARCH 24: A student participates in the Tac*One Consulting "Lone Wolf" civilian active shooter response course for concealed weapons permit holders on March 24, 2018 in Longmont, Colorado. The class, based on a similar law enforcement course, is designed to challenge students mentally and physically leaving with a solid plan to defend themselves and others during the critical first moments of a deadly attack. (Photo by Rick T. Wilking/Getty Images)

Back at my first full-time newspaper job, I wrote a story about a citizen’s police academy program, the kind that’s common in communities around the country and is intended to give regular people a better understanding of police training and procedures.

Part of it involved a shooting simulator, an attempt to convey the difficulty in making split-second use-of-force decisions.

When the light beams from one trainee’s “gun” failed to connect with an armed suspect off in the distance on the screen, a detective shrugged and said something like “I couldn’t hit anything past 15 yards either.”

That anecdote won’t surprise people who know a thing or two about guns and real-life shooting encounters, where distances of greater than seven yards can be considered “long-range.” And it’s a reminder that even trained police aren’t always the surest of marksmen. When bullets start flying in chaotic situations when lots of people are around, even the “good guys” can do lots of collateral damage.

With that in mind, consider the common preemptive strike from gun-rights types in the wake of a mass killing: So-called gun-free zones leave people sitting ducks and arming everyone from office workers to teachers to concertgoers is the best way to ensure the common safety, they insist.

Today at the Capitol we’re sure to see lots of orange stickers declaring that “Guns Save Lives” on the clothing of armed people walking the grounds and legislative hallways.

“The only thing that stops an evil person with a gun is a good person with a gun,” as one city worker told the Virginia Beach City Council last month as it considered, then backed away from, a resolution supporting the rights of municipalities to restrict firearms in government buildings.

They will tell us that armed citizens are the key to our collective safety, but also that we have no right to insist that everyone who buys a gun pass a background check, be forced to report to police when their firearms are lost or stolen; demonstrate basic competency with a gun before being issued a permit to carry one almost everywhere; have them taken away on a judge’s order when they demonstrate erratic or threatening behavior; or abide by limits on how many bullets they can fire before reloading.

This makes sense only if you ignore the question of what happens in a crowded theater, office building, school, mall or concert, when shots are popping and all the “good guys” pull out their guns. How will they know who’s who? How will the police? What happens when people with concealed-carry licenses, who may have never been required to prove they can accurately send a round down range, start blasting away?

For the privilege of transporting sometimes immense quantities of other people’s money around for $9 an hour in an armored truck, I had to get a Virginia armed security license that required me to take a basic firearm safety course and pass a range test, demonstrating the ability to hit a paper target with my dominant and non-dominant hand and in normal and low-light situations, among other requirements.

It wasn’t hard. No one in my group failed it, but you can get a concealed carry permit here without even clearing that low bar. And none of that is to suggest that the structured and orderly range qualification would have been of much use if people were firing bullets back.

“Going to the range doesn’t make you ready to handle the situation,” Chernoh Wurie, who spent a decade as a Prince William County police officer and is now an assistant professor of criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University, told me.

We don’t need to imagine the nightmarish difficulty for police in trying to identify and engage an active shooter in a situation where other people might be brandishing guns. A police officer responding to a shootout inside an Alabama mall killed Emantic Bradford, whose family described him as the proverbial “good guy with a gun.”

“Mr. Bradford had a gun in his hand as police officers responded,” the Hoover Police Department offered by way of explanation.

It would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that armed citizens have stopped potential mass casualty events. But even in this example from Oklahoma in which two armed men killed the shooter, the confusion (the two men weren’t even aware of each other until they had shot the attacker) meant that dozens of arriving police had no idea who was who.

“He doesn’t know how many active shooters there were,” one of the men, Juan Carlos Nazario said of the first officer on the scene. “He could have gotten out of his car and shot me.”

Wurie has followed the “good guy with a gun” debate both professionally and at his church, where mass shootings have sparked a push for more security.

Chernoh Wurie

Police, he said, are “trained to go in and identify the threat and eliminate the threat. … If everyone is walking around in civilian clothes and everyone’s carrying a gun it’s chaotic.”

Wurie, who grew up in Sierra Leone and resolved to become a police officer following a home invasion by rebels that terrorized his family, describes himself as pro-gun. But he noted that even people with lots of time training and preparing to respond to life-or-death situations make mistakes or freeze up in the moment of truth.

“It’s not a favorable idea to have everyone armed in schools and churches,” he said, advising schools, churches or other venues to look for uniformed security or off-duty police officers to provide protection. “It’s a whole lot of factors here that can actually go wrong.”

And preparing for a potential mass shooting — which, despite their horrific frequency, remain comparatively rare events — by arming a workforce with guns they may or may not know how to use but carry daily is most likely to make the office less safe, by increasing the risk of accidental discharge.

Police, Wurie noted, “will respond to a firearm accident a lot more than an active shooter.”

Stemming gun violence here, he added, is a tall order.

“It’s going to be hard to control guns because they’re so readily available in the U.S.,” he said

However, that doesn’t mean that nothing can reduce gun deaths.

Wurie says there should be more scrutiny of magazine capacity and suppressors, or silencers, by lawmakers, stricter requirements for getting concealed carry permits and perhaps specialized training for employees with prior military or police experience who could be armed.

“It’s an all-around recipe for disaster to put guns in everyone’s hands without any training,” he said.

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Robert Zullo
Robert has been winning and losing awards as a reporter and editor for 13 years at weekly and daily newspapers, beginning at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., where he was a staff writer and managing editor. He spent five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary.