Facts About Firearm Policy Initiative

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MYTH: Mass Shooters Target Gun-free Zones
Summary:

  • Researcher John Lott is one of the originators of the claim that “gun-free zones are a magnet for deadly attacks” (More Guns, Less Crime, 1999).
  • Lott cites statements made in journals and on social media by three mass killers to support this claim.
  • Lott misrepresents the writings of the Aurora and Isla Vista shooters to falsely claim they intentionally sought places that prohibited guns.
  • The evidence suggests that shooters do not deliberately choose gun-free zones for their attacks. Instead, shooters usually choose locations connected to a deep-seated emotional grievance or places where the shooter anticipates the presence of a large number of people.

Lott’s Claim:

For over twenty years, Lott has repeated the claim that mass shooters deliberately and overwhelmingly target places where guns have been banned. In his 1999 book More Guns, Less Crime, Lott says, “Gun-free zones are a magnet for deadly attacks.” In his 2020 book Gun Control Myths, Lott says, “Mass public shooters avoid places where victims can defend themselves. That way, they can keep shooting until the police arrive.”

Lott supports this claim with statements made in journals and on social media by mass killers. For example, Lott claims the perpetrator of the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting specifically targeted the Cinemark theater because it had a gun-free zone policy and he ruled out attacking an airport because of its “substantial security.”

Lott also cites statements in the rambling “manifesto” of the Isla Vista shooter who killed six and wounded 14 others near the University of California at Santa Barbara campus. In his 2020 book Gun Control Myths, Lott says the shooter “ruled out various targets where he thought that someone with a gun might be able to stop his killing spree.” 

In a January 20, 2021 opinion article in Newsweek, Lott says, “The problem with gun-free zones, which ban law-abiding civilians from carrying, is that they don’t scare off criminals. Indeed, just the opposite is true. Disarming everyone, including legislators or staffers, on their way to and from capitol buildings leaves them easy, attractive targets for prospective criminals and terrorists. The murderers have an incentive to disobey the law precisely because the law-abiding obey it.”

The Facts: 

The Aurora shooter did not choose the movie theater because he was concerned about armed resistance. Instead, he wrote that he chose the specific theater because it was “isolated, proximate, large” — qualities three other theaters in his immediate vicinity lacked. He also wrote that he decided against attacking an airport because he didn’t want his motive to be construed as terrorism. Nowhere in his remarkably detailed notes does he mention civilians carrying firearms.

Evan DeFilippis and GVPedia President Devin Hughes conducted research into Lott’s claim that the Aurora shooter selected the Cinemark movie theater because it prohibited firearms. Their findings were published by Vox in 2016. DeFilippis and Hughes determined Lott’s contention is based on his own unscientific search using MapQuest and movies.com. Lott’s search found that the Cinemark theater was the only theater that prohibited firearms out of the seven theaters showing “The Dark Knight” within 20 minutes of the killer’s house. Meanwhile, the Arapahoe Crossings 16 theater was 21 minutes away and also posted signs forbidding guns.

Lott’s claim is further undermined by his false assumption that any theater without a visible “No Weapons Allowed” sign must necessarily allow firearms. After calling theaters in Lott’s data set, DeFilippis and Hughes learned that Esquire Theater, which is within the 20-minutes of the shooter’s apartment, prohibits weapons as a matter of policy, but does not post signs. No publicly available evidence exists to indicate that the shooter searched for theaters that ban weapons within a certain radius of his home. No such call logs have been publicly revealed in the investigation and no notes are found in the shooter’s journal about such research or calls. Contrary to Lott’s belief that mass shooters are incredibly attentive to the minutiae of gun policy, no publicly available evidence in this case supports such a claim.

Similarly, Lott’s claim that the Isla Vista, California shooter ruled out other targets because he was concerned about encountering armed civilians is contradicted by the shooter’s own writings. The perpetrator makes it clear that it was police officers he was worried about encountering rather than a “good guy with a gun.” The shooter wrote, “There would be too many cops walking around during an event like Halloween, and cops are the only ones who could hinder my plans.”

The evidence suggests that shooters do not deliberately choose gun-free zones for their attacks, instead choosing locations where they have a deep-seated emotional grievance — or, in some cases, they simply go where the public is gathered and where police are likely to be absent.

Lott’s Counter:

In a July 13, 2016 article on his website, Lott responds to the assertion that he misrepresented places as gun-free zones by stating: “Yes, an armed, identifiable off-duty officer was guarding the nightclub in Orlando, Fla., when the shooting took place last month, but my point is that such guards are the first people to be shot at. The benefit of civilian concealed carry is that killers don’t know who might stop them.”

The following month, Lott posted a longer response regarding gun-free zones on his website. Lott refers readers to his 2016 book War on Guns, which says, “The Batman movie killer, James Holmes, initially considered attacking an airport. In his diary, which was released in 2015, he explained his decision against targeting the airport because of ‘substantial security.’ He then selected the only theater within twenty minutes of his apartment that banned permitted concealed handguns. There were six other theaters he could have gone to. The one he picked wasn’t even the one with the largest auditorium or the one closest to his home.” In the response on his website, Lott adds, “The 20 minute distance was arbitrary, but the point is that of all the movie theaters that were somewhat close only one posted signs banning concealed handguns and that is the one that he went to.”

In response to the argument that the Isla Vista shooter was concerned about encountering police, not armed civilians, Lott writes, “I agree that Elliot Rodger wanted to avoid police, just as I had noted that Holmes had wanted to avoid airport security. It is true that these individuals did not make specific statements about armed civilians. But the point of these two references was to show that these two particular killers avoided places where people with guns might be able to stop them.”

Rebuttal:

Lott’s claim about armed guards requires a paradox that shooters are deterred by the possibility of encountering armed resistance by civilians potentially carrying concealed handguns, but are not deterred by the certainty of armed resistance that an armed guard provides. This is despite the fact that both the Aurora shooter and Isla Vista shooter write about not wanting to encounter armed security or police respectively, but making no mention in their writings about civilians carrying guns. 

Additionally, while the Aurora theatre did have signs prohibiting firearms, in practice it was not a gun free zone as civilians carrying firearms were in the theatre that night. However, they could not safely return fire due to the chaos and darkness.

It is also worth pointing out that another case Lott touts as evidence for his gun free zone claim is the 2014 mass shooting in Moncton, Canada. The shooter had previously mocked the idea of gun free zones on social media, arguing that they were easy targets for bad guys. However, during his shooting he only targeted police officers, all of whom were armed, and he avoided nearby homes and businesses.  

Sources:

John Lott, More Guns, Less Crime, 1999
John Lott, “So are movie theaters near where the Aurora, Colorado killer lived posted to prevent concealed carry?,” Lott’s blog, August 15, 2012
John Lott, “Do Mentally Ill, Multiple Victim Killers Purposefully Pick Targets Where Victims Are Most Vulnerable?: The Case Of Elliot Rodger,” Crime Prevention Research Center, May 26, 2014  
John Lott, “Did Colorado shooter single out Cinemark theater because it banned guns?,” Fox News, May 7, 2015
John Lott, “UPDATED: How Mass Killers Pick Out Venues Where Their Victims Are Sitting Ducks,” Crime Prevention Research Center, June 1, 2015
Devin Hughes and Evan DeFilippis, “Commentary: Gun-Rights Advocates Say Places That Ban Guns Attract Mass Shooters. The Data Says They’re Wrong.” The Trace, June 18, 2015
John Lott, “CPRC In The Los Angeles Times: Yes, Gun-Free Zones Are Targets — And Research Proves It,” Crime Prevention Research Center, July 13, 2016
Evan DeFilippis and Devin Hughes, “The bogus claims of the NRA’s favorite social scientist, debunked,” Vox, August 30, 2016
John Lott, “Response to DeFilippis And Hughes Review of The War on Guns,” Crime Prevention Research Center, August 30, 2016
Evan DeFilippis, “Review of John Lott’s Error-Filled “War Against Guns,” Armed With Reason, September 7, 2016
John Lott, Gun Control Myths, 2020
John Lott, “Don’t Let Anti-Gun Activists Weaponize the Capitol Hill Riot,” Newsweek, January 21, 2021

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