There is not much the government can do about the sort of terrorist threat that President Obama described in his speech on Sunday. It will always be difficult to stop self-radicalized jihadists, operating under no one’s instructions, from carrying out attacks on soft targets too scattered and numerous to secure.
The only viable alternative, self-help, is one that Obama seems ideologically incapable of considering. His proposals for new restrictions on firearms move in the opposite direction, based on the assumption that the problem is too many guns in too many hands.
Gun control supporters generally dismiss the notion that armed citizens can help stop terrorists and other mass shooters. They argue that unbadged amateurs will be frozen by fear, that they will accidentally shoot innocent people, or that police will mistake them for bad guys.
These possibilities do not negate the lifesaving potential of encouraging greater self-reliance in situations where waiting for police to arrive means waiting for coldblooded murderers to kill and kill again. We know from experience that intervention by people already at the scene can make a crucial difference.
A few months ago, UCLA law professor and Washington Post blogger Eugene Volokh listed 10 cases in which bystanders used firearms to disable, detain, or scare away gunmen who had shot people or threatened to do so. The examples included a Mississippi high school principal, a Philadelphia barbershop customer, a Colorado Springs churchgoer and a Chicago Uber driver.
As Volokh noted, such interventions seem to be pretty rare, which is not surprising, given that so many mass shootings occur in “gun-free” zones where law-abiding people are disarmed. But bystanders with firearms demonstrably can save lives, which is more than you can say for Obama’s gun control proposals.
The perpetrators of last week’s attack in San Bernardino did not have criminal or psychiatric records that would have legally disqualified them from buying guns. In fact, one of them passed background checks when he bought pistols from California gun dealers. Obama’s recommendation of “universal background checks” in response to the San Bernardino massacre is therefore a non sequitur.