The city council of Aspen, Colorado, voted unanimously in late October to ban the public from openly carrying guns in government buildings.
A crowd of opponents to the measure attended the council meeting, many with guns in holsters on their hips. Over nearly two hours of public comment, opponents said designating city hall a so-called gun-free zone is dangerous. Many suggested that armed private citizens could help in an active shooter situation.
“A good guy carrying a gun will always stop a bad guy with a gun — always,” said Sherronna Bishop, speaking in opposition to the measure.
Throughout the country, cities and towns are walking the line between public access and public safety. In Aspen, the council contended that barring the public from openly carrying firearms would increase safety for staff and members of the public entering the buildings.
But according to David Hemenway, a professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Harvard University, there is no good data to support either side’s position.
“Unfortunately, we don’t know for sure,” Hemenway said.
He says there is no conclusive research showing that one system or the other is more dangerous.
“There has been a concerted effort not to fund adequately firearms research,” he said.
In the 1990s, national surveys from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) included questions about guns. Hemenway said early results from those studies show that having a gun in the home does not increase safety. In fact, the presence of a gun increases the chance that someone will harm themselves or others in the household.
Hemenway said that led the Republican Congress, influenced by the gun lobby, to threaten the CDC’s budget, which created a chilling effect on federally led research.
More recent research regarding the safety of gun-free zones are inconclusive. There is no nationwide database of gun-free zones, and no agreed upon definition of gun-free zone. Federal law generally prohibits the public from carrying guns in K-12 schools. Some communities designate other spaces as gun-free zones, including courthouses and municipal buildings, based on state law.
The nonpartisan RAND Corporation says not a single study on gun-free zones meets its standards for conclusive research.
There is, however, an FBI report on the outcome of 150 mass shootings that took place from 2000-2013.
“And I think in only one of them did an armed civilian do any good at all, even though we are an incredibly armed society,” Hemenway said.
A lot has to go right for a so-called “good guy with a gun” to save the day. First of all, they have to be in the right place at the right time. And actually hitting a target requires controlling adrenaline, being aware of bystanders and a host of other environmental factors.
Aspen’s police force trains throughout the year to prepare officers for the factors that come into play during an emergency situation. Aspen Police Detective Adriano Minniti oversees the training of what he calls “perishable” skills: actions that require repeated practice in lifelike scenarios in order to master.
“We aren’t doing this to be better at shooting holes in paper,” Minniti said. “We are doing this to do better at keeping the community safe.”
That training, he says, sets law enforcement apart from armed civilians when it comes to responding to active shooter situations.
“You don’t know what your body is going to do when the panic sets in,” Minniti said. “You learn to calm yourself down and look around and assess the situation better, and figure out where is the harm and how do I best stop it? And is responding with gunfire the best response?”
Aspen police train in the snow and in the dark. They simulate an increased heart rate by first running across a field before they shoot at targets, while avoiding posters representing innocent bystanders. At the gun range, those “bystanders” are unarmed. Minniti said things would get much more complicated if instead all of those “good guys” had guns.
“If I was to respond to a scene and there are 10 people who have guns out, that’d be a very scary situation,” Minniti said, “if I don’t know who it is that’s doing the harm and who it is that I need to protect.”
Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor supports the ordinance banning open carry guns in public buildings. Without conclusive research on gun-free zones, he says he defaults to what is going to make the public feel safe.
“For me, what it comes down to is not wanting to create an environment which is more dangerous for the people in the building, and the police officers entering it,” Pryor said. “And there is no guarantee for me that by people carrying in the building, that helps that situation.”
Some communities erect barriers in front of public buildings or force people through metal detectors.
“Each community has to look at what it wants in its ability to feel safe,” Pryor said. “We aim to figure out what’s the right balance between access and use of the spaces. I don’t suppose we will ever have the ideal — you’ll always community members who want a space to be safer and those that want more access.”
In Aspen, that balance means that there will no longer be guns in holsters during public comment at city council meetings. Other cities have to make that call for themselves.
Alycin Bektesh is a reporter based in Aspen, Colorado.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.