Convergence, Guns, and the Public Safety Response

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Jason Lyon


A detailed review of relevant literature has revealed that crisis events, such as mass shootings and natural disasters, have triggered dramatic changes in gun-related laws, policies, and social perceptions in the United States. Particularly following Hurricane Katrina and the Sandy Hook school shooting, citizens and legislators called for either relaxing or strengthening gun controls. For example, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the federal government and several states passed legislation preventing the government from seizing citizens’ weapons during a disaster. Conversely, after the Sandy Hook school shooting, there were immediate calls to ban assault weapons, reduce the capacity of ammunition magazines, and require universal background checks.
Although the number of U.S. households with guns has decreased, recent observations and research further suggest that crisis events such as Hurricane Katrina and Sandy Hook may increase new gun sales and the demand for concealed-carry permits. Research also indicates that this surge in gun sales correlates with an uptick in accidental firearm-related deaths, which might be expected given an increase in first-time gun buyers. Finally, crisis events like Sandy Hook also appear to drive legislation aimed at both strengthening and relaxing firearm restrictions.
Crisis events can be linked to other firearm-related social and policy trends such as stand-your-ground laws and calls for arming teachers. According to Spitzer, stand-your-ground laws represent an expansion of preexisting “castle doctrine” rules, which generally allow a person to defend oneself without a “duty to retreat” to one’s home. Stand-your-ground laws presume that the shooter has acted in self-defense, shifting the burden of proof from the defendant to the prosecution to prove that the shooter did not act in self-defense. This shift in the burden of proof has complicated law enforcement’s investigations of civilian shootings and has correlated with an increase in homicides, both justifiable and otherwise.
Other examples of how crisis events and firearms have changed the landscape in which law enforcement and emergency services operate are visible in the post–Sandy Hook debates about arming schoolteachers and staff, as well as relaxing prohibitions on the carrying of firearms on school property. Meanwhile, the number of concealed weapon permits issued in the United States has increased rapidly, from approximately 2.4 million permits in 1999 to over 16 million in 2017. Americans continue to acquire concealed-carry permits at dramatically higher rates—with the number of new permits being issued yearly growing from about 240,000 per year between 1999 and 2007 to a record 1.7 million new permits in 2017.
Research has shown that the primary reason cited by gun owners for gun ownership is self-defense. Crisis events may provide examples of what some authors have termed a “belief in a dangerous world.” For example, Joseph Giannell affirms that Katrina provided a real-life example of when “gun ownership was one of the only accessible means for safety.” Furthermore, both Giannell and Crusto use Katrina as a backdrop to demonstrate the government’s ineptitude and corruption during crisis scenarios. Likewise, according to Ladd, Gill, and Marszalek, a majority of college students who were in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina now express distrust in the ability of local, state, and federal government to meet the needs of citizens in a crisis. In this way, gun sales and ownership, especially in the aftermath of crisis events, may act as an informal barometer of the public’s faith in the government’s ability to protect the people. More recently, the failure of Broward County Deputy Scot Peterson to enter Marjory Stoneman High School, in Parkland, Florida, to subdue active shooter Nicholas Cruz has led to both outrage over the government’s inability to protect those in its care and an increase in gun sales.
The increase in the number of firearms, growth in the numbers of potentially armed people, the relaxation of the rules of engagement in the use of deadly force, and a lack of faith in the government’s ability to protect the citizenry have made the emergency-response landscape dangerous for law enforcement and emergency services personnel. These agencies are often caught between their responsibilities to respond effectively to victims of gun violence and this new landscape. Law enforcement is expected to enter scenes immediately with active shooters rather than to establish a perimeter and await a special weapons and tactics unit. Firefighters and ambulance personnel can no longer remain at a safe distance until law enforcement secures the scene—they are now expected to deploy “rescue task forces” alongside law enforcement to rescue victims at mass shootings, even while the perpetrator may still be at large. Law enforcement has begun issuing rifles and improved ammunition for officer safety. There are now recommendations that firefighters and ambulance personnel carry body armor and receive training in specific gunshot-related trauma care, including the use of tourniquets.
This thesis thoroughly examines these issues, contextualizing them through the use of two hypothetical scenarios involving both an active shooter scenario with armed citizens and a natural disaster in which the armed residents resist the authority’s instructions. It also introduces the framework of “disaster convergence” in which people, information, and equipment inevitably move toward disaster scenes during crisis events. The outcomes of this well-documented phenomenon are reexamined in light of an expanded gun-carrying population operating with relaxed rules of the civilian use of deadly force.
Finally, an analysis of the scenarios then drives prescriptive recommendations that address the strategic, operational, and tactical policies surrounding disaster convergence, an increasingly armed citizenry, and armed school staff members. This thesis concludes that the government must establish and maintain the trust of armed citizens to reduce the likelihood of negative interactions with them. It further suggests that government agencies should view and treat the gun-owning community as it would any other sub-community in their jurisdictions to build trust with them. Finally, this thesis provides specific recommendations on ways that law enforcement, fire, and emergency medical service agencies can build strong relationships with gun owners to increase their own safety and that of their community. The purpose of this thesis is to provide public safety agency leaders useful tools to enhance the safety of their communities in light of these varied and changing conditions.

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