Article published September, 2012, at ACJS Today.

How do Multiple Victim Public Shooters Decide Where to Attack?

By John R. Lott, Jr.

Why did James Holmes pick the Cinemark's Century 16 Theatre in Aurora, Colorado, to commit mass murder on July 20, 2012? You might think that he chose the closest theater to his apartment. Or, that he chose the one with the largest audience. Yet, neither explanation is right. Instead the Cinemark theater seems to have been chosen because it was the only one that banned guns. Out of all the movie theaters showing the new Batman movie that night, it was the one theater within convenient driving distance where guns were banned.

In Colorado, individuals with permits are allowed to carry concealed handguns in the vast majority of malls, stores, movie theaters, and restaurants. But just as they can deny service to those without shoes or shirts, private businesses can impose their own rules and disallow gun carrying in their establishments.1

Most movie theaters have no problem allowing permit holders with guns. But the Cinemark movie theater was the one that had a sign posted at the theater’s entrance at that time. A simple web search and some telephone calls reveal how easily one can find out how Cinemark compared to other movie theaters. According to and, there were seven movie theaters showing "The Dark Knight Rises" on July 20th within 20 minutes of the killer’s apartment at 1690 Paris Street, Aurora, Colorado. At four miles and an eight minute car ride, the Cinemark’s Century Theater wasn't the closest.2 Another theater, Aurora Plaza 8 Cinemas/Cinema Latino de Aurora, was only 1.2 miles (three minutes) away.3

There was also the Harkins Northfield 18, which was just slightly further away 5.1 miles (10 minutes). It billed itself as the "home of Colorado's largest auditorium," according to their movie hotline greeting message. The potentially huge audience ought to have been attractive to someone trying to kill as many people as possible. Four other theaters, Aurora Movie Tavern, The Movie Tavern at Seven Hills, Landmark Theatre Greenwood Village, and UA Colorado Center Stadium 9 and IMAX, were 10 miles (18 minutes), 10 miles (19 minutes), 13 miles (19 minutes), and 9.7 miles (20 minutes) away.4

So why would a mass shooter pick a place that bans permitted concealed handguns? The answer should be obvious, disarming law-abiding citizens leaves them as sitting ducks.

Concealed carry is much more frequent than many people believe. With over four percent of the adult population in Colorado having concealed handgun permits, a couple hundred adults in Cinemark’s Movie Theater #9 means that there is an extremely high probability that at least one adult would carry a gun. Unfortunately, some have still not figured this out. A manager at the Harkins Northfield 18, located five miles from the killer’s apartment, confirmed the theater changed its policy and started banning concealed handguns following the Cinemark attack.5

The recent Colorado and Sikh Temple shootings are by no means the first times that killers targeted gun-free zones.6 We have witnessed mass public shootings in such places as the Westroads Mall in Salt Lake City, Utah.7 In both cases, guns were banned at those particular malls, while almost all the other similar malls that allowed guns were spared. With just one single exception, the attack in Tucson last year, every public shooting since at least 1950 in the U.S., in which more than three people have been killed, has taken place where citizens are not allowed to carry guns.

The movie theater attack raised a lot of comparisons with the 1999 Columbine massacre of 13 people. But few appreciate that Dylan Klebold, one of the two Columbine killers, strongly opposed Colorado legislation then being considered to allow concealed handguns.8 The law then being considered would have allowed concealed handguns to be carried on school property. Presumably, he feared being stopped during his planned attack by someone with a weapon. In fact, the Columbine attack occurred the very day that final passage was scheduled.9

All the mass public shootings in Europe have occurred where guns were banned. Remember last year’s shooting near Oslo, Norway, with 69 dead and 110 injured. And Germany has experienced two of the three worst K-12 public school shootings.10 Even Switzerland, a country with extremely liberal concealed carry laws, has faced a couple large public mass shootings. But, just like the 2001 massacre of 14 members of the Zug cantonal parliament, they have occurred in the rare places where guns have been banned.

If one of the hundreds of adults at the theater had a concealed handgun, possibly the attack would have ended like the shooting at the mega New Life Church in Colorado Springs in December 2007. In that assault, the church’s minister had given Jeanne Assam permission to carry her concealed handgun. The gunman killed two people in the parking lot — but when he entered the church, Assam fired 10 shots, severely wounding him. At that point, the gunman committed suicide.

Similar stories are available from across the country. They include shootings at schools that were stopped before police arrived in such places as Pearl, Miss., and Edinboro, Pa., and at colleges like the Appalachian Law School in Virginia.11 Or attacks in busy downtowns such as Memphis; at a mall in Salt Lake City, or at an apartment building in Oklahoma.12

The ban against non-police carrying guns usually rests on the false notion that almost anyone can suddenly go crazy and start misusing their weapon or that any crossfire with a killer would be worse than the crime itself. But in state after state, permit holders are extremely law-abiding. They can lose their permits for any type of firearms-related violation at hundredths or thousandths of one percent.13 Nor have I found a single example on record of a multiple-victim public shooting in which a permit holder accidentally shot a bystander.

When attacks occur at colleges or other places, the response is often to hire more law enforcement. But as Israel has learned the hard way, simply putting armed police and military on the streets didn't stop terrorist attacks. Even if you have openly armed police or military on a bus, the terrorist has the option to either wait for them to leave the scene or to kill them first. With CCW, the attacker doesn't know who is able to defend themselves, and he doesn't know whom to attack first.

Bill Landes and I have examined all the multiple-victim public shootings with two or more victims in the United States from 1977 to 1997.14 We found that when states passed right-to-carry laws, these attacks fell by an astounding 67 percent. Deaths and injuries from multiple-victim public shootings fell on average by 78 percent. And to the extent that these attacks still occur in states with right-to-carry laws, they overwhelming occur in those few places where concealed handguns are not allowed.

Similar results were also obtained using data collected by the New York Times from 1977 to 1999. The results implied that the number of attacks declined by 71% and the murders and injuries from what they called “rampage killings” dropped by 94%.15

Some other recent research is relevant. Bouffard, et al., provide survey evidence for Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas that if permits were allowed on campus at least 30% of classes will have at least one student in class with a permit and who is carrying a gun.16 No estimate is provided about the probability that a permit holder will be carrying a gun in a building. However, these estimates might be low for most states because Texas, with a permit fee of $140, a ten hour training requirement, and a 21 year old age limit, is one of the more difficult states to obtain a permit.17

Gun-free zones are a magnet for those who want to kill many people quickly. Even the most ardent gun control advocates would never put “Gun- Free Zone” signs on their home. It is about time that researchers start question why we so readily put up these signs in so many other places.


1From the Colorado law: “18-12-214 Authority granted by permit - carrying restrictions. Nothing in this part 2 shall be construed to limit, restrict, or prohibit in any manner the existing rights of a private property owner, private tenant, private employer, or private business entity.”

2The Century Cinemark Theater was located at 14300 East Alameda Avenue, Aurora, CO 80012.

3As of August 14th listed the theater as Aurora Plaza 8 Cinemas. Its address is 777 Peoria St., Aurora, CO 80011. The films at this theater are shown in English, though there are Spanish subtitles.

4Aurora Movie Tavern 18605 East Hampden Avenue, Aurora, CO 80013-3533. The Movie Tavern at Seven Hills is at 18305 E. Hampden Ave., Aurora, CO 80013. Landmark Theatre Greenwood Village, 5415 Landmark Place, Greenwood Village, CO 80111. UA Colorado Center Stadium 9 and IMAX, 2000 S. Colorado Blvd., Denver, CO 80222.

5The manager, Erin Griffie, indicated that the policy had been changed since the Cinemark attack. I talked to her on August 14, 2012, at 720-374-3118.

6The media almost never reports whether these attacks are occurring in gun-free zones. One exception is for the Sikh Temple attack in Wisconsin. Maxim Lott, “Temple Massacre Has Some Sikhs Mulling Gun Ownership,” Fox News, August 21, 2012.

7John R. Lott, Jr., “Media Coverage of Mall Shooting Fails to Reveal Mall’s Gun-Free Zone Status,” Fox News, December 6, 2007.

8For example, even the New York Times notes that prior to the Columbine attack, “[Dylan Klebold and his father] had just spent five days visiting the Arizona campus where the teenager planned to enroll in the fall, and recently discussed their shared opposition to a bill in the state legislature that would have made it easier to carry concealed weapons.” Pam Belluck and Jodi Wilgoren, “Shattered Lives—a Special Report: Caring Parents, No Answers, in Columbine Killers’ Pasts,” New York Times, June 29, 1999, p. A1.

9Doug Dean, the Majority Leader of the Colorado State House in 1999, invited me to address members of the state legislature the morning of the Columbine attack since the vote was scheduled that afternoon.

10Zug, Switzerland, Sept. 27, 2001: A man whose lawsuits had been denied, murdered 14 members of a cantonal parliament. Erfurt, Germany, April 26, 2002: A former student killed 18 at a secondary school. Emsdetten, Germany, Nov. 20, 2006: A former student murdered eleven people at a high school.

11For a discussion of several public school shootings that have been stopped by armed civilians see John R. Lott, Jr., The Bias Against Guns (Regnery Publishing: Washington, DC), 2003. For the Appalachian Law School note this discussion in The Washington Post: “Odighizuwa was subdued without incident by armed students.” Josh White, "Law School Shooter Pleads Guilty; Former Student Avoids Death Penalty in Deal on Va. Slayings," The Washington Post, February 28, 2004, p. B03.

12John R. Lott, Jr., "Media Coverage of Mall Shooting Fails to Reveal Mall's Gun-Free-Zone Status," Fox News, December 6, 2007.

13John R. Lott, Jr., More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press, 2010, third edition).

14Using negative binomials, the results are statistically significant for two or more killings or injuries, three or more killings or injuries, as well as three or more killings. Because of the relatively few observations and all the fixed geographic and year fixed effects, the results are not statistically significant for four or more killings (Lott and Landes, 2003, p. 301, fn. 20). These cases are sufficiently rare that one cannot expect to find anything from such a small sample. Research by Grant Duwe, Tomislav Kovandzic, and Carlisle Moody do not find statistically significant results, but, unfortunately, they restrict their sample to attacks where four or more people were killed. They also do not separate out gang shootings from other types of attacks where the goal of the attack is simply to create as much carnage as possible. John R. Lott, Jr. and William M. Landes, “Acts of Terror with Guns: Multiple Victim Public Shootings,” Chapter 6 in The Bias Against Guns (Regnery Publishing: Washington, DC), 2003. John R. Lott, Jr. and William M. Landes, “Multiple Victim Public Shootings,” University of Chicago Law School Working Paper, October 19, 2000 ( Grant Duwe, Tomislav Kovandzic, and Carlisle Moody, “The Impact of Right-to-Carry Concealed Firearm Laws on Mass Public Shootings," Homicide Studies, November 2002, pp. 271-296.

15Estimates looking at those cases that were covered in the first section of The New York Times saw an 81% drop. John R. Lott, Jr. and William M. Landes, “Acts of Terror with Guns: Multiple Victim Public Shootings,” Chapter 6 in The Bias Against Guns (Regnery Publishing: Washington, DC), 2003.

16Jeffrey A. Bouffard, Matt R. Nobles, William Wells, and Michael R. Cavanaugh, "How Many More Guns?: Estimating the Effect of Allowing Licensed Concealed Handguns on a College Campus," Journal of Interpersonal Violence, August 2011, pp. 316-343.

17John R. Lott, Jr., More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press, 2010, third edition), pp. 256-258.

*John R. Lott, Jr. is an economist who has held research and/or teaching positions at the University of Chicago, Yale University, Stanford, UCLA, Wharton, and Rice and was the Chief Economist at the United States Sentencing Commission during 1988 and 1989. He has published over 100 articles in academic journals. He also is the author of seven books including three editions of “More Guns, Less Crime,” “Freedomnomics,” and “The Bias Against Guns.” Lott is a contributor and a weekly columnist for them. Opinion pieces by Lott have appeared in such places as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Post, and USA Today. He has appeared on such television programs as the ABC and NBC National Evening News broadcasts, Fox News, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and the Today Show. He received his Ph.D. in economics from UCLA in 1984.

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