April 10, 2009 -- America is facing an epidemic of gun violence.
Thirteen people were killed last week in Binghamton, N.Y., when a gunman, identified by authorities as 41-year-old Jiverly Wong, executed a mass shooting at the American Civic Association. The aftermath of that bloodshed has raised many questions, including whether armed, everyday citizens could take down such a gunman and save lives. Could you protect yourself if you only had a gun?
There are 250 million guns in the United States, enough for almost every man, woman and child to arm themselves. The FBI performed 12 million gun-related background checks in 2008, according to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. And with more than 50 deaths resulting from mass shootings in the past month alone, the argument for ordinary citizens arming themselves in schools, workplaces and anywhere else continues to grow.
But if teachers at Colorado's Columbine High School or the students and faculty of Virginia Tech University had concealed or open-carry permits, range training and loaded handguns mixed with their school supplies, could they have taken down men armed to the teeth, ready to die and acting under the element of surprise?
Watch "If I Only Had a Gun" tonight on a special edition of "20/20" at 10 p.m. ET
Some, like the group Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, which claims to have more than 38,000 members, think it would at least give people a better chance to survive.
Matt Guzman, leader of the advocacy group's Texas chapter, said that an armed student or citizen might even be more effective in taking down a gunman than law enforcement.
"It's a different situation between civilians that are armed and police that are armed," Guzman said in an interview on "Good Morning America Weekend" shortly after a school shooting at Northern Illinois University last year that left six people dead. "When police respond, there's multiple police officers, they're at a safer distance, 20, 30 feet away. And one officer doesn't fire; it's multiple officers firing. [If] it's one person, one criminal, a robbery, mugging, things of that sort [where] the victim is a couple feet away, you don't have to be a crack shot."
But opponents argue that using a weapon for self-defense in a true emergency is not like target practice.
"Video games and movies, they glorify gun fights," said Chris Benton, a police investigator with the Bethlehem, Pa. police department. "It's not reality you know and they get that warped sense that this video games is exactly what I can do in real life."
Average Citizens Not Prepared to Handle a Gun in an Emergency
Opponents also point out that most people are ill-prepared to handle a gun. Only six states, for instance, require any kind of training before issuing a routine permit to own a gun, according to the San Francisco-based Legal Community Against Violence. Of the 48 states that allow concealed-carry permits, less than half require people to "demonstrate knowledge of firearm use and/or safety," and even fewer require an actual training course.
Such a lack of training sends up red flags for people like investigator Benton and firearms instructor Glen Dorney.
"Rounds are coming back at you," Benton said. "You've got outside environments, people are screaming, running. It's too much for a normal person who's never been trained to deal with. It's overwhelming."
Dorney said, "If you don't have training and you don't use proper tactics with what you're doing, you're probably making yourself a target for somebody."
And it's not just tactical issues one faces in an active-shooter environment, the men say, citing the physiological effects of stress.
"What happens is that you get so jacked up you forget how to do the simple things," Benton said. "Because your [heart rate] elevates, your fine motor skills deteriorate, and you can't get your gun out. And you're thinking, 'Oh there's a gun; I'm getting shot at.'"
Dorney said, "You get tunnel vision as well, because now you're not looking at the entire environment; you're focused on one thing, and it's probably going to be the threat. It's been equated to taking paper towel rolls when they're empty, and sticking them up to your eyes. That's almost what you see. And ... and you have to train yourself to be able to break that."
Also, they said, the vigilante is responsible for whatever his or her bullets hit.
"You have to be able to know what your target is; but you also have to know what's behind your target, what's around your target; you're very responsible for everything," Benton said. "One stray bullet that misses and hits a bystander, you're responsible for it."
How to Survive a Mass Shooting
Bill Stanton, former New York City police officer and safety expert, likens it to getting behind the wheel of a car, in bad weather, without a license.
"You know, would anybody think to get in a car and drive during a rainstorm if they didn't have a license?" Stanton asked. "Would anybody get behind a wheel of an airplane without any flying lessons, you know? While this isn't as dangerous, it's pretty close."
Stanton said there're better ways to survive or help those around you. In a scenario such as the Binghamton shooting, where the assailant blocked the building's exit, he said that hostages should be thinking about alternative exits and hiding places.
"Is there a window with a garage roof right next door that I can jump from one to the other? Am I capable of doing that? Or maybe I'm just going to go to the closet and hide," he said. "Know your strengths, know your vulnerabilities, and get away from that violence."
The person who is most likely to survive a shooting is the one who immediately springs into some kind of action that Stanton refers to as "go mode" and tells themselves, "OK, this is what's happening. This is what I have to do.
"If you have this guy ... that just comes into a classroom, puts a gun to your head and pulls the trigger while you are talking to someone else, well, you know what? There is nothing you could do," he said. "But there were people that survived: the ones that played dead. The ones that, you know, went through a window. The ones that hid behind a desk. The ones that got on the phone and called in 911. When they do a post interview of all these different people, you'll see a, a general commonality: 'I knew I had to live.'"
And remember that cell phone in your pocket? It might be the best weapon you have for survival.
"Get on the cell phone, tell people, barricade these doors, and wait it out," said Stanton.
Stanton adds that in this age, when most seem to want to tune out the outside world, people would be better prepared by staying alert with an everyday survival mindset.
"You need to be on yellow alert in all your waking hours," he said. "You know, don't keep your head in the clouds; be aware of what's going on and listen to that internal radar. Listen to that inner voice. What people need to do is they need to observe, not just look. They need to listen, not just hear someone. These are the things that trained professionals do."
Stanton said there are three immediate steps to take if you're suddenly in the middle of a deadly shooting: "Identify what's going on, recognize the situation, and have an exit strategy."
ABC News Experiment: Do Guns Help You Defend Yourself?
To put these theories to the test, Benton, Dorney and the Bethlehem Police Department set up an experiment at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. ABC News sent out word that police were offering free gun training. And from those who were interested, six people with gun experience ranging from none to more than 100 hours at a range were chosen to take part.
After going through a basic safety course that covered more training than almost half the states in the country require to carry a concealed weapon, the participants were given a real glock handgun loaded with simunition bullets -- bullets that are filled with a kind of paint that does not injure someone on contact.
The participants then headed from the training class to a lecture on protective gear. In the lecture hall were cops or people working with ABC posing as other students taking part in the day's training. None of our participants knew that in moments they would be jolted into an intense and terrifyingly real simulation of an attack by a gunman.
What happens when the gunman bursts through the door? Will the students fall into the same problems the experts talked about, or will they snap to action and cut the gunman down? Watch Diane Sawyer's special tonight to find the startling results, and learn how to best survive this worst-case scenario.