An ‘exception’: Greenwood ‘Good Samaritan,’ praised, but engaging active shooters carries risks

The mass shooting a week ago at the Greenwood Park Mall started like countless others that have struck America over the past couple decades — a heavily armed gunman entered a building and opened fire on a crowd of people.

But what transpired over the next 15 seconds has reignited a debate in a fiercely-divided country about who stops a bad guy with a gun and whether it is a good idea to rely on armed civilians to halt America’s seemingly endless string of mass shootings.

While most mass shooting end with the attacker committing suicide or the suspect being arrested or killed by police, in this case, an armed shopper, identified as 22-year-old Eli Dicken of Seymour, took out his handgun and fired 10 rounds at the attacker, killing him as other shoppers fled.

The day after the attack, police praised the quick actions of Dicken, crediting him saving lives and repeatedly calling him a “Good Samaritan.”

Gun rights groups were quick to tout Dicken’s actions as Exhibit A for why law-abiding citizens should carry guns in public and that a “good guy with a gun” is the best defense against mass shootings.

Shortly after the attack, the National Rifle Association said in a tweet about the Greenwood attack that constitutional carry laws like the one that just took effect in Indiana “save lives.”

“We will say it again: The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the NRA said in another tweet.

Gun control groups, on the other hand, say defensive gun use is uncommon, and it is better to enact laws that can keep guns from active shooters, so armed good guys aren’t needed.

“The NRA won’t tell you that defensive gun use is rare, and data shows criminal carry laws increase gun crime and gun homicides in the states where they’re passed. But most of all, these deadly laws increase gun sales, which is the real reason they’re pushing them,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, a gun control advocacy group, in a tweet.

‘This was an exception’

Regardless of politics, what happened in Greenwood was a rare occurrence and can pose its own set of risks, local law enforcement officials said.

“This was an exception,” said Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers, who also praised Dicken. “This doesn’t happen all the time.”

In fact, data from the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center, or ALERRT, at Texas State University suggests that it is exceedingly rare for a civilian to shoot an active shooter.

From 2000 to 2021, fewer than 3% of 433 active attacks in the U.S. ended with a civilian firing back, The Associated Press reported, citing figures from ALERRT. The researchers define the attacks as one or more people targeting multiple people.

Though most mass shootings are over before police arrive, having more than one armed person at the scene also can create confusion for responding law enforcement officers — potentially resulting in police mistaking good Samaritans for active shooters, local officials said.

“If a law enforcement officer shows up before the individual that’s the mass shooter is deceased, and a good Samaritan is in a shootout with him and we don’t know who is who, there’s a chance that good Samaritan could get shot because we don’t know who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy,” Myers said.

“It worked out in this one,” Myers added, referring to the Greenwood Park Mall attack. “But that is a concern.”

There are risks

There have been documented cases of armed bystanders and others being killed by mistake amid the horror and chaos of a shooting.

Last year, a Good Samaritan in suburban Denver shot and killed a gunman who had ambushed and fatally shot a police officer only to be killed himself by another officer who mistook him for the gunman, according to wire reports.

A district attorney investigation later cleared the officer who shot the armed bystander. The district attorney, who along with police has praised the good Samaritan’s actions, said that the officer thought the armed bystander was a second active shooter and that he only had a moment to stop him from hurting others.

In 2018, a police officer fatally shot an armed security guard who was wearing a hat with “security” emblazoned across the front and holding a man down following a shooting inside the suburban Chicago bar where the guard worked, according to the AP, citing court filings.

“I can’t tell (armed bystanders) whether they should do it or not,” Myers said. “That’s a decision they have to make on their own.”

“If you are doing that, and you are going to going to fight the shooter, once the threat is eliminated, you need to make sure you put that gun down, you get down on your knees and you put your hands up above your head and don’t make any moves,” Myers said. “And when I say, ‘Make your gun safe,’ get it 4 or 5 feet away from you and put your hands up over your head. That way the police know that you aren’t a threat.”

In cases like this, what eyewitnesses report when they call 911 — the number of shooters, a description of the shooters, among other information — “would be very important to law enforcement,” said Columbus Police Department spokesman Lt. Matt Harris.

“However, that information that we receive — on every call we go to — it’s sometimes not accurate,” Harris said. “It’s not uncommon to see an active shooter or mass casualty incident that multiple shooters are reported, when in fact, it’s just one person.”

Harris said Dicken was “smart” to seek out a mall security officer after he shot the attacker to eliminate some of the confusion that responding officers might otherwise have had.

Myers, for his part, said “it takes a special person to do what (Dicken) did” but expressed concern that others are going find themselves in a similar situation in the future.

“It just so happens that this young man was at the right place at the right time and made a decision that he made on his own to stop and save fellow citizens,” Myers said. “…Unfortunately, in the world we live in today, there’s going to be other people that are going to be faced with making that same type of decision.”

“That young man has to live with that decision the rest of his life,” Myers added. “But I will tell you, without a doubt, he saved multiple lives.”