The Good Guy With A Gun is Not The Answer

The Good Guy With A Gun is Not The Answer

Alexis ChapmanThursday,16 June 2016

In the wake of this latest mass shooting we are already hearing versions of “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” This pithy expression may feel truthy and it fits nicely on a bumper sticker, but it falls apart pretty quickly under even minor scrutiny.

One problem with the “good guy with a gun” idea is that it assumes that “bad guys” are definitely going to have guns. Maybe that is true to a degree, maybe there is no way to stop 100% of “bad guys” from ever gaining access to a firearm. But the evidence from every other developed country on the planet suggests that with some relatively simple policy changes we could have a lot fewer “bad guys” with guns to deal with in this country.

Another big hole in the “good guy with a gun” narrative is how it would have to unfold. If I’m understanding this correctly, first the “bad guy” has to show up with a gun, then the “good guy” has to identify that the “bad guy” is in fact a “bad guy” and take action to stop him. Presumably “good guys” are not necessarily psychic so how will they know the “bad guy” is a “bad guy”? This is one of police officers’ primary job functions and they are trained to do it and they get it wrong with disturbing frequency, so how are we expecting random untrained “good guys” to pull this off? It seems like the only way for this to work is for the “bad guy” to actually start shooting and then have the “good guy” respond in kind. Basically this whole scenario is predicated on the idea that you can’t actually prevent a “bad guy” from shooting a bunch of people, you can just stop him when he starts. If this is our plan for dealing with gun violence then even if it works we’ve already failed because the gun violence has already occurred, the most we can hope for from our theoretical “good guy” is to mitigate the violence.

Finally, the other big failing of the “good guy with a gun” theory is that it ignores the most common kinds of gun violence in this country. Mass shootings rightfully terrify us and grab headlines, they are senseless and unnecessary and our hearts break for the victims and their families. But statistically most people who are killed by guns in the U.S. are not victims of mass shooters with assault riffles; most are killed with a handgun by someone they know. The “good guy” with a gun is not going to stop a chronic domestic abuser from shooting his victim when they are alone in their home; he will not stop a child from killing herself or someone else with a handgun that was negligently stored; and he will not stop the vast majority of the over 30,000 gun deaths in this country every year, no matter how they occur.

The idea of the “good guy” with a gun valiantly standing up and defeating the “bad guy” with a gun is appealing because we want to believe in the simply dichotomy of good and bad, we want to think that “good guy” exists, and many gun owners want to believe that they are that “good guy.” And to be fair there are some very specific infrequent instances where a “good guy” with a gun has stopped a “bad guy“ with a gun in the process of committing gun violence. But the idea that “bad guys” having and using guns is inevitable, and that they only way to deal with them is for all of us “good guys” to arm ourselves, is essentially just an advertising slogan for the gun industry. To rely on this slogan as our national paradigm for dealing with gun violence is idiotic to the point of being immoral. So maybe we just need to find a more catchy way to say “If you stop a bad guy from getting a gun then you don’t have to worry about stopping a bad guy with a gun.” Or better yet “The only way to deal with gun violence is for good guys to demand policy that will actually work to end gun violence.”

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Håkan Dahlström on Flickr

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