“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun,” we are told repeatedly, “is a good guy with a gun.”
On Thursday, March 1, 2018, a high school teacher in Georgia named Randal Davidson showed up for work. He was by all accounts a good guy: The principal characterized him as a “very good teacher” who was “well thought of.” He had been there over a decade; he had written a book about the school. Then he locked himself in his room and fired a gun (which he was illegal in possessing). One student tweeted, “My favorite teacher at Dalton high school just blockaded his door and proceeded to shoot.”
It wasn’t long before the media caught itself and realized Davidson had to be painted as a lunatic. Time reported that he “has a history of bizarre behavior,” and pulled out a wild-eyed mugshot to go with the story. And as easily as that, he became a bad guy with a gun.
But before Davidson fired that gun, he was a good guy. Before that very moment, he was such a “good guy” that it took several hours for the media to collect enough evidence to indict him of Mentally Ill Lunacy.
In January 2014, two men got into an argument during movie previews. The younger man was checking in with his babysitter via cell phone, and the older man didn’t like it. The older man was a retired Tampa police captain, currently during security work. A good guy who happened to have a gun.
That night, things escalated. The younger man allegedly threw some popcorn. The older man pulled out his gun and shot him dead. It so happened that there was an off-duty deputy sheriff was in the theater, but it’s not clear whether he also had a gun. Regardless, it would have been pointless.
In a moment of rage, a good guy with a gun became a bad guy with a gun.
We have allowed a certain segment of our population to create a distinction between “good guys” and “bad guys.” This dichotomy serves a few important psychological functions. First, it allows us to make sense of catastrophes like the one in a Parkland high school or the one in a Newport elementary school. If there are monsters among us, then maybe we can just find some way to protect ourselves from them.
The monsters, they’re the mentally ill ones… except, no, they’re not. Mentally ill people are not overall any more violent than anyone else. And creating a ban on people who have received treatment for mental illness will only further stigmatize mental illness and push more people to avoid treatment.
The monsters, they’re the loners… except, no, they’re not. There are police who do terrible things. There are teachers who do terrible things. And there are narcissistic sociopaths who lead Fortune 400 companies and never kill anyone.
Another important reason for believing in “good guys” and “bad guys” is so we can make sure to categorize ourselves as good guys. We can keep our guns, we’re responsible, we’re fine. It’s those bad guys we need to worry about.
The statistics are consistent: Guns make us less safe, overall. Are there specific cases where guns are useful? Sure. But overall, considering accidents, suicides, and crimes of passion, guns make us less safe. And it’s not about good guys and bad guys, it’s about how humans behave around devices that were originally invented to kill.
How do you tell a good guy with a gun from a bad guy with a gun?
You can’t, because “goodness” is not a binary. Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi did some bad things during their lifetimes. Thomas Jefferson, one of our most beloved Presidents, raped his slave. Adolph Hitler was a vegetarian who made affordable cars.
Everyone is a “good guy” until the moment they do something terrible, and if that moment involves a gun, someone else could die.
The Parkland shooting is easy, because the shooter was an outsider with serious mental health issues. He fits our narrative to a T. And whatever gun control legislation gets created, it should certainly be made to keep someone like him from having a gun.
But the Las Vegas shooter last year isn’t so easy: He “had no known mental health disorders.” And the shootings I mention above, those were a pair of “good guys” up until the moment they pulled a trigger.
People who want the “good guy” narrative want to have it both ways: They want to live in a safe society, but they want free access to guns. The narrative is a lie, and we can’t have it both ways.
We can compromise. I wish there were no guns at all, at least not in the hands of private citizens. Let’s compromise: Ban bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic rifles to fire significantly faster. Increase the minimum age for purchase. Improve mechanisms for background checks and ownership transfers. Don’t introduce more guns into the system.
And let’s dump the “good guy” myth. Every single person with a gun is a “good guy with a gun” up until the moment they do something terrible with it. It’s a light switch, and one people rarely come back from.
The entire narrative has to go.
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