The Myth of "Good Guys With Guns"

It’s been a few years since I first heard the phrase, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.”  I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I just accepted those words without question, for quite a long time.  Today I see them differently.

Growing up on a farm in Georgia, I was around guns from the very beginning.  My grandfather’s first cousin was a sheriff, and my great-grandfather was the county agent where we lived.  Both men carried guns all their lives.  Guns were something to be respected, but not feared.  

When I was six years old, my grandmother shot a copperhead that cornered my dog, and I almost stepped on.  She didn’t carry a gun, but she used them when needed.  In my own small way, I’d experienced good guys and gals with guns from a very early age.

Anyone with a lawman in the family imagines the police as good guys, and sometimes they need guns to protect us.  I wish that wasn’t true, but I know it is.

None of those things disturb me in the least.  The thing I don’t like is the idea that “good guys with guns” has been extended to include an amorphous gun carrying public, who could supposedly protect us from some of the recent mass killings that have been in the news these past year years.

“If one of the teachers had a gun, he would have stopped Adam Lanza in Newtown.”

“If one of the Charlestown churchgoers had a gun, Dylann Roof would have been stopped in his tracks.”

“If the other driver had a gun, those people would not have been shot on the freeway.”

Statements like those appear with disturbing regularity. In this essay I’m not going to argue for or against gun control or gun carry laws.  My concerns are more practical, and they show why this idea simply is not real.

Most mass shootings are conducted with rifles or full-size large capacity handguns.  A bystander armed with a nothing but an easily concealed pocket pistol would have very little chance of stopping such a gunman.  It’s a nice idea, but not one that would work out most times, particularly for the person with the pocket pistol.

It's sort of like the guy who walks up to a grizzly and shoots it with a pocket .22 to see what will happen.  It draws attention to the shooter, and annoys the bear, with unfortunate results all around.

Handguns for personal protection are designed for self defense at very close range.  They are meant to stop an attacker who is right upon you, in the course of an assault, rape, or robbery.  Self-defense shootings generally happen at distances of less than ten feet, and even then, statistics show that many of the shots miss their target.

One of the main attributes of a handgun for personal protection is that it be small enough to be concealed and carried every day.  That means a short barrel – typically two inches, and a stubby grip.  Those things make it pocket size, but also limit the range at which most shooters can hit a target.

Most of the mass shootings that have featured in the news have unfolded over much greater distances than those pocket guns would be effective.  To have a chance of stopping a gunman fifty feet away, you need a powerful gun with a four or six inch barrel and considerable training to use it effectively under stress at that range.

Guns of that size are way too big to conceal under most clothing.  Casual gun owners lack the training to use their guns at all in those situations. “Good guys with guns” breaks down in the face of handgun limitations, lack of combat shooting skills, and finally lack of training in shooting and responding under stress.

For many years I shot heavy .45 automatics in combat shooting competition.  I learned through hard experience that it takes a lot of training and discipline to hit targets at 50 feet, particularly under stress when targets and obstacles are popping up all around you.  It takes even more training to avoid shooting up everything around the targets.  People are quick to say, “shoot the gunman” without considering the hostage is just as likely to get shot, without a very skilled marksman.

It is also an unfortunate truth that an untrained handgun owner is more likely to be shot by his own gun, either by accident or on purpose, than he(she) is to use it successfully in self-defense.  Furthermore a casual owner is more likely to leave a gun unsecured which results in theft, accidents with children, etc. 

Today I have friends who are my age, who still shoot regularly.  I see how many hours of training they have invested.  As it happens, most of them are working police.  Few of the individuals who carry guns for personal protection follow such training regimens, nor are they required to under current law.  We are a long way from having a population that is both armed and trained to defend the public, and I don't think that's the kind of society most of us want to live in anyway.

We take our freedom and safety for granted - perhaps more than we should.  It's been almost sixty years since science fiction author Robert Heinlein wrote, "An armed society is a polite society," and in those years we've seen the emergence of many alternate scenarios that depict what happens when much of society is armed.  The "Mad Max" movies and real-life Somalia or Cartagena give us more disturbing visions of what an armed society might be.

With all due respect, as a person who as been around guns all my life and who knows and respects many gun owners, I just don’t think “good guys with guns” is the answer it’s presented to be.

The actual problem, and the answers, have much more to do with humans than guns.  I blame the spate of publicized shootings on ever-increasing levels of anger and alienation, coupled with easy access to weapons and imagined glorification by the media.  Take away the anger, and you’ll solve more problems than any form of gun control will ever do.   

John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences.  He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia and a visiting professor of practice at Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.  

The opinions expressed here are his own.  There is no warranty expressed or implied.  While reading this essay may give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick. 


jonathan said…
Dylan Roof and Adam Lanza as examples. Both have been alleged by some persons to be on the autism spectrum. Irony? Coincidence? or ?
John Robison said…
The only coincidence to Dylan Roof and Adam Lanza in this post is that they were both cited by others as cases where "good guys with guns" could supposedly have saved the day, and in both cases I had personal knowledge via my government service, and they happened to be in the news at their respective times. This essay was not about autism or mental health and I wasn't implying anything in that regard, nor do I do so here.

Thanks for your comments as always.
John S said…
Good essay John that is exactly why my pocket pistol is a 1911 that I practice with often.
MrZIp66 said…
I see this as a multifaceted debate, and while the absolute of "only a good guy with a gun" scenario may not be an absolute truth, it certainly doesn't hurt in the long view. As an aspergian with an eye on history, a sense of personal protection for me and my family, a knowledge that there are always "bad" guys out there with a gun, and a tendency to see the flipside of a point....

Yeah, it certainly doesn't hurt for "good" guys to have a gun.

Loved Look me in the eye sir!
Jean Sunell said…
I agree with everything you said,John. I have also thought that if everyone is carrying a gun, how do the police know which one is the bad guy when a shooting takes place?
Robert Brown said…
Makes me think I need a longer, more accurate carry pistol and some more range time... To me the value is much like immunization. More important than one good guy with a gun is all good guys being able to have one so it's not a 1:1 ratio. In Texas we have campus carry and I personally know about 20% of the instructors carry. To me that helps the odds if someone happens to get "stuck on stupid".

Aspie Dad from TX

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