The myth of the “good guy with a gun”

Fresh on the heels of the tragedy at Martin Place, libertarian Senator Leyonhjelm  has jumped on the bandwagon with his ideas about gun control.  He’s a politician and so, like Tony Abbott, can’t resist the opportunity to get some media attention for some of his half-baked views.

Libertarian Senator Leyonhjelm

Libertarian Senator Leyonhjelm

On the surface, he looks like a social progressive supporting gay marriage, decriminalisation of marijuana and assisted suicide. He and his party are also opposed to foreign aid and gun control.

What lies at the heart of this is a philosophy that believes in limiting the role of government in regulating the lives of individuals. It’s about being pro-choice. It’s not about being socially progressive.

In the wake of the tragedy of Martin Place, he has trotted out  old the mantra of the National Rifle Association “The only way to stop the bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.”

This is absolute nonsense on a number of counts.

There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the good guys with guns have done anything to stop the bad guys with guns in America where death rates from  firearm homicides are amongst the highest in the world.

He ignores the difficulties in working out who the good guys are when you start handing out gun licences. Of course,  we could get everyone who applies for a gun licence to tick a box:

good guy

That should do the trick.

Leyonhjelm argues that if someone in the Lindt Cafe had a gun, they would have been able to shoot gunman Man Haron Monis.  In Leyonhjelm’s brave new world, everybody would carry a gun to protect themselves. So here’s how the Lindt Cafe scenario would have played out.

A gunmen (a bad guy) walks into the cafe, which is full of good guys with guns. He produces a gun and points it at a group of customers. One of the customers (a good guy) then pulls out his gun and fires at the gunmen. Unfortunately, he miss and hits one of the customers who are sitting behind the gunmen and who cannot see that gunman (the bad guy) is carrying a gun.

What they can see is the customer who has fired at the gunmen and hit one of the other customers (also a good guy). The partner of the wounded customer pulls out a gun and returns fire. Within seconds, all the good guys are firing at each other and the cafe is ablaze with gunfire.

Lindt Cafe light up with gunfire as police storm in

Lindt Cafe light up with gunfire as police storm in

Where was “the good guy with a gun?”

There seems to be a shortage of good guys with guns The NRA frequently trots out the platitude that “the only way to stop a bad guy with the gun is a good guy with the gun.”

So where was the good guy when Elliot Rodger went on his killing spree in California or when 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School. No good guys were around when Andrew Engeldinger opened fire at Accent Signage Systems or Wade Michael Page at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin or James Holmes at the Aurora in Colorado.

Estimates of gun ownership in the US vary. The conservative estimate is 85 guns for every hundred residents. The FBI estimates that there are 300 million guns in the US, which is around 1.5 guns per person. So clearly there are enough guns around it just seems is a shortage of good guys. Perhaps the NRA knows where they are or who they are.


Or perhaps this “good guy with a gun” idea is just nonsense, a glib marketing idea peddled by a group of unthinking right-wing fascists. It is unbelievable that this group can hold the citizens of the world’s greatest democracy to ransom.

The tyranny of classification

The killing of two teenagers by a 65-year-old man in Little Falls, Minnesota was hardly exceptional in that gun-crazy country where domestic and community violence is the major form of death from non-natural causes.

Byron Smith shot the two teenagers as they were attempting to burgle his home. In trying to understand this tragedy, it is worth reflecting on the way in which we analyse such events.

Byron Smith: A Good Guy with a Gun?

Byron Smith: A Good Guy with a Gun?

Our most frequent form of analysis is through classification: putting things in some box with a label on it. It’s the way that the great taxonomies of the natural world have been established and is the first level of analysis that helps our understanding of the world we inhabit. But it’s only the first level analysis.

If it is the only form of analysis that is applied then we wind up with a simplistic and ineffective view of the world

In this particular situation, it is worth analysing the National Rifle Association’s much-publicised adage “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with the gun.”

This is a simple classification: there are good guys with guns and bad guys with guns.

Unfortunately, in the situation in Little Falls, it is immediately obvious that the NRA’s view is a woefully inadequate level of analysis.

No doubt, Byron Smith will argue that he was one of the NRA’s the good guys although the law seems to be taking a rather different view, as he now faces first-degree premeditated murder charges.

And the two dead teenagers? They were not armed so they hardly qualified as “bad guys with guns”.

This is the problem with using simplified classification as the only means of analysis of problems, as the NRA does. It doesn’t cover the case of the innocents who are caught in the crossfire. And it certainly doesn’t help our communities understand why people like Byron Smith act the way he did.

There is no doubt that every AK-47-toting citizen of the USA would regard themselves as the “good guys”. So who are all the bad guys? Well it’s only a matter of classification: the bad guys of the people I don’t agree with, people I don’t understand, people who may make me feel threatened, or people who are simply different from me.

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is very clear who the bad guys are: it’s the federal government (which wants to pay his taxes) and black Americans: “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro … I have… often wondered, are they better off as slaves.”

Rancher Cliven Bundy

Rancher Cliven Bundy

And Bundy has made it quite clear that he is prepared to defy the Federal Government with armed force. The frightening thing about the political and media response to this incident is that his defiance of the law has significant and widespread support. It is his racist attitudes that have brought universal condemnation. He is clearly “a good guy with a gun” and a “bad guy with an attitude.”

Bundy’s supporters argue ‘When tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty’. It’s the old one punch classification trick again. Classify tax collection is tyranny and you can justify “defending your rights” by threatening people with an automatic rifle.

The real difficulty with the use of classification is that it is almost impossible to conduct a debate with people for whom this is the only form of analysis. Once you have reached a point where (to quote George Orwell) “Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend” the chance of rational discussion has all but disappeared.

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