Shootings expose myth of the ‘good guy with a gun’

A Texas state trooper stands in front of crosses placed outside of the Robb Elementary School in remembrance of those killed, in in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday.(ALLISON DINNER/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)


By Susan Milligan
(USN) – From white-hatted cowboys in movie Westerns to cigarette-smoking, trench-coated fictional private detectives, the gun-packing hero has been celebrated in American popular culture as the ultimate weapon in a central battle between good and evil. In real life, the idea has been promoted as an answer to mass shootings: In 2012, after 20 children and six adults were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre voiced his solution.

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre said at the time. After the Uvalde, Texas, massacre in which a gunman killed 19 elementary schoolers and two teachers, calls came from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and other Republicans to arm teachers – an idea vehemently rejected by teachers unions – and add more gun-carrying security at schools.

“We know from past experience that the most effective tool for keeping kids safe is armed law enforcement on the campus,” Republican Ted Cruz, Texas’ junior senator, told reporters. Paxton, in an interview on Newsmax, said that since “first responders typically can’t get there in time to prevent a shooting … I think you’re going to have to do more at the school, because it typically involves very short periods of time, and you have to have people trained on campus to react.”
For those lawmakers, it’s more guns that are needed in America, where the number of firearms now surpasses the number of people living in the United States. Just hand them to the right people – the “good” people – and bad shooters will be stopped in their tracks, they argue.

That didn’t work in Texas, where armed law enforcement personnel at the scene after the shooter first shot at his grandmother were unable to prevent the bloodbath. The school also has a school resource officer, though authorities said Thursday the officer was not on site at that time (after saying previously that the officer was). Texas authorities this week were fielding accusations that people trained to respond to such incidents didn’t move quickly enough, possibly costing lives.

It didn’t work May 16 in Buffalo, where an armed, off-duty security guard and former police officer was unable to stop a shooter on an apparent racist rampage. The security guard, along with nine Black supermarket shoppers, was killed.

It’s also not a common outcome in previous active shooter episodes, according to the FBI. From 2000-2019, 119 of 345 active shooters committed suicide, the bureau said in a long-trend report. Another 119 were apprehended by police, 67 were killed by police, and five are at large. In only four cases did citizens kill the shooters – and none of those four happened at an educational setting.

The last two years show a sharp increase in active shooter incidents but similar trends when it comes to the role of armed “good guy” citizens. Of 103 shooters, 54 were apprehended, 18 were killed by law enforcement, 18 committed suicide and six were killed by civilians, the FBI reports.

“Unless you are going to put a SWAT team in every school, 24/7, what exactly are you proposing to do?” says Mike Lawlor, a University of New Haven criminal justice professor who previously served as Connecticut’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy. Even with trained law enforcement on the scene, “They were outgunned by this kid who was wearing body armor and had an AR-15” assault weapon, notes Lawlor, who as a state legislator authored the state’s “red flag” gun law allowing firearms to be denied to people deemed a danger to themselves or others.
When law enforcement responds almost immediately, shooters have nevertheless been able to kill many people before being stopped. In August 2019, a gunman opened fire in downtown Dayton, Ohio, and police “neutralized” him 30 seconds after he fired his first shot, authorities said at the time. But because the shooter was armed with a high-capacity magazine, he was able to fire dozens of shots quickly, killing nine and wounding 27.

The FBI reports don’t detail shootings of civilians who were trying to save others but mistaken as the original shooters. But there have been incidents when a “good guy” perished for his efforts to defend himself or others from an active shooter. In Alabama in 2018, Emantic Fitzgerald Bradford Jr. – hailed as a hero by people who said he pulled out his gun to protect them after shots rang out in a shopping center – was himself fatally shot by police who believed Bradford to be the perpetrator.

The romantic notion of a “good guy” avenger is rooted in American pulp fiction and crime fiction, says Georgetown University professor Susanna Lee, author of the book “Hard Boiled Crime Fiction and the Decline of Moral Authority.” Characters such as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe – always shooting bad guys and never missing – feed a myth of being both invulnerable and righteous by virtue of carrying a gun, she says.

“This is something particular to American fiction, the romanticized notion of the man who is alone and armed,” Lee says. “And it’s particularly American on a second level – that being that Americans are uniquely not just willing but eager to mix fiction and reality.

“The fiction is that having a gun is an extension of strength, confidence and self-possession. But gun ownership and gun use is really all about men feeling fearful, inadequate and vengeful,” Lee adds.

Arming teachers or other civilians may or may not stop more tragedies, says Pete Blair, executive director of the Advance Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University.

“From a theoretical point of view, it could deter attackers, knowing there might be somebody there who is armed and might fight back,” Blair says. But such people need to be properly trained for that task, he emphasizes.

“They need to be aware of how to behave, so they don’t stand there with a gun in their hand” and confuse police responding to the scene, and they “should comply with all officer commands,” Blair says.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law in 2019 to allow more teachers to have guns in schools. The measure was in response to a 2018 mass shooting at a New Mexico school. At least 28 states allow staff or teachers to carry guns on campus under certain circumstances, according to a report by the Rand Corporation.

But the “good guy” teacher with a gun is opposed by the National Education Association and many educators themselves.

Aaron Phillips, a first grade teacher in Amarillo, Texas, calls the idea of arming teachers “ridiculous” and further traumatizing.

“On a daily basis, I’m responsible for helping children learn – and learn through the traumas and crises they experience in their daily lives. I’m supposed to lift them up,” Phillips says.

“If the absolutely horrific occurs, I’m supposed to pick up a weapon and take a life – a life that’s probably going to be another kid? It’s insane to think that’s any kind of solution,” Phillips says.

“Our jobs are hard enough,” he adds. “We don’t need to teach like we’re in a war zone.”

For students and parents in Uvalde, the war zone has already claimed their school.

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