Books / Firearms

“This Isn’t Star Wars”: Thinking Beyond Good Guys and Bad Guys

Two of the books we’re reading in my Sociology of Guns seminar this year are Abigail Kohn’s Shooters: Myths and Realities of America’s Gun Cultures (2004) and Angela Stroud’s Good Guys with Guns: The Appeal and Consequences of Concealed Carry (2016). Both address the issue of good guys and bad guys in interesting and relevant ways.

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In the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre famously declared, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” As Stroud observes in the conclusion to Good Guys with Guns, “Though this statement made waves at the time, it was simply an explicit declaration of what the NRA had been implicitly telling its members for decades” (p. 155). Stroud is well-placed to make this claim. Months before LaPierre’s declaration, she defended her doctoral dissertation (upon which her book is based) under the title “Good Guys and Bad Guys.”

The “good guys” in Stroud’s book are average citizens who have permits to carry concealed weapons in public. She probes the meaning of being a “good guy” for 36 Texas Concealed Handgun License holders, 20 men and 16 women (yes, women can be good guys, too). As Stroud argues, a big part of good guys’ understanding of their identity as good guys comes from their contrast with bad guys. (More on who those bad guys are later.)

When I introduced this idea in my class, one of my students said incredulously, “This isn’t Star Wars.”

The comment stuck with me. Certainly a major reason for the popularity of the Star Wars franchise is that its narrative engine is driven by the eternal struggle between good and evil, and that we can clearly separate those who represent one from the other.

This idea appears in Shooters as well, though in a different way. Kohn study centers on “gun enthusiasts” in Northern California, and she gives particular attention to those who participate in Single Action Shooting Society (SASS) cowboy action shooting events. One of the attractions of SASS, according to Kohn, is that it fulfills “a longing for what they imagine was a simpler kind of life in the Old West.” It provides “a way to reminisce about what is romanticized as a less complex moral arena: there was good and there was bad, everybody knew which was which, and everybody could make straightforward choices about which side they wanted to take” (p. 97). Which is a lot like Star Wars in the sense of being mythical.

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The more ambiguous line between good guys and bad guys in the reality of contemporary life is illustrated by Jennifer Carlson (in a book I assigned in my gun seminar last fall, Citizen-Protectors). Carlson questions the simplistic distinction between good guys and bad guys by highlighting the case of Aaron, an African American man and NRA-certified instructor who was hoping to open his own firearms business. Aaron entered a gas station in suburban Detroit as a “good guy” and left it as a “bad guy” after illegally brandishing his firearm during a confrontation with another customer. Carlson uses the case of Aaron to highlight the various things that gun carriers bring into everyday life along with their guns: a heightened and at times excessive sense of moral duty and responsibility, masculine bravado and macho posturing, presumptions (often racially-biased) about what a threat looks like, training for a violent confrontation but not for de-escalation or situation recognition. These “can lead gun carriers to take actions that ultimately propel them to act more like citizen-vigilantes than the calm, cool, and collected citizen-protectors that they aspire to be” (p. 160).

This recalls another thematic aspect of Star Wars: human beings are imperfect and we can be susceptible to the magnetic pull of the “dark side.” We can go from wearing the white hat to wearing the black hat, sometimes in an instance.

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8 thoughts on ““This Isn’t Star Wars”: Thinking Beyond Good Guys and Bad Guys

  1. Ms. Kohn is wasting her psychic gift!! The ability to read the minds of thousands of people, 99.99% of whom she has never even met, and discern their innermost beliefs and motivations is a national treasure. We need her on the job out on the Astral Plane, divining which citizens are up to stuff like, oh say, terrorism. I understand that the magic will work only when she cocks her head back far enough to look down her nose, but surely the Federal Government could come up with a multi million dollar grant for a special psychic neck brace. For the Children!!

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    • Hahaha. OK, I see you point and well-said. Kohn spent a good deal of times with the shooters she studied. That said, it was a limited sample of all shooters in America, and she perhaps veers too far from her actual data in this one particular section.

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      • Thank you for the reply. Speaking seriously now, I have to say, being an old crank who’s been out in some stormy weather in some odd places, that I find even the best “social science” to be Alchemy rather than Chemistry.

        This is not to disparage the craft of Alchemy, which has often produced useful, even life saving, rules of thumbs. “Put X and Y together and you’ll get Z. Usually.” Now if we’re talking about “Don’t eat those purple berries, you’ll die. Usually.” that’s a useful bit of knowledge. But when the Alchemist is asked “Why?” and especially “Why ‘Usually.’ why not all the time?” they do what most folks do when stumped, they make up a story. “Because Demons and Imps live in the purple berries! (Like they do in handguns?) Now, the Demons will kill you but the Imps just make you sick.”

        The Chemist, on the other hand, after a long, boring explanation of molecules and catalysts, and a bunch of other stuff which makes no more sense to most people than Demons and Imps, can answer the question of “Why not all the time?”.

        The best of “social sciences” produce some useful “Don’t eat that!” product but most of them seem to feel compelled to make up stories. And, of course a lot of them have learned to make up the story first, which is what gets the grant money moving, then take a few pictures of purple berries for the dust cover.

        Oh well. Thanks again for the courtesy of your reply.

        Wafa Wafa, Wasara Wasara.

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      • Thank you for your thoughtful observations. I have always thought of the social sciences as being the really hard Sciences because human beings have free will and Society is more complex than we can understand. So lots of what I would call probabilistic thinking, or what you call usually.

        This suggests a lot of modesty and caution, particularly when making interventions into society and individuals lives. Alas such is often missing when people try to go from partial understandings to public policies

        And yet I feel what I have done and what I am doing is more then simply journalism or fiction. So I press on and continue to believe that empirical observation can contribute to the issues of concern here

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  2. Pingback: Bad Guys, Guns, and Self-Defense | Gun Culture 2.0

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