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.
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.
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.