Distinguishing Responsibly Armed Citizens from Mere Gun Owners

In my last post, I thought about the distinction between good guys with gun and bad guys with guns, and whether we can make that distinction only after someone has acted good or bad with a gun (“By their fruits ye shall know them”). The most recent incident spurring these thoughts is the mattress-in-dumpster shooting caught on video in Abilene, Texas. But there are others, of course, often involving #FloridaMan.

Although they pre-record their shows and so were not able to discuss the event in Abilene, on a recent episode of Ballistic Radio (Ep. 272, 16 September 2018), John Johnston and Melody Lauer take up the issue of responsibly armed citizenship with guest Erik “Trek” Utrecht, co-owner and instructor at the Michigan Defensive Firearms Institute.

In the discussion, Utrecht distinguishes between being “just a gun owner and a responsibly armed citizen”:

A true responsibly armed citizen leaves the house hoping that they never, ever run into a fight. But if a fight presents itself, they are ready and they will know their liabilities so they don’t hurt innocent life.

The consequences of a negative outcome when a gun is involved are high. In Utrecht’s words: “If I have to draw this weapon, if I don’t do my job 100% correct, I can make it so another innocent person — who has dreams, who has a heartbeat, who has a family — doesn’t go home.”

In his work as a gun trainer, therefore, Utrecht maintains, “My true passion is making people understand that if you actually do everything right, you will die of old age and your gun will get nothing but holster wear and sweat rust on it. And that to me is my true goal: to make sure that people are ready, but if they are actually a responsibly armed citizen, they will probably avoid 99.999% of everything that can ever happen to them poorly.”

Without ignoring the technical aspects of shooting, this suggests the even greater importance of attention to mindset and decision making for those who choose to carry the power to kill with them in public.

This has actually been a very consistent part of my education in Gun Culture 2.0, from taking Massad Ayoob’s MAG-40 course in 2012 to listening to Claude Werner’s appearance on Paul Carlson’s Safety Solutions Academy Podcast last night.

But it is one thing to distinguish analytically between a mere gun owner and a responsibly armed citizen. Much harder is to separate the two in real life.

Utrecht: “We can never allow the government to put a . . . shooting standard . . . to have the right to keep and bear arms. But . . . for a free citizenry, there has to be a consequence of failure. Quite simply meaning that, we’re not going to tell you that you can’t go out and carry a gun in public. But if you do, and you’re a liability, we are going to throw the book at you, because you’re a liability and not a responsibility to your fellow man.”

Ballistic Radio host John Johnston renders this as “policing our own.”

Utrecht: “You’re right, we do have to do a lot of policing, but it is not by regulation. It is by making those people extinct through education and separating what is responsible and what is irresponsible.”

In the first passage Utrecht suggests stiff legal punishments for those who act irresponsibly with their firearms (“we are going to throw the book at you”). But he and Johnson quickly move to the idea of community self-policing. This is an interesting but challenging idea to realize practically.

How do you motivate people to get educated so that their ignorance or irresponsibility becomes extinct, as Utrecht says?

In some communities, people are motivated to conform by the threat of exclusion. But those communities are able to achieve social closure around their community standards, which seems impossible in the broader and more diffuse gun culture.

The idea of separating the “responsible” from the “irresponsible” may also suggest more agreement on community standards than actually exists even just within defensive gun culture. Even just among defensive firearms trainers, is there an essential core of systematic knowledge or a set of professional norms that is widely agreed upon?


  1. Generally speaking, yes there is a common core of things that I have seen and heard in every CCW and defensive pistol shooting class I’ve taken. It’s my understanding that these are generally (but not always) a national standard that is followed. If I recall correctly, it’s something like this:
    1. The victim (the responsible gun carrier) must be a “reluctant participant” meaning they weren’t looking for trouble, and tried to disengage from it.
    2. The victim must have REASONABLE fear of GREAT bodily harm or death (there is a legal standard for those in my state).
    3. No lesser force would do to stop the threat.

    We do have a duty to retreat, if reasonable to do so (but not to a worse situation). Some states don’t have that “requirement” but the three above are close, if not entirely, universal. One thing that is relevant here is that it’s required to disengage as soon as #2 is satisfied; one cannot “stay in the fight” which means if the assailant is wounded, unable, or unwilling to continue the attack, the defender must cease hostilities.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. As far as community standards and negligence goes, part of developing such requires a common frame of reference. The way we build common frames of reference in this country is typically through education. To “hold people accountable” necessarily means they must have been instructed in a clear standard and knowingly deviated from it.

    Given that negligent handling “accidents” are far more common than negligent criminal misuse upon another person, the idea of community accountability provides yet more support for requiring continuing, age-appropriate, apolitical, gun safety education being taught in schools and as a required part (deliberate opt out to preserve ind. choice) of home school, etc curricula. Even include the basics in the naturalization process for new citizens and long term legal residents, same as voting information.

    If every American can be assumed to have received an actual gun safety education to a given standard, then we, as a community, can legitimately hold them accountable for any negligent acts.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Actually, given that the law of self-defense, as Erik notes, is fairly consistent across the states, and use of force encompasses more than just firearms, it should be possible to tie in a non-political, age-appropriate general treatment of what the law, which is an extant community standard, actually says. No “opt out” option needed as the law doesn’t care how you feel about it.

      That would allow for accountability for people doing stupid things for stupid reasons, regardless of level of force or weapon, and help combat the “code of the street” BS kids are picking up from media which we as a culture are not actively countering.

      Liked by 2 people

      • A civics class expounding on the connections between the age of reason, Constitution and Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, and what it means to be a citizen in the United States would go a long way. What does the 1A mean? Voting rights? 2A? 4 and 5A? What are a citizen’s responsibilities to know that “common frame of reference”?

        I suppose that would be considered some sort of cultural imperialism by some, but really…if we expect to live by a common set of rules such as we have in a democracy run by state and local constitutions, one has to understand them and what they impose on us as well as what they free us from.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. […] Yesterday I concluded my post by raising the question of whether there is an essential core of systematic knowledge or set of professional norms that are widely agreed upon by defensive firearms trainers. I don’t think so, and the failed attempt to establish an Association of Defensive Firearms Instructors as a professional association may suggest the impossibility of coming to any such agreement. […]


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