John Johnston: No One Needs a Gun Until They Do

For the third consecutive year, John Johnston of Ballistic Radio and Citizens Defense Research guest lectured in my Sociology of Guns Seminar at Wake Forest University last week.

Here I want to briefly summarize the ideas he shared with my students, while respecting the fact that the session itself was not for public consumption.

(NOTE: In order to provide an environment in which everyone feels comfortable sharing their ideas, no outside observers are allowed in the class and no recording of it is made public. Although there is a clear trade-off in keeping the information private, John mentioned after the session that there were things he was able to share that he might not otherwise because the session was not public.)

John Johnston guest lecturing in Sociology of Guns via Zoom, October 2020.

I invite John to my class because he is one of the most sophisticated thinkers I know on the use of guns for self-defense and training for armed self-defense.

He began by establishing for the students where he is coming from generally with respect to the issue:

  1. Self-defense is a human right, not a political issue.
  2. Violence is not always a bad thing.
  3. Guns are tools, neither good nor bad in themselves

None of these three points is part of the mainstream of gun scholarship and I appreciated John bringing them forward clearly at the outset.

From there, John spent about 45 minutes responding to questions I posed to him, as well as questions/comments students wrote in advance of his visit. (They viewed his Lucky Gunner video on shooting a carry permit test blindfolded in advance of his visit.)

John Johnston shooting blindfolded with Chris Baker of Lucky Gunner, from

The first major question was, “Who needs to carry a gun in public, anyway?” John’s response in a nutshell was, “No one NEEDS a gun . . . until they do.”

Although he admits it is an imperfect analogy, he liken this to the logic of wearing a seat belt in a car. The frequency with which we need to have our seat belt on is low, but the urgency of needing our seat belt when we are in a crash is high. Needing a gun is likewise a low odds, high stakes proposition.

John also added that the odds may not be as low as some of us want to believe. He used the example of the lifetime odds of being a victim of sexual assault: 1 in 6 for women. With 13 women in my class, it is possible that 2 will be victimized at some point in their life.

The second major question was, “Shouldn’t people who carry guns in public be trained?” In line with student elaborations of this question, John addressed the issue of whether people who carry concealed ought to complete required government training. His answer was emphatically NO, in part because he lacks faith that the government can provide a level of training that will make a positive difference on a large scale in proportion to the cost of that training.

He definitely believes people should get training — he makes part of his living as a gun trainer, after all — but he does not believe the government should play a role in that (libertarian alert!).

John Johnston teaching Technical Handgun course at The Complete Combatant, June 2020

The third and final major question was, “What is appropriate training for someone who carries a gun in public?” Clearly, the training people should ideally have as armed citizens goes well beyond the typical concealed carry course. Indeed, it goes well beyond the gun, in John’s view.

In answering this question, John emphasizes the fact that the gun is a very limited self-defense tool. If someone has to use a gun in self-defense, as noted above, they really need it. At the same time, a self-defense shooting is the “best possible worst outcome,” in his words. “If George Zimmerman had pepper spray,” John conjectured, “we wouldn’t know who he is.”

The wider the range of “tools” in a person’s self-defense arsenal, the better off they are. These do include proficiency in gunhandling and marksmanship, but also involve less lethal tools like pepper spray and even flashlights. Verbal tools can also be developed through training, as can good decision-making (he especially emphasizes pre-need decision-making).

Beyond these specifics, John’s general approach to the question of risk resonates very much with my own. He highlighted for my students the ways in which they incur risk all the time in their lives. For example, driving 55 or 65 miles per hour on a two lane highway and passing another vehicle traveling at the same speed in the opposite direction, just feet apart, is a potential life-threatening event. But we assume that risk because we see value in the activity of driving.

In the same way, we incur some downside risk by owning and carrying guns. But a large part of that risk can be mitigated through knowledge and training. And the risk that cannot be mitigated has to be understood in the context of the value that owning and carrying guns provide.

It’s a complicated calculus, but one that many gun owners and carriers solve in favor of having a gun even if you don’t need it, because that is better than needing a gun and not having it.

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  1. “Indeed, it goes well beyond the gun, in John’s view.”

    I am among the chorus of voices who think society would be measurably safer if we taught, apolitically and at age-appropriate levels multiple times, the “Four Rules” of gun safety.

    I also think teaching the basics of a “self-defense” mindset, which need not involve weapons at all, as well laid out in a “non-tactical” format in Michael Bane’s “Trailsafe.” It was particularly apolitical and unlikely to give rise to controversy in the first edition published by the Mountaineers, which essentially required him to not include much “gun content.”

    Anyway, I also believe that if we taught the basics of Use of Force in Self-Defense Law, the five elements of which are the same in all 50 states, we could address the moral issue of interpersonal violence being viewed as acceptable in this country in a “legal” way, which can mitigate some arguments of trying to “impose morality” on people. Whether folks like the law or not, it is, at least technically, the same for all of us.

    Those elements of the use of force: Innocence, Avoidance, Imminence, Proportionality, and Reasonableness, essentially mirror most moral codes on the use of violence. You can describe them in a layman’s fashion, using societal tropes, as below.

    You don’t provoke or start fights and you try to avoid using force if you can. If you can’t, you use force only when necessary to defend against force being used against you, not in response to mere insults. You don’t “kick a guy when he’s down,” and it is cowardly to “bring a bat to a fistfight.” Finally, you should think before you act, make sure the other guy really deserves it.

    Media has spent decades promoting a subculture of violence for retribution or “kicks” as somehow acceptable, there needs to be pushback that doesn’t involve simply calling the perpetrators punks or outlaws and waiting until they need shooting.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Since when are human rights _not_ a political issue?!?

    The freedom to arm oneself is a human right, a human liberty. Every human human being has the right to arm himself.

    Freedom is one & indivisible.

    Now, John Johnston, go ahead & try to “sell” the above to supposedly “human rightists” (sic) (no, not libertarians) in, say, the ACLU, Amnesty International or the UN & see how it goes.

    Liked by 2 people

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