NOTE: An earlier, abbreviated version of this text appeared as an opinion essay in the Charlotte Observer/Raleigh News & Observer on June 16, 2022.
I am a defensive gun owner and a sociologist who has been studying American gun culture for a decade now. One of the first significant gun events I attended for my research was the 142nd National Rifle Association (NRA) annual meetings and exhibits. Held in May 2013 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, the conference set a record with over 85,000 NRA members attending.
Looking back today at the many pictures I took to document the spectacle, one stands out: a t-shirt for sale in the NRA meeting store that reads on the front in all caps, “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is . . .” The now familiar slogan concludes on the back, “a good guy with a gun.”
Created by Ackerman McQueen – the advertising agency that, with Wayne LaPierre, bears significant responsibility for the downfall of the NRA – the phrase debuted in the infamous NRA press conference following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in December 2012.
I did not like it then. I like it even less now. For my thoughts on why, read on or watch this week’s Light Over Heat video on YouTube.
With the NRA returning to Houston for its 151st meeting, again following a mass shooting in an elementary school, a reporter asked me if I thought we would see anything different at the annual meeting this year. I said I expected fewer vendors and members inside the convention center and more gun control organizations and activists outside on Discovery Green. I was right.
I also said I hoped that speakers at the NRA Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA) Leadership Forum would not utter the phrase “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” I was wrong.
Although Wayne LaPierre did not, Texas Senator Ted Cruz invoked the phrase. So too did former President Donald Trump in his characteristically unique way. “As the age-old saying goes,” Trump recalled, “the only way to stop a bad guy with the gun is a good guy with the gun. Have you ever heard that? In the absence of a member of law enforcement, there is nobody you would rather have a nearby when a crisis strikes an armed, expertly trained member of the NRA.” Cue applause.
Despite my disdain for the slogan, it is essential to note that good guys with guns sometimes do stop bad guys with guns. The academic study of “defensive gun use” is fraught, so we do not know how often. But the annual number is far from zero and includes the case of a “good gal with a gun” in Charleston, West Virginia, who recently shot and killed a man who was firing a rifle into a party at an apartment complex.
Still, like many slogans, this one obscures more than it enlightens.
First, as Rob Pincus and other gun trainers remind us, guns are not “the only thing” that stop bad guys. We saw this recently in the shooting at Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church that was stopped by the heroic action of Dr. John Cheng, a trained martial artist, who was armed with a willingness to act decisively. He is the latest in a line of unarmed defenders who acted to save lives in mass shooting events. These include students Jacob Ryder (Thurston High School in Oregon), Kendrick Castillo and Brendan Bialy (STEM School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado), Riley Howell (University of North Carolina at Charlotte), and Tate Myre (Oxford High School in Michigan).
Second, the slogan has spilled over from its initial application to mass public shootings, where bad guys with guns are both more obvious and more dangerous, to the broader self-defense gun culture. Consequently, I fear the slogan could encourage legally armed civilians to become bad guys with guns. In some cases, individuals may act in the American tradition of white vigilantism, as with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia.
What if we define bad guys as those who acted imprudently, if not illegally? We could add individuals who were legally exonerated but nonetheless made poor decisions that led to deaths that could have been avoided. This list includes George Zimmerman, Curtis Reeves (the Florida movie theater popcorn shooter), and Kyle Rittenhouse, about whom I have written previously.
In her book about legal gun carriers, Citizen-Protectors, sociologist Jennifer Carlson highlights 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.
The case of Aaron highlights various things that some 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, and/or training for a violent confrontation but not for de-escalation or situation recognition.
I don’t want to make a simplistic causal argument here. I have written about the history and present reality of liberalized concealed carry permitting laws and am a concealed carry permit holder myself. So I recognize that cases like these are exceptions that prove the rule that most licensed gun carriers are both law-abiding and responsible (a point Carlson also makes in Citizen-Protectors). But as with the mass public shootings that gave rise to the “good guy with a gun” slogan in the first place, being exceptional is little consolation to those whose lives are lost and their loved ones.
Discussing the issue of good guys vs. bad guys with guns in my Sociology of Guns seminar at Wake Forest University, one student said incredulously, “This isn’t Star Wars!” He meant we don’t live in a world in which some people wear the mythic white hats and others the black hats so we can tell the two apart. The world is more complex than that. People are more complex than that.
Or maybe this is Star Wars? We human beings are imperfect and 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. This may be the most compelling argument against the slogan. You’re only a good guy with a gun until you’re not.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” is both empirically wrong and potentially harmful, with little upside benefit. It’s time we retire it.