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Bad Guy with a Gun

July 9, 2016

Like millions of other Americans, Micah Johnson was angry about police shootings of unarmed African-American men. Unlike any other American, Johnson expressed his anger by murdering five Dallas police officers.

In a way, it’s a wonder this hasn’t happened before. High-powered weaponry is abundantly available. Concentrated police targets are easy to find in major cities – at parades, demonstrations, or near a police precinct house. Anger at police is intense, and is renewed by every police shooting of an unarmed black man. Means, opportunity, motive.

But as far as I can tell, this was the first mass shooting of police officers in American history.

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Can we finally put to rest the National Rifle Association myth that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun”? This particular fantasy was spun by NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre after the mass murder at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. LaPierre proclaimed that the 20 school children and six adults who died there might still be alive if elementary school teachers packed heat.

The idea is that gun proliferation is a better crime control measure than gun control. All you have to do is arm the “good guys,” and bad guys with guns will be stopped dead.

The notion persists even as it defies reality. The notion that elementary school teachers will maintain cool precision under assault weapons fire is absurd. The notion that patrons of Pulse, a gay club in Orlando, will respond to assault weapons fire in the dark by precisely distinguishing the armed bad guy from all the simultaneously shooting good guys, is beyond ludicrous.

The “good guy with a gun” meme, like the “stand your ground” policy, seems to be rooted in the Old West of Hollywood movies, where the heroic citizen takes down the outlaw with a single shot at 30 paces in a duel at high noon. It was mythology in the age of six-shooters; in the age of assault weapons, it’s archaic mythology.

Police officers are presumably among the best-trained gunmen in the country – better able to maintain calm under fire, better able to shoot accurately. Yet Micah Johnson killed five and wounded seven of LaPierre’s good guys with guns.

Johnson didn’t even need an assault rifle – he reportedly used a Soviet World War II-era SKS-45, a semi-automatic carbine. The weapon is cheap and reliable, but not nearly as accurate or deadly as newer, more expensive weaponry.

And Johnson was not stopped by a good guy with a gun. He was stopped by a robot with a bomb.

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Another NRA myth is that the purpose of the Second Amendment is to enable individual resistance to tyrants. After Barack Obama was elected – and once again race plays a key role in firearms issues – it became standard among gun proliferation advocates to quote Thomas Jefferson’s statement that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

One of the more fundamental flaws with this myth is that it provides no mechanism for validating the individual’s determination that a government has become a tyranny, and that the time has come to “water the tree.”

Micah Johnson certainly believed that white police officers had become tyrannical, and that the time had come to shed their blood. By the NRA’s logic, Johnson is a patriot who should be regarded as a national hero.


July 10, 2016 – My statement that the Dallas shooting “was the first mass shooting of police officers in American history” requires clarification. There has been at least one previous incident in which many police officers were shot and killed. On January 2, 1932, ten police officers went to a farmhouse in Greene County, Missouri, to arrest two brothers on charges of auto theft. Six officers were shot and killed, and the suspects escaped to Houston, where they were killed in another shootout three days later.

Legally speaking, the Greene County incident certainly counts as a mass murder shooting of police officers. But, unlike the Dallas shooter, the Greene County auto theft suspects did not seek out officers in order to kill them.

Also, during an uprising of Puerto Rican nationalists from October 30 to November 2, 1950, seven police officers were shot and killed, and 23 were shot and wounded. Again, the uprising certainly included mass shooting murders of police officers, but the “incident” occurred over four days in at least half a dozen cities, and was not a single event in the same way that Dallas was.

  1. Stephen permalink

    Your last sentence brilliantly confirms what other American friends of mine have also pointed out on social media, namely, how much racism underpins the NRA propaganda. The “good guy with a gun” is uniformly white. Apart from that, I feel so sorry for my American friends and family in this difficult time.

    In terms of what you say about elementary school teachers or gay nightclub patrons (or any everyday person, really) not being able to handle a gun in self-defence in a confrontation with a mass shooter: in addition to the arguments you make and with which I agree, I think it’s also important that even under “ideal” conditions, i.e. the self-defence person is able to pull the gun and shoot with little danger to themselves, many people would still find it impossible to fire a shot at another human being. I know I would not, and I live in a sometimes troubled neighbourhood in Dublin (Ireland) where I tried this idea on for size, if you like. I think it’s a very primal inhibition. I mean, most of those of us who eat meat would be psychologically unable to kill the animals we eat, and we are happy to leave this job to professionals, far out of sight.


  2. shoahprof permalink

    The “good guy with a gun” argument is cogently and convincingly rebutted here. Gun advocates seldom, if ever, ponder the consequences of a room filled with armed civilians, most of whom have no combat training and whose only experience discharging a weapon came on a firing range with a silhouette target. The hard truth in my opinion is that there is little defense against an attack by a heavily-armed homicidal miscreant, even if the victims are already armed. “Good guys with guns” are not the answer. The death tolls, high as they are, would likely be higher in the midst of the utter chaos caused by a random shooter.


    • Thanks for your comment, Shoahprof. There’s plenty of hard evidence that people with little to no training react very poorly to shooting situations, which are by their nature high-stress and volatile. Even highly trained police officers miss their targets more often than they hit them. Evolution equipped us with a fight-or-flight reaction that relies on nearly instantaneous perception and interpretation of stimuli; it is a very blunt instrument. But accurate shooting is a discipline that requires calm, poise and careful assessment of circumstances. The two are only partially reconcilable, and only by long-term training.

      Still, all the evidence in the world isn’t as persuasive as a vivid example, and Orlando was as vivid an example as we’re ever likely to see. Imagine that Pulse was packed with gun-toting patrons. The shootings began well into the evening – after most patrons likely had more than a couple drinks. Furthermore the dance floor was dark – and worse, many dance clubs use lighting effects that only further decrease visual acuity.

      So Omar Mateen starts shooting, and it takes a few shots before people start to realize what’s going on. Some realize sooner than others, and a few of them draw and start shooting back. Now there is muzzle flare at several spots around the club, and there is utterly no way in the world for patrons to grasp that one of the muzzle flares is the bad buy and all of the other muzzle flares are good guys. Instead, patrons perceive a multiple-shooter event and start shooting at any or all of the muzzle flares. The new muzzle flares add to the confusion. And so on.

      There’s no way this ends with fewer people dead than what actually happened.

      No, gun proliferation is not and can never be the solution to gun violence. On the other hand, gun control – starting with restoration of the ban on assault weapons – can reduce gun violence. When one option is futile and the other option is hopeful, I’ll opt for the latter every time.


      • shoahprof permalink

        You and I are obviously in lockstep on this issue. I also agree with the second part of your original post, re: guns as the means to resist tyranny. In addition to what you’ve already correctly posited, I would add this: if, as the NRA advocates, that guns in the hands of the populace are the antidote to oppression, then Martin Luther King’s advocacy of non-violence had to be wrong; since no group in America was as oppressed as American Blacks between 1866 and the 1970s (segregation, lynchings, etc.), then according to NRA logic, Black Americans should have armed themselves and fought back against that oppression with weapons. One can only imagine how many years civil rights would have been set back in light of such a scenario. King was only too aware that active resistance with firearms was not the answer.

        I teach Holocaust studies at Penn State and am keenly aware that a common position among gun nuts is that had the Jews been armed in 1933 they could have mitigated their eventual destruction by the Nazis. This specious theory was fervently endorsed by Ben Carson, a man who knows as much about the Holocaust as I do about neurosurgery.


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