What's Tony Thinking

Why “Good Guys with Guns” Is Stupid


You’ve heard this line, “The only solution to bad guys with guns is good guys with guns.” It’s popular with the NRA crowd, with President Trump, and with some conservative Christians.

The conservative Christian version of it goes, “It’s a sin problem, not a gun problem” (which is a kind of gloss on the older, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”) In other words, keep the guns out of the hands of the sinners. Give them to the saints (which would be us).

A variation on this is to argue that the gun problem is really a mental health/ mental illness problem. Keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. One might agree with that, except that — under the right combination of circumstances — any of us can go bonkers.

All of these formulations of the problem and solution rest on an assumption that Christians ought to find it hard to buy, i.e. that there is a clear, definite and more or less self-evident separation between the good guys and the bad guys. Such a distinction is not found in the Scriptures. There we read that “all have sinned and all have fallen short of the glory of God.” Paul did not say that “some” are sinners, he said “all.” The Scriptures are at pains to point out that it was the good guys who crucified Jesus.

And there’s the bracing insight from the philosopher and mathematician (and Christian), Blaise Pascal, “The world does not divide between saints and sinners, but between sinners who believe themselves to be saints and saints who know themselves to be sinners.”

The idea that there is a clear and definite line of demarcation between the good guys and the bad guys works for blockbuster movies and five-year-olds, but not for the Bible and not for mature adult humans.

Steve Thorngate, an editor at The Christian Century magazine, has a great article in the current issue that raises these and other points “Sinner-Saints With Guns.” (Century articles are typically behind a pay-wall, but it’s worth paying $4.95 for on-line access to all Century articles.)

Here’s Thorngate:

“The premise is that to stop bad people from doing violent damage, better people need to be able to intervene with comparable force. This takes much for granted: that lightly trained civilians will assess a threat accurately and respond without making things worse; that they will have the resolve to engage an active shooter even if it’s their neighbor or colleague or 13-year-old student; that the police, when they arrive, will be able to intuit which guy with a gun is the good one.

“As Adam Weinstein, a self-described gun lover and wannabe hero, put it in a 2014 Gawker post, ‘it’s really hard to be a good guy with a gun.'”

“The truth of that statement goes much deeper than Weinstein’s focus on the challenges of stopping an active shooter. It’s also just really hard to be consistently good in the first place . . . it takes a lot of optimism about your own discernment and coolness under pressure to image yourself as the good-guy in a bad-guy scenario. But it takes even more optimism about human nature itself to imagine that we good people can be absolutely certain our goodness will never waver.”

I’ve joked — dark humor — that it’s a good thing I don’t own a gun. Who knows when I might pop off? I’ve certainly fantasized about reducing the number of motorcyclists who think making a god-awful racket on Seaview Avenue at any and all hours their God-given right.

Thorngate argues the problem is the fact Americans are awash in guns. In other words, it isn’t just a sin problem. It is a gun problem. If you are on the edge, which many (most?) of us are at one time or another, having a gun at hand — whether pointed at someone else or yourself — invites a disaster from which there is no getting over.

That said, in a country where the number of guns outnumbers the number of people, we are unlikely to eliminate guns anytime soon.

I do think there is a hopeful and instructive analogy, however, in car safety. There was a time when a lot more people were dying in car accidents. Then, gradually, we got serious about building safer cars and about people doing things to make themselves safer. We haven’t eliminated traffic fatalities, but we have reduced them — significantly.

Something similar could happen with guns. There are ways to make guns safer just as we have made cars safer.

In the meantime, “the solution to bad guys with guns, is good guys with guns,” is one of those appealing lies that sounds good until you think about it.



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