After every mass shooting in the United States – and sadly, they occur with horrifying frequency – there are calls by the conservative pro-gun lobby to provide teachers, or religious worshippers, or shopping centre customers, or office staff, with guns. If only the regular, everyday citizens had guns, the bad guys would be stopped and lives saved, right? This myth of the good guy with a gun is not only completely inaccurate, but is solidly entrenched in the American individualistic, frontier-capitalist culture.
One of the most surprising findings in the aftermath of mass shootings – such as after the Uvalde killings – is that the armed good guys fail to stop the bad guys. Indeed, arming persons only increases the likelihood of further homicides. In fact, the Uvalde incident was quite shocking. Not only did heavily armed police fail to enter the school grounds, thus avoiding confronting the active shooter; those police officers who actually did enter the school grounds did nothing to stop the shooter.
Branko Marcetic, from Jacobin magazine, elaborated the real scandal of the Uvalde police failure. Going into details about the police conduct of that particular shooting, he wrote:
The police weren’t twiddling their thumbs outside the school. They were twiddling their thumbs inside of it, standing around, running away, and cowering for a full seventy-seven minutes while the shooter fired round after round into packed classrooms just feet away, the screams of children echoing through the school hallway.
There is no hesitation in demanding ever greater levels of police militarisation; one of the rationales for this increasing flow of arms to the police is the myth of the good guy with a gun. As an aside, I always make an observation; did any of the Americans who subscribe to the ‘good guy with a gun’ notion demand the arming of Palestinian people in the occupied territories after the 1994 mass shooting by Zionist extremist and Israeli-American mass murderer Baruch Goldstein?
Israel receives an uninterrupted supply of guns and armaments from the United States; surely, in the eyes of gun advocates, the equation can be balanced by providing the Palestinians with masses of guns? Be that as it may, the mythical good guy with a gun is a product of a particular melding of American sociopolitical and economic circumstances. The Dirty Harry type detective, blasting the bad guys away with pinpoint accuracy (no civilians or bystanders are ever killed or injured) originates from the frontier-justice capitalism implemented in the US.
Binoy Kampmark, writing about the Uvalde shootings, stated that the belief in the individual rights to bear arms has become something of an article of faith. He wrote: “Faith in the sanctity of guns permits a form of tolerable urban warfare, a type of assimilated frontier violence characterised by high death tolls.”
The key phrase here, I think, is the assimilated frontier violence equated with urban warfare. The colonial settler of the 19th century, committing violence against the indigenous nations as capitalist settlement expanded, is now adapted to an urban environment, where the majority of the population live. The hard-boiled, taciturn and self-reliant gun-packing individual, once typified by the rural cowboy, is now transferred to an urbanised setting.
The impact of Prohibition, the rise of the FBI, the rise of populism in the 1920s and 30s made the heroic, lone detective – aided by the popularity of crime fiction such as the Philip Marlowe character created by Raymond Chandler – solidified the notion of a virtuous, law-abiding gunman reserving his most violent behaviour in dealing with the criminal underworld. When he shoots, he never misses.
Hollywood took up the cudgels in promoting the good guy with a gun – innumerable John Wayne movies, Dirty Harry, and today the superhero protagonist – each in their own way apply the street justice of gun violence by blasting the criminals away, with absolute accuracy; and always with justice on their side.
The debate about gun control in the United States – which erupts with ferocity after every mass casualty shooting – has taken on predictably partisan lines in recent decades. Conservatives are usually pro-gun, framing their advocacy as a defence of the Second Amendment. Liberals are normally promoting gun control, highlighting the terrible loss of life caused by shooters with automatic and semiautomatic weapons. However, the debate was not always so partisan. There was a time when the NRA, and dyed-in-the-wool conservatives like Ronald Reagan, supported gun control measures.
In the 1960s, when the civil rights movement was at its height, and black nationalist groups such as the Black Panthers, began to assert their constitutional right to bear arms, the conservative side of politics advocated strict gun control legislation. No less a figure than California governor Ronald Reagan, in 1967, advocated for the implementation of gun control. The NRA supported such legislation. When guns were upheld in the pursuit of racial and economic justice, the Republicans had no qualms about pursuing gun control.
As the gunmen perpetrating homicidal violence were increasingly white and from the political far right, the gun control debate changed. Ultrarightist violence became, if not acceptable, then at least tolerable. Gun rights, and the notion of a good guy with a gun, was cynically exploited to divert attention from the ultranationalist ideology which drove lethal gun violence.
Building and nurturing schools – and a wider society – where physical and mental well-being are prioritised, and guns no longer needed, is a more effective solution than simply increasing the number of armaments among the civilian population. And please, stop using Switzerland as an argument for greater gun distribution; the Swiss have gun control legislation, in line with the European Union.