The 'Good Guy With a Gun' Is a Useless Myth


It’s been just 24 hours since Devin Kelley, a 26-year-old who received a bad conduct discharge from the Air Force and was convicted of assaulting his wife and child, massacred at least 26 parishioners—many of them children—as they prayed during their Sunday morning church service in a small Texas town.

Details about the atrocity, which is being called the worst mass church shooting in modern U.S. history (because only in America are gun massacres so violent and so frequent that we must begin adding subcategories to contextualize their magnitude) are still trickling out. But conservatives, including Donald Trump, are already seizing on one detail to peddle the insidious myth of the “good guy with a gun,” a hero civilian who, because he was armed with his own gun when the shooting started, put a stop to the senseless killing.

In this case, law enforcement said on Sunday that as gunman Devin Kelley left the Sutherland Springs, TX, church, a “local resident” grabbed his own rifle and “engaged” the gunman, who dropped his weapon and fled. The resident pursued Kelley, who later ran his car off the road and was found dead. At this point in the investigation, it’s not known whether the vigilante resident fatally wounded the suspect or if he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Cue the celebrations from conservatives:

First things first: the “good guy with a gun” narrative, at least as the facts currently stand, doesn’t seem to fit here. The deadly shooting at the church was already over. A staggering 7% of the tiny community’s population had been either killed or wounded, and the gunman was leaving the church when the resident grabbed his own rifle to fight back. There’s no telling what Kelley’s further plans were, but our hero Texan was, unfortunately, too late to do much good for those in the church.

More broadly, as Stanford researchers reviewing nearly four decades of crime data found in a study published in June, the myth of a good guy with a gun stepping up in a moment of crisis doesn’t hold water. Over time, more people carrying guns has just meant more gun crime.

That’s a trend that holds true in Texas. The Stanford researchers’ projections found that a decade after the Lone Star State enacted right to carry laws, violent crime was almost 17% higher than it could’ve been without the law (as states that did not enact looser gun laws reaped the benefit of higher reductions in violent crime).

Despite the fact that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton went so far as to urge people to bring their guns to church, lest an attack like this happen again, the Violence Policy Center found guns “are rarely used to kill criminals or stop crimes.” Instead, regular people with firearms are almost five times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not armed, University of Pennsylvania researchers found.

And if anecdotal evidence is more your style—as tends to be the case when discussing the efficacy of owning and using guns in this country—bystanders with guns didn’t help in the last shooting you may have heard about, when a 47-year-old walked into a Denver-area Walmart and allegedly started shooting. In that case, which left three people dead, it took police a full five hours to identify and track down the gunman because of the number of customers who pulled out their own guns during the shooting, needlessly complicating the police investigation when time was most critical.

One final consideration: What if—stay with me here—there was no need for a good guy with a gun because there was no bad guy with a gun in the first place? By that I mean, what if we lived in a society where millions of private citizens are not carrying guns because we believe it should be quite difficult for people to procure handheld killing machines?

It’s just an idea—but at least it’s one we haven’t tried, and seen repeatedly fail, before.

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