Letter to the Editor
Time to call “BS” on “good guys with guns”
By Rhonda J. Felder, PMP, M.F.A.
The teenaged leaders of the #NeverAgain movement have channeled their grief into organizing a grassroots movement to ensure that the shooting at their school in Park-land, Florida will be the last in the nation. In the State Capitol, just six days after a 19-year-old gunman murdered fourteen students and three faculty members with a legally acquired AR-15, the students ran headlong into an ideological brick wall when Florida’s predominantly Republican House of Representatives voted down, 36-71, a motion to discuss a ban on semi-automatic weapons.
Four years earlier— 200 miles north of Parkland— young Floridians led another grassroots movement against legalized vigilantism after the killer of unarmed 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin, was acquitted of all charges. Since July 2013, #BlackLivesMatter has mounted a fierce resistance to white supremacist aggression. Like #NeverAgain, #BlackLivesMatter demands safety and justice for all citizens while calling out a toxic culture of state-sanctioned and vigilante violence.
In a speech that quickly went viral, Parkland survivor Emma Gonzalez “called BS” on the pernicious fantasy that the only solution to “bad guys with guns” is more “good guys with guns.” According to this logic, we must eliminate gun-free zones while equipping teachers and administrators with firearms. It’s not hard to see how gun manufacturers prosper in this fear-based arms race, as “good guys” purchase the most powerful weapons to protect themselves and their loved ones from a growing cast of “bad guys.” Yet the “good guy/bad guy” logic rests on the fallacy that all “good guys” – from elected officials and law enforcement, to firearm dealers and armed citizens – can identify a “bad guy” when they see one. Recent social scientific research confirms that our perceptions of threat are far from neutral; Americans are more likely to perceive (unarmed) African American men and boys as larger and more threatening than they actually are. Critics of the president’s and the NRA’s proposal to arm teachers have rightly pointed out that non-white school children – especially Black and brown boys – will become targets of gun-toting teachers and that black and brown teachers carrying firearms will become targets of law enforcement amidst the chaos of school shootings. In a militarized culture where firearm-carrying civilians are increasingly encouraged to “shoot first, and ask questions later”— and where racial prejudices often go unacknowledged—our blind faith in “good guys with guns” is lethal for nonwhite citizens. Just ask the grieving family of Philando Castile, a “good guy with a gun” whom the police tragically misidentified as a “bad guy.”
As the Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward County has shown, the lethal risks of “good guys with guns” are amplified in states with Stand Your Ground (SYG) laws, which allow people to use lethal violence without retreating, if they “reasonably” claim to be in fear for their lives. In 2005, Florida became the first state to enact such legislation, after which NRA lobbyists “cut & pasted” near identical legislation in more than twenty other states. The laws have been shown to amplify existing racial and gender biases, making it easier for white (or white-appearing) people to kill without legal repercussions. And while Trayvon Martin’s killer escaped prosecution by claiming he feared for his life, SYG did not provide “good guy” immunity for new mother and abuse survivor, Marissa Alexander. She was sentenced to a twenty years in prison for firing a warning shot into the ceiling as her estranged husband threatened to kill her. Recently, Florida police have invoked SYG immunity to avoid prosecution after shooting black men, illustrating again the difficulty of differentiating “bad guys” from “good guys” in a culture where our perceptions of threat are far from neutral.
Surely, in the face of the Parkland tragedy, and the public demonstrations that have followed, Congress might finally act to restrict easy access to high-powered, semi-automatic weapons. Congress wisely banned them in 1994 but allowed the ban to expire in 2004 under pressure from the NRA. Apparently, banning semi-automatic weapons would only keep them out of the hands of law-abiding “good guys” while allowing the “bad guys” to remain armed.
Our trust in “good guys with guns” only feeds a gun-saturated culture, in which regular mass shootings are simply the “price of freedom.” While we’re waiting on law-makers to stand up to the NRA, it might make sense to listen to the young leaders of #NeverAgain and #BlackLivesMatter, who have called out the “good guy with a gun” mythology for what it is— BS.