The NRA is fond of saying that the only way to stop a bad buy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
In this view of the world, ideally everyone is armed and we count on good citizens to make split second judgments about who is a good guy and who is a bad guy in order to keep us safe. How confident are you that you can tell good guys from bad?
I know I am a good guy, of course. That goes without saying really. (Of course to the rest of the world I am just one of those other people, a stranger.) As I know I am a good person, it follows that good people must be people like me. It is a natural part of being human to identify with an ingroup and to be afraid of “the other.”
Things get trickier here because there are an infinite number of ways in which a person can be like me or not like me, and they’re not all immediately apparent. I am helped, however, in deciding who is “like me” by social categories that I have been taught over and over.
A person with dark skin is “black” or “African-American” and is a different category from me. People from a different socio-economic class are in a different category from me. People from other countries are in a different category. People of other religions are a different category.
The undifferentiated “American”– the person who politicians address, is a white, middle class, straight, Protestant male. We know this because any other category must be specified to avoid confusion: “A Jewish American, Female voters, An African-American man.”
So when I– a good guy– go out with my gun vigilantly protecting the other good guys I will naturally cast my gaze with more suspicion on the Muslim American or the tough looking redneck or that group of Mexicans than on the white kid who looks like he might be part of my church youth group. I might not even consciously believe that is what I am doing. I just feel nervous around this person. Something is not right about him. I might be able to give you dozens of intellectual reasons besides race or social category why those “others” make me feel uneasy. When you’re a good guy primed to protect the world from bad guys, there is not a lot of nuance involved. You go with your gut. You react by instinct.
These categories are social constructs. This is not to say these categories do not matter. On the contrary, once we create them, they matter a lot. They can have very real, sometimes lethal consequences, as we have seen in the Zimmerman case. As long as we perpetuate them they have power over us. But the good news is that if we have the power to construct these categories, we have the power to take away their power as well, if we have the will. There was a time, for example, when the Irish would have been considered a separate race from whites, an underclass to be feared. We can change our categories, change our focus, change our culture.
And we must, because as Morgan Guyton expressed so well in his blog Mercy Not Sacrifice “if I feel unsafe around someone else because they’re black, I am part of the reason that the world becomes unsafe for them…The source of so much evil is people feeling unsafe and seeing others as threats instead of people who feel just as unsafe.”
One of the things I learned from reading The Geography of Thought by Richard E. Nisbett is that in the West when people read news stories they tend to attribute everything that happens to the players personalities. We immediately try to identify the good guy and the bad guy. In the East they are more likely to talk about the circumstances and context that created the situation.
Crimes are not only the result of a good guy encountering a bad guy. They are caused by two human beings in all their complexity, with good and bad traits, coming together in a way that causes conflict.
Let’s say I–we have already established that I am a good guy– decide to exercise my second amendment rights by wearing a sidearm to go pick up my third grader at school. Let’s say that a dedicated kindergarten teacher who has been armed and trained to protect the children spots me and my weapon and makes the split second decision that I might harm the kids. She shoots and kills me. If she has killed one of the good guys, (I know I am a good guy) does that make her a bad guy? What if I draw first and I kill her in self-defense? I am a murderer, am I still a good guy? Has my basic nature changed? What if children are caught in the cross fire? No one had the intention to do harm, but does that change anything?
The good guy/bad guy mentality does not help us. It makes all of us less safe. Put another way, we, as a society, need the tools to protect ourselves not only from the bad guy with a gun but from the good guy with a gun too.
(See also my earlier post On Senseless Violence)