A Good Guy with a Gun?

Refuting a common argument

Posted Apr 03, 2018

Benedict Benedict, CCL
Source: Benedict Benedict, CCL

The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

According to National Rifle Association executive Wayne LaPierre, if we want to stop mass shootings and other gun crimes, we don’t need any more restrictive gun laws. Rather, the only thing that will successfully stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. There are certainly cases in which bad guys with guns have been stopped by good people with guns.[1]

In many of these cases, police officers are able to stop the offenders. But the point of LaPierre and others who make the above claim is that regular citizens should be armed, in order to stop bad guys with guns. For example, in 2007 a gunman killed 2 people and injured 3 more at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs before former police officer Jeanne Assam, who was a volunteer security officer at the church, confronted and killed him. In 2010, 69 year-old Ethel Jones wounded a burglar at her Alabama home with a handgun. In 2012, Sarah McKinley, a young mother who had recently lost her husband to cancer, shot and killed an intruder who was armed with a knife. The other fled. In 2013 another person opened fire at a middle school in Atlanta. An armed security guard was able to disarm the shooter. Only one student was wounded, and none were killed.

But the claim that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun is clearly and demonstrably false. It can be refuted by a counterexample in which a bad guy with a gun was stopped by a good woman with a Bible, a Christian book, and the virtues of faith, hope, and love.

On March 11, 2005, Brian Nichols was being taken to court in Atlanta on charges of rape.[2] He was able to get a court deputy’s gun, and then shot and killed the judge, a court reporter, and another deputy as he fled. He also killed a federal agent. Nichols took refuge in the apartment of Ashley Smith, holding her at gunpoint. She recognized him as the subject of the manhunt, and cooperated with him. They began to talk about God and family, and she shared from a passage in Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life that described the value of serving God and others. Eventually, Nichols agreed to let Smith leave to pick up her daughter. From her car, Smith called 911. Police surrounded the apartment and Nichols surrendered. Smith believes that during their conversation, Nichols began to want to follow God’s will for his life, which ultimately led him to release her.

So it is false that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Moreover, such a view of human nature is too optimistic. Even the best of us are flawed. At times, the presence of a gun can exacerbate our flaws. Consider the highly-publicized case of George Zimmerman, who was put on trial for shooting and killing teenager Trayvon Martin.[3] John Donohue, who is a professor of law and Stanford University and a co-author of a National Bureau of Economic Research study on gun violence and concealed carry laws, is skeptical of the good guy with a gun claim. He points out that possessing a gun likely encouraged Zimmerman to confront Martin. In many cases, according to this report, the “good guys” are encouraged to be more aggressive because they are armed. The result is that people die who otherwise would not. According to Donohue, “It’s not very often that somebody with a gun who’s a private citizen plays a useful role in ending…mass shooting events.”

Others are concerned about the lack of training that can undermine many good guys with guns from being effective. Former agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms David Chipman contends that armed civilians often lack the training that is needed to effectively use a gun when bullets are coming at them. He believes that the good guy with a gun slogan is more about encouraging gun sales, based on an unrealistic optimism people have concerning their ability to win a gun battle.

LaPierre and others who make this claim apparently assume that it is not possible to prevent bad guys from obtaining guns in the first place. No law will be foolproof, but that doesn’t mean that more restrictive gun laws would be useless. If such laws would reduce the amount of gun violence in the United States, then that is a very good reason to put such laws in place.


[1] “11 Times a Good Guy with a Gun Stopped a Bad Guy, Saving Lives - Photos - Washington Times,” accessed April 3, 2018, https://www.washingtontimes.com/multimedia/collection/good-guy-gun-stopped-bad-guy-gun/. [2] “Hostage Reads ‘Purpose-Driven Life’ to Alleged Atlanta Killer,” Baptist Press, accessed April 2, 2018, http://www.bpnews.net/20340/hostage-reads-purposedriven-life-to-alleged-atlanta-killer. [3] A. B. C. News, “Reports Cast Doubt on ‘good Guy with a Gun’ Theory in Mass Shootings,” ABC News, February 28, 2018, http://abcnews.go.com/US/breaking-nra-backed-theory-good-guy-gun-stops/story?id=53360480.

Photo: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/