Our Armed Savior: The Myth of a Hero With a Gun

Image courtesy Peter George GordonWhen I heard about the latest mass shooting, this time at the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard, two details stood out to me more than any other. First, the fact that the shooter, Aaron Alexis, is African American (and therefore rare in the history of such crimes). Second, the discovery that Alexis started with only a shotgun, but obtained a second gun to aid his rampage by killing a security guard on base. Why I cared about the first should be pretty obvious, but you may be wondering why that second detail stood out to me so much. It stood out because it instantly reminded me of a proposal made by one of our nations most infamous organizations, the NRA, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.

You may remember that when NRA president Wayne LaPierre eventually got around to holding a press conference regarding his organization’s stance on the Newtown, Connecticut shooting, he stunned the world. How? By boldly suggesting that teachers and other school staff should be armed at work. He also introduced us to the NRA’s new catchphrase; “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Man With Gun

Image courtesy: Daniel Weber

Can you imagine the myriad of ways that the presence of an armed teacher in a classroom full of kids can go horribly wrong? I can. And that’s just on an ordinary day… what happens when yet another school shooter shows up? What Alexis managed during his shooting spree demonstrates the horrifying possibilities; Picture if you will a school full of teachers packing heat. Realistically, how trained and comfortable with firearms can we expect them to be? It’s not hard to imagine a shooter in this school being able to easily take a few guns from inexperienced, scared and/or dead teachers.

How about this; let’s pretend for a second that somehow we managed to get the school full of armed teachers strapped and well trained in firearms use. History has shown that even well trained gun users sometimes cause more problems than they solve. Consider these recent incidents in New York City for example; In August of 2012, police officers got into a shootout with a gunman in front of the Empire State building and managed to shoot nine innocent bystanders. Then in September of this year, 2 police officers trying to stop a man who was “acting erratic” in Times Square managed to shoot 2 innocent bystanders, before finally taking the man down with a Taser (should I repeat that? They took him down with a TASER, not with guns).

As writer Nate Rawlings points out in Time Magazine; “data show[s] what any police officer who has ever been involved in a shooting can tell you–firing accurately in a stressful situation is extremely hard.” Rawlings then goes on to share this statistic;

“…between 1998 and 2006, the average hit rate during gunfights was just 18 percent. When suspects did not return fire, police officers hit their targets 30 percent of the time.”

NYPD Officers standing around

Image courtesy: Saint Huck

So if the NYPD, who have as Rawlings puts it; “some of the most comprehensive and sophisticated firearms training of any police force in the country” can only hit “bad guys with guns” 18-30% of the time, how accurate do you think a school full of strapped teachers, nurses, career counselors, principals and janitors will be? We haven’t even discussed the hundreds of times trained police officers have accidentally (i.e. purposefully) shot an unarmed (black) person yet. Would teachers, who can sadly sometimes be just as racist and biased as some police officers are, be any different? I shudder at the thought of an NRA approved, gun toting teacher one day reaching for an eraser only to “accidentally” pull their gun instead and shoot a disruptive kid in the back “oopsie!”

The reality is, despite the 18-30% hit rate during shootouts, there’s a reason we always want teams of trained cops responding to active shooters; because the “good guy with a gun” taking down the “bad guy with a gun” scenario is pretty much just a myth. It rarely happens that way. Further proof of this comes from the 1999 Columbine High School shootings. Columbine High had a full-time uniformed and armed Sheriff’s Deputy on staff. Five minutes after the shootings started, the Deputy managed to engage the shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in a gunfight, but he was unable to hit either of them. Harris and Klebold then continued their shooting spree in the school for another 30+ minutes before finally committing suicide.

So, despite real world evidence that tells us otherwise, how is it possible that a nutty suggestion like arming teachers can be made and taken seriously? Because of the existence of one of our nation’s most enduring and timeless myths… that of the hero with a gun, or what I like to call the myth of the Armed Savior.

You know the story, you’ve probably read it or seen it in thousands of books and movies by now; “In a world gone crazy, one man, a hero with a gun, will fight for peace/love/vengeance… whatever” or some variation on that theme. We see it in our books and movies (and books turned into movies) like Lone Ranger, the Die Hard series, the Bond movies, and the Jason Bourne series to name a few. We see it in our video games as well, as game series like Halo, Half Life, BioShock, Far Cry, etc are all built on the same basic Armed Savior plot line. 9.5 times out of 10 the Armed Savior is male and this man fights mostly alone for truth, justice and the American way (except for James Bond, who fights On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). This archetype dates back to the American obsession with the rugged individualist and the belief that real men can do it all alone. Today, it permeates many aspects of American culture from politics to our media representations of masculinity.

Year after year, the vast majority of action movies revolve around this basic plot and all our action heroes fit the same mold. Careers have been built on the ability to fit this archetype. From our earliest film heroes, to men like John Wayne who passed the torch on to the men I grew up watching; Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Wesley Snipes (basically the entire cast of “The Expendables 1, 2 & soon to be released 3) to more modern actors like Jason Statham, Vin Diesel, Matt Damon, Russell Crowe, Mark Wahlberg, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. These actors and the movies they appear in sell us the myth of the Armed Savior, over and over again.

Die Hard Movie PosterAs far as archetypes go it’s a powerful and strangely compelling one, especially for men. Men are taught that we can do it alone. Men are also taught to be protectors, so we all want to believe that given the right circumstances we’d step up to the plate and save humanity, or our homes, or our families. Add to this America’s love of a good underdog story. We love tales of David vs. Terrorist Goliath, of manning up when it counts and fulfilling our masculine destinies.

These concepts excite us as we sit safe and sound on our comfy couches, but sadly when it comes to gun violence, things rarely (if ever) work out like they do in the movies. We may dream of some John McClane saving an entire 40 story apartment complex in LA from international terrorists, but in the real world we get something entirely different. In the real world we get George Zimmerman instead; A self-styled Armed Savior with dreams of protecting his gated Florida apartment complex from the terror of a black teenager armed with nothing more than a bag of skittles and a bottle of Iced Tea. Hmmm… now that I think about it, maybe this is exactly the type of thing that Wayne LaPierre wants to see happen?

I’m sorry to say but we may need to ban Mr. LaPierre and all who bought his crazy idea from watching any more movies. Their belief that average men can superhero up and magically protect us all from “the bad guys” is a testosterone fueled dream enhanced by too many bad movies. In the real world, those who fancy themselves to be our Armed Saviors are more often than not, dangerous. They’re far more likely to shoot innocent bystanders, or to have their guns taken from them and used to kill more innocents, or they may in the end turn out to be the real bad guys with guns that the rest of us get stuck hiding from. I’ve never been around a mass shooting and I hope that I never will, but based on the data available, I’ll take my chances with the trained professionals over a building filled with gun toting teachers and working stiffs any day.

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