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A child can’t be a “good guy with a gun”

How a gun rights myth paved the way for nightmares like Uvalde.

A crying girl is comforted outside the Willie de Leon Civic Center in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, where earlier in the day an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary School.
Allison Dinner/AFP via Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

There is something about a mass shooting at an elementary school, about the slaughter of children like those in Uvalde, Texas, that clarifies the true nature of America’s gun politics.

Nearly 10 years ago, days after the massacre of young kids at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, National Rifle Association vice president Wayne LaPierre gave a defiant press conference where he vowed not to give an inch on gun control. To justify the NRA’s absolutism, LaPierre uttered a phrase that would become one of the defining phrases of the debate over guns.

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he said.

Of course, the children lying dead in Connecticut could not have taken up arms in their own defense. Nor could the kids who died in Texas. Instead, LaPierre was arguing for putting more guards in schools — a policy that has been repeatedly shown not to deter or prevent mass shootings.

Yet immediately after the Uvalde shooting, gun rights advocates like Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Fox host Jeanine Pirro repeated LaPierre’s proposal — although there actually were armed police outside the elementary school who engaged the shooter before his massacre.

There is something profoundly dangerous at work here. It is an ideology embedded in the very idea of gun rights as envisioned by people like LaPierre, Paxton, and Pirro: a vision that armed citizens, and not the state, represent the ultimate guarantors of freedom and civil peace.

This gun rights ideology has become embedded both in Republican politics and in the culture of American gun ownership: an all-consuming political identity that has broken American politics. The gun rights ideology represents a dark vision of society — essentially the abolition of collective security and a state monopoly on violence in favor of individuals acting as laws unto themselves.

For some, this works just fine; for many others, including those vulnerable people like children who cannot defend themselves, it can amount to a death sentence.

The gun rights ideology and its dangers

The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) is a US government-sponsored think tank that works to advise and assist war-torn countries in transitioning to peace. In a publication on how to arrive at a secure post-conflict environment, it highlights “legitimate state monopoly over the means of violence” as a “necessary condition.” If the government cannot bring armed individuals and groups to heel, and exercise control over violence, a return to civil conflict and anarchy becomes more and more likely.

This advice comes not only from extensive observation of post-conflict situations but also from our most fundamental theories about the purpose and nature of government. Part of what it means for a government to exist is to exercise a monopoly over legitimate violence: that is, the power to use law enforcement and the military as ultimate and widely accepted arbiters of social order. A state that doesn’t have this capacity does not actually control the territory it governs; whatever one’s views about the proper role and size of government, the state monopoly on violence is the starting point.

The gun rights ideology starts from the opposite view: that society is founded not on the state controlling violence, but rather on violent individuals controlling the state. On this view, government by its nature always poses a risk of devolving into tyranny. Citizens have an absolute right, if not an obligation, to arm themselves in order to defend against state overreach. The state can never have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force; the second it does, we run the risk of totalitarianism.

A supporter of President Donald Trump holds up a flag during a protest outside the Clark County Election Department in North Las Vegas, Nevada, in November 2020.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The gun rights ideology permeates American gun culture and, by extension, today’s Republican Party. Justice Antonin Scalia codified it in constitutional law in his 2008 opinion in DC vs. Heller, writing that one aim of the Second Amendment is “to assure the existence of a ‘citizens’ militia’ as a safeguard against tyranny.” During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump referenced it when he suggested that a President Hillary Clinton could legitimately be assassinated.

“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks ... although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is,” the future president mused at a rally in North Carolina.

The throughline between Scalia’s erudite opinion and Trump’s crass comment is the notion that people should be perpetually prepared to engage in armed rebellion: to rise up, as they did on January 6, but with firearms. This is not the same thing as the basic belief that an active citizenry should engage in collective protest against policies and governments they oppose. Instead, it is the idea that the survival of liberty depends on people being equipped to use violence against ever-creeping tyranny — a belief that’s rarely found among citizens of other advanced democracies.

The popularity of this notion goes a long way toward explaining why the US has such different gun policies than virtually every developed country: Believers in the gun rights ideology see nearly any gun control measure, no matter how anodyne, as a potential step down the road to serfdom.

Gun rights ideology makes the United States vulnerable in exactly the way the USIP has observed in post-conflict societies. When guns are everywhere, the people who own them become capable of enacting violence in the manner of their choosing.

It is easy for terrorists and mass shooters to slaughter at their discretion; the same goes for gang members and abusive spouses. The state cannot check them more or less by design. If the government could adequately restrict gun ownership, according to the gun rights ideology, then liberty would be insecure.

Instead, the gun rights ideologue argues, the responsibility for public safety falls in the hands of individuals: the “good guy with a gun.” If well-intentioned armed individuals are everywhere, then they can gun down evildoers in the act. Armed citizens supplement the police — and, in some life-and-death situations, replace them entirely.

The research on this theory is not promising. Concealed carry laws do not appear to significantly reduce homicides or other violent crimes; placing armed guards in schools does not protect them from mass shootings. In fact, one study found that schools with armed guards were more likely to have a higher death toll during a mass shooting.

What the omnipresence of firearms does instead is create a society governed by fear: a country where violence could break out at any time, forcing all of us to reshape our lives accordingly. Schools, which should be places of learning and play, become fortresses equipped with metal detectors. Students are forced to engage in scarring active shooter drills; posting armed guards in schools reinforces their fear and may inhibit learning.

Gun rights ideology requires that America double down on this fearful vision — even after an event like the Uvalde mass shooting proves its limits.

In an interview with Fox’s Tucker Carlson just hours after the shooting, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) said that “we have to harden these targets [schools] so no one can get in — ever — except through one entrance.” The notion that schools are “targets” that need to be “hardened” as if they are army bases only makes sense in a world where all society has been militarized — where widespread ownership of guns has thrown us into a conflictual state where public authorities have no real capacity to prevent mass slaughters.

Elementary school students do not fit well into this cosmology. Fourth-graders cannot wield weapons safely; there is no such thing as a “good child with a gun.” But this is the country that gun rights ideology has created: one where the murder of little children becomes the price we pay for their vision of freedom.

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