How the 'good guy with a gun' became a deadly American fantasy

How the 'good guy with a gun' became a deadly American fantasy
A drawing of Philip Marlowe, an icon of hard-boiled detective fiction created by author Raymond Chandler. Credit: CHRISTO DRUMMKOPF/flickr, CC BY

At the end of May, it happened again. A mass shooter killed 12 people, this time at a municipal center in Virginia Beach. Employees had been forbidden to carry guns at work, and some lamented that this policy had prevented "good guys" from taking out the shooter.

This trope—the good guy with a gun—has become commonplace among gun rights activists.

Where did it come from?

On Dec. 21, 2012—one week after Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut—National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre announced during a press conference that "the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

Ever since then, in response to each , pro-gun pundits, politicians and social media users parrot some version of the slogan, followed by calls to arm the teachers, arm the churchgoers or arm the office workers. And whenever an armed citizen takes out a criminal, conservative media outlets pounce on the story.

But "the good guy with the gun" archetype dates to long before LaPierre's 2012 press conference.

There's a reason his words resonated so deeply. He had tapped into a uniquely American archetype, one whose origins I trace back to American pulp crime fiction in my book "Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Decline of Moral Authority."

Other cultures have their detective fiction. But it was specifically in America that the "good guy with a gun" became a heroic figure and a cultural fantasy.

'When I fire, there ain't no guessing'

Beginning in the 1920s, a certain type of protagonist started appearing in American crime fiction. He often wore a trench coat and smoked cigarettes. He didn't talk much. He was honorable, individualistic—and armed.

These characters were dubbed "hard-boiled," a term that originated in the late 19th century to describe "hard, shrewd, keen men who neither asked nor expected sympathy nor gave any, who could not be imposed upon." The word didn't describe someone who was simply tough; it communicated a persona, an attitude, an entire way of being.

Most scholars credit Carroll John Daly with writing the first hard-boiled detective story. Titled "Three Gun Terry," it was published in Black Mask magazine in May 1923.

"Show me the man," the protagonist, Terry Mack, announces, "and if he's drawing on me and is a man what really needs a good killing, why, I'm the boy to do it."

Terry also lets the reader know that he's a sure shot: "When I fire, there ain't no guessing contest as to where the bullet is going."

From the start, the gun was a crucial accessory. Since the detective only shot at bad guys and because he never missed, there was nothing to fear.

Part of the popularity of this character type had to do with the times. In an era of Prohibition, organized crime, government corruption and rising populism, the public was drawn to the idea of a well-armed, well-meaning maverick—someone who could heroically come to the defense of regular people. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, stories that featured these characters became wildly popular.

Taking the baton from Daly, authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler became titans of the genre.

Their stories' plots differed, but their protagonists were mostly the same: tough-talking, straight-shooting private detectives.

In an early Hammett story, the detective shoots a gun out of a man's hand and then quips he's a "fair shot—no more, no less."

In a 1945 article, Raymond Chandler attempted to define this type of protagonist: "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. … He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it."

As movies became more popular, the archetype bled into the silver screen. Humphrey Bogart played Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe to great acclaim.

By the end of the 20th century, the fearless, gun-toting good guy had become a cultural hero. He had appeared on magazine covers, movie posters, in television credits and in video games.

Selling a fantasy

Gun rights enthusiasts have embraced the idea of the "good guy" as a model to emulate—a character role that just needed real people to step in and play it. The NRA store even sells T-shirts with LaPierre's slogan, and encourages buyers to "show everyone that you're the 'good guy'" by buying the T-shirt.

The problem with this archetype is that it's just that: an archetype. A fictional fantasy.

In pulp fiction, the detectives never miss. Their timing is precise and their motives are irreproachable. They never accidentally shoot themselves or an innocent bystander. Rarely are they mentally unstable or blinded by rage. When they clash with the police, it's often because they're doing the police's job better than the police can.

Another aspect of the fantasy involves looking the part. The "good guy with a gun" isn't just any guy—it's a white one.

In "Three Gun Terry," the detective apprehends the villain, Manual Sparo, with some tough words: "'Speak English,' I says. I'm none too gentle because it won't do him any good now."

In Daly's "Snarl of the Beast," the protagonist, Race Williams, takes on a grunting, monstrous immigrant villain.

Could this explain why, in 2018, when a black man with a gun tried to stop a shooting in a mall in Alabama—and the police shot and killed him – the NRA, usually eager to champion good guys with guns, didn't comment?

A reality check

Most gun enthusiasts don't measure up to the fictional ideal of the steady, righteous and sure shot.

In fact, research has shown that gun-toting independence unleashes much more chaos and carnage than heroism. A 2017 National Bureau of Economic Research study revealed that right-to-carry laws increase, rather than decrease, violent crime. Higher rates of gun ownership is correlated with higher homicide rates. Gun possession is correlated with increased road rage.

There have been times when a civilian with a gun successfully intervened in a shooting, but these instances are rare. Those who carry guns often have their own guns used against them. And a civilian with a gun is more likely to be killed than to kill an attacker.

Even in instances where a person is paid to stand guard with a gun, there's no guarantee that he'll fulfill this duty.

Hard-boiled novels have sold in the hundreds of millions. The movies and television shows they inspired have reached millions more.

What started as entertainment has turned into a durable American fantasy.

Maintaining it has become a deadly American obsession.


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Jun 07, 2019
In the first place the article writer is partially responsible. He says "A mass shooter killed 12 people" what he should have said was "A mass shooter MURDERED 12 people".
The pen is mightier than the sword but only when used right.

The writer of this article furthermore thinks the police are there to protect him from violence. Wrong, the police are there to try to see he gets justice. They take about 10 minutes to arrive once called, depending on their proximity to the crime.

His 2nd best hope next to the police being right there is a armed citizen willing to put it all on the line to protect him. There is little difference between bad mouthing a cop that is willing to put his life on the line for him or bad mouthing a armed citizen that is willing to do the same.

Now don't get me wrong, I wish there were no predators so carrying a gun was unnecessary anywhere. But that is not real life, except for a rich writer or one with his head buried in the sand.

mqr
Jun 07, 2019
American people elevate their goverment to the level religions. They are strongly educated to not critize the government, or the wealthy (same thing). Obedience has become a strong American value because the rich want the country to blindly obey their insanity. It is like as if Caligula could manipulate the minds of the Romans, a feat that he thought as impossible on his time. Nowadays we had learned to manipulate the human mind, to program it, so people can be forced to have absurd ideas and behave in contradictory ways.

The USA does not educate its people on philosophy or literature for a reason: to manipulate them better, George Orwell noticed that an education based on science and technology would allow craziness, because history and literature teach about human nature, about how perverse human beings can be, about the tendency of humans to self destroy, to dig into vices, etc.

Since the manipulation is presented as entertainment, "fun" is sacred in the USA.

Jun 07, 2019
American people elevate their government to the level religions. .

Forgive me for correcting your spelling in the above quote.
What you are ether forgetting, don't know or are ignoring is the fact that the American people live better than 93% of the rest of the people of the world. Why are you complaining? With that statistic alone, I can surmise our government both past and present is doing a whole lot right. Only a idiot rocks the boat and tips it over when everything is going so well for us and our children.

Jun 07, 2019
A few months ago there was a good guy with a gun that tried to stop a shooter at a mall. The cops arrived and shot the good guy dead.

Jun 08, 2019
The USA does not educate its people on philosophy or literature for a reason: to manipulate them better, George Orwell noticed that an education based on science and technology would allow craziness, because history and literature teach about human nature, about how perverse human beings can be, about the tendency of humans to self destroy, to dig into vices, etc.
Excuse me? I got education in philosophy and literature. I got more in science, but the liberal arts were not neglected. Your vision of Amurca appears to be a hallucination.

There isn't anyone here censoring philosophy (though there are many ridiculing it since the Sokal Affair) or literature. Would you care to re-examine your prejudices now?

Jun 08, 2019
And BTW I have practiced with everything from a Colt Navy .45 I had to lubricate with Vaseline to prevent barrel erosion to a .38 Police Positive to a Glock to a HK to a 20mm autocannon. So don't try to tell me about weapons. Because you don't know jack shit.

What I've never done is kill a person. Nor ever will.

I think I could kill someone who was trying to kill me. But I don't know and hope I never find out.

Jun 08, 2019
A few months ago there was a good guy with a gun that tried to stop a shooter at a mall. The cops arrived and shot the good guy dead.


And? I had rather die with my boots on to. :-)

Jun 08, 2019
So you'd like to be shot by friendlies? Noted.

Jun 08, 2019
WTF is Susanna Lee and why should I/we attend to her drivel?

Read economist Dr. John R. Lott, Jr., his books epitomized by More Guns, Less Crime, or his website Crime Prevention Research Center.

Jun 08, 2019
This overlooks another source in literature: the cowboy. Stories of cowboys bring "justice" to the American west also influence this image.

Jun 08, 2019
There is a side of this that is not mention here or anywhere else. I find that a person or animal is the sum total of all its parts. If for example you made John Doe more empathetic, it would perhaps make him less ambitious. Which would perhaps mean he does not discover the cure for cancer. Change any one thing about a person or his culture, and many things will change about that person or culture as a consequence.

We are a culture of guns. It is perhaps buried as deep in us as anything else. If we took our guns away, we might not be the country that defends the free world anymore. Not because we don't have guns but because we become less aggressive becoming mentally more like timed sheep as a culture.

Jun 08, 2019
Cop was there in Florida too, da Cowardly Guard of Broward! Dis' bad guy wid' a gat hid behind a crapcan while his students were being murdered. If only ONE teacher or janitor/VietNam Vet had a gun there, that bum would have been history by his second shot and the toll would have been MUCH lower! Florida is FULL of vets. WHY do the authorities hire wimps instead of VETs. Dashielle Hammet was right! I lived in Florida, in Polk County! Grad from Lake Wales High School in the sixties. Those folks that mad-dog-insane fool MURDERED were MY people. How DARE pacifists from outside come in to MY old state and tell us we are forced to be fish in a barrel for nutjobs on the base of crackpot theories about the fallen idol of 'gun control'. Notice all announced Democratic candidates but Biden are also drinking from this foolish cup. As a Democrat from the old days, I say my party should git rid of gun grabbing or be themselves gotten rid of in future elections

Jun 08, 2019
So much irrational fear of a tool, blame the inanimate object and not the tool user. Mental health is the root issue, and the lunatic society that creates these mental deviants doesn't want to admit the truth.

Jun 08, 2019
Good idea, can'tdrive85. How much do you want to increase your taxes to give comprehensive mental health to every American? Will you vote for someone who promises to reinstate involuntary commitment?

Jun 08, 2019
Good idea, can'tdrive85. How much do you want to increase your taxes to give comprehensive mental health to every American? Will you vote for someone who promises to reinstate involuntary commitment?

So ban tools because it's cheaper than solving the problem. More lunatic society in the name of money.

BTW, you can drop the apostrophe in cantdrive. The use of cant isn't short for cannot, it's the other definition.

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