American Gun Owners Are Bad at Owning Guns

Gun Rights

Around 6 p.m. on July 17 of this past year, a shooter exited the bathroom of an Indiana mall wielding an AR-15-style rifle. He opened fire, instantly killing a man walking by the restrooms as well as a couple seated at a nearby food court. Moments later, he lay dead on the floor of that same mall bathroom.

A 22-year-old bystander named Elisjsha Dicken, legally carrying a Glock pistol while on a date with his girlfriend, had sprung into action. Firing 10 rounds at a distance of 40 yards, Dicken struck the shooter eight times, ending the mass shooting only 15 seconds after it began. His actions were nothing short of remarkable: To draw and fire his weapon in less than a quarter of a minute, with a high degree of accuracy, at a moment of abject panic and terror, exhibited uncommon nerve, presence of mind, and skill. To do all that from 40 yards away—nearly twice the distance of most police pistol qualifying tests—is simply astounding.

In the aftermath, Indiana law enforcement, conservative media, and the NRA rushed to celebrate their local hero, who reportedly had no prior police or military training. He was rightly praised for his courageous actions, lauded as the perfect example of a “good guy with a gun.”

The problem, of course, is that most gun owners are not Mr. Dicken.

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Over the last week, the country saw a series of grotesque shootings as a trio of trigger-happy gun owners—reacting out of panic, vitriol, racist paranoia, or a combination of the three—fired on innocents who simply got in the wrong car, showed up at the wrong doorstep, or pulled down the wrong driveway. On April 13, 84-year-old Andrew Lester shot in the head and nearly killed Ralph Yarl—a Black teen who was on a mission to pick up his siblings and walked up to Lester’s house in error. Two days later, on April 15, a 20-year-old woman named Kaylin Gillis was shot and killed in upstate New York after the car she was in pulled down the wrong driveway in search of a party. And on April 18, a pair of Texas cheerleaders were shot in a grocery store parking lot after they accidentally tried to get in a stranger’s vehicle.

Not surprisingly, the media has seized on these three tightly clustered events and ignited a new round of arguments around America’s lax gun laws. Yet, despite their superficial similarities and close proximity in time, there is only so much to be gleaned by lumping these incidents together. Andrew Lester was, as his own grandson has admitted, a racist shitbird who reacted from a noxious mix of fear and bigotry. Kevin Monahan—Gillis’ killer—was an infamous local malcontent who has reportedly shown zero remorse for the slaying. Pedro Rodriguez, the architect of the third incident, was apparently sleeping like a baby when the police arrived at his home to take him away. In other words, these cases have little in common except that the shooters were dirtbags. Yet, if there is a lesson that should be drawn from this trio of tragedies, it is this: The average gun owner is bad at guns, and knowing when to use them.

I realize this sounds flippant when we are talking about incidents that led to the deaths or maimings of innocents, but I also think it is important to talk about whether there is any hope of breaking this country’s current stalemate around gun control. The NRA-approved talking points that dominate right-wing gun discourse are centered around the rhetorical “good guy with a gun”—the concealed-carrying bystander, like Elisjsha Dicken, who stands ready at a moment’s notice to waste wastrels.

The trouble is, the good guy with a gun is a myth—not simply because gun owners rarely have the chance to intervene in violent crimes, and those who do can be mistakenly killed by the cops. No, the good guy with a gun is a myth because the average gun owner is not Rambo. They are not James Bond or Joe Cool—they are Joe Schmoe. That is, gun owners are frequently incompetent—bad shots with bad nerves who are more likely to shit their pants and spray bullets than they are to swoop in and save the day. And why would we expect otherwise? The majority of states require no formal safety or marksman training to purchase a gun or even carry it concealed. The average gun owner is scarcely more prepared to engage in an impromptu firefight than any randomly selected dude from the phone book. I say this not as some anti-gun crusader, but as a gun owner.

Although it often surprises friends and colleagues—given that I’m a Trump-hating, tree-hugging, pinko commie college professor—I’ve been around guns and owned guns (both the hunting kind and the self-defense kind) for as long as I can remember. My father is a cop and combat veteran, and I grew up in a family of hunters. I was exposed to guns, and taught to treat them with respect, from a young age. My first job, which I started as a freshman in high school, was working at a local gun club and rifle range. And it’s this job that first opened my eyes to the importance of what has come to be called common-sense gun reform.

Most non-gun-owning Americans tend to imagine that the average gun owner is a “gun nut”: the stereotypical macho He-Man who keeps an armory in his house, is seemingly always cleaning a rifle or pistol, and reads nothing but Guns & Ammo. And while this caricature might fairly describe some portion of the gun-owning population, in my experience this is far from the average.

To be clear, during my years working at the gun club, I was often astounded by the knowledge—and kindness and generosity—of many of the members and customers, some of whom would rightly be described as “gun nuts.” I was a liberal brown teenager in a sea of white, mostly conservative firearms enthusiasts in central “Pennsyltucky,” and—despite what some might assume—I was always made to feel right at home. Customers and co-workers took me under their wing and were constantly eager to pass on their expertise and show me the ropes. When I eventually expressed an interest in shooting sporting clays competitively, a club member sold me an extraordinarily pricey tournament-grade shotgun for pennies on the dollar—he knew I wouldn’t be able to afford it otherwise, and he wanted to see more young people in the sport. I mention all this to say that I do not wish to deny that there are many, many compassionate, responsible people in this country—including those who concealed-carry and/or own military-style rifles—who are safe, thoughtful, and pragmatic gun owners.

Yet, these early experiences at the club also impressed upon me that there is a substantial contingent of gun owners who do not meet this description. Contrary to media narratives, many gun owners are not gun-obsessed, but gun-casual. As someone who was raised to take guns seriously—deadly seriously, as they should be—I was shocked by how cavalier (and, again, incompetent) a lot of gun owners I encountered were. Some were the kind of guys who concealed-carried every day but only made it to the range once or twice a year. They couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn from 10 paces—the idea that they were capable of defending their “castle” from anything was laughable. Others were well-meaning new gun owners who had zero clue how to transport, load, discharge, or unload a firearm. They simply bought a gun and ammunition and showed up at the range or clay pigeon course to figure it out. I watched one of these bumbling neophytes nearly Dick Cheney his buddy one sweaty summer afternoon, sending a spray of birdshot into a birch tree 10 feet above his head.

Indeed, as I’ve grown older, I’ve often been struck by the number of friends, acquaintances, and co-workers who claim they own guns “for protection” and yet—when I ask if they shoot much, or have taken any live-fire courses that involve actually discharging a weapon—blithely report that they don’t shoot at all. A few years back, during the start of COVID, a friend called to ask my advice for buying a pistol to carry concealed—he was worried about the rise of anti-Asian violence and wanted to be able to defend himself. I told him the first step would be to take a course and to see if there was a range nearby where he could practice regularly. At this, he seemed puzzled. “Oh, I don’t want to take it shooting or anything,” he said. “I just want to have it if I need it.” While this attitude might sound absurd, in my experience it’s closer to the rule than the exception.

As of this moment, only eight states in the country require firearm safety training in order to purchase a firearm or obtain a concealed carry permit. A full majority of states—including the one I live in—now allow permitless concealed carry. That is, anyone of legal age can buy a gun and carry it concealed in public, with no special licensing requirements and no previous live-fire or safety training. Paradoxically, if the liberal image of the “gun nut” actually held true, permitless concealed carry might not be as terrifying, because at least we might assume that most of these aspiring John Wicks know their way around a pistol. As it happens, though, the data doesn’t bear this out.

Nearly 40 percent of gun owners report having no prior gun safety or live-fire training. The glass-half-fullers among you might say this sounds pretty good—60 percent ain’t bad and is maybe better than you thought! Now consider how you would feel if only 60 percent of motor vehicle operators had formal driver’s safety training. Would you feel good about a cross-country trip where half the states you’d travel through would have no driver’s license requirements?

The fact of the matter is that the overwhelming bulk of Americans—over 80 percent, including gun owners like myself—support more stringent training requirements for people who wish to carry firearms in public or buy the kind of guns that are designed for self-defense. Police-style training that incorporates stress—so panicked gun-owners don’t unload on innocents when they hear a bump in the night—seems especially crucial. These are not controversial policies; they have bipartisan support. And it does not unacceptably infringe on someone’s right to bear arms to insist that they demonstrate a basic degree of competence in exchange for that privilege.

Would any of this week’s shooting tragedies have been prevented had the shooters been required to take some classes before purchasing their pistols, or been subject to tests that may have weeded them out? Maybe, or maybe not. I certainly don’t think safety training would have made Andrew Lester any less likely to see a 5’8” Black boy as a towering menace threatening his life. But in a certain sense, that’s also beside the point. Gun training isn’t about de-bigoting racist assholes—it’s about making gun owners less likely to react with sheer panic when they perceive a threat (real or racistly imagined) to their safety.

Gun discourse in this country is frustrating because it is so polarized and also often irrational, on both sides of the aisle. In contrast to the far-right fringe, I don’t think guns make us safer on the aggregate—there’s good data to show that they do more harm than good and that the average citizen is vastly more likely to die by their own hand or by a gun in their home than they are to blow away a bad guy. That is to say, I don’t think most Republican pro-gun arguments hold much water.

On the other hand, as a gun owner, I often get impatient with my own progressive political camp whose outrage on guns is highly selective, media-driven, and far too focused on mass shooting events that are ultimately vanishingly rare but that disproportionately impact middle- and upper-class white people. (Your child is quite literally 1,000 percent more likely to die in your neighbor’s pool than during a school shooting, yet liberal parents do not tend to quiver in fear when they drop their kid off to swim at the neighbor’s house.)

In this charged political environment, it remains all the more essential to work to pass the kind of gun control policies we all can agree on. And most of us concur: If you need a license and safety training to drive a car, you sure as fuck should need it to carry a gun in public.

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