Last week, another man with another high-powered rifle opened fire on Americans with the intent to kill as many people as possible. Before being shot and killed by police, Kevin Janson Neal murdered his wife and riddled a grade school in rural Rancho Tehama Reserve with bullets, ultimately killing five people. In a busy news cycle, the shooting barely registered at the national level. This is our new reality.
But due in large part to the longstanding political apathy towards gun control legislation, a concerning phenomenon has emerged in the wake of the mass shooting epidemic: the myth of “the good guy with a gun.”
Our nation’s love of firearms, combined with our history of arrogance and hyper-masculinity, has produced a culture in which millions of (particularly younger) white men now believe they could, at any time, be the only thing standing between good and evil. A quick search on YouTube will provide countless videos of these would-be superheroes strolling down city streets with powerful rifles on display, begging for law enforcement to challenge their constitutional rights.
This is not simply an issue of Second Amendment rights, however. The world is a dangerous place, and these would-be crime stoppers claim that a good guy with a gun must be ready and willing to stop a bad guy with a gun. As evidence, they point to high-profile stories like the recent Texas shooting at First Baptist Church, in which a good Samaritan with a gun chased and ultimately wounded the shooter as he left the church. He did not prevent the massacre, but maybe he could have, if he had only gotten there earlier — at least, that’s what these people argue.
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The problem with this narrative (besides a lack of research or data suggesting more guns does indeed prevent violence broadly) is that killing another human being, even a “bad” one, is not easy. This is not “Call of Duty”: Despite the damage that modern weaponry can inflict, there is a reason that soldiers and law enforcement officers receive thousands of hours of training in firearms and tactics. This training is physical, mechanical and, most importantly, psychological, because in order to efficiently and effectively kill other human beings in high-stress situations, one must be conditioned to negotiate that stress.
I should know, because I went through it. As an U.S. Army infantryman, I spent thousands of hours, beginning in basic training and continuing throughout my service, becoming comfortable with killing and learning how to do so in a responsible manner. The psychological strength required to act quickly and effectively in a mass shooting comes from the kind of monotonous training that over several years builds up muscle memory. It is tedious and often boring, and that’s the point: it enables soldiers to respond in stressful situations as though it’s second nature.
The U.S. Army’s basic marksmanship training — just learning how to care for a rifle and shoot it — is three weeks long. That’s 18 full days (Sundays are usually semi-restful) spent getting comfortable with your rifle, learning how to dissemble and reassemble it, clean it, perform a functions check, correct malfunctions, load and unload it, conduct peer training with fellow privates, adjust its sights and, finally, how to actually aim and fire it.
The psychological strength required to act quickly and effectively in a mass shooting comes from monotonous training.
During this period, your rifle goes everywhere you go. Because the Army does not trust new privates enough to sleep with their rifles, you are issued a replica for evenings — affectionately called a “rubber ducky.” And so long as it is in your possession, that replica must also go everywhere you go, even if it’s in the middle of the night to use the restroom. This builds respect for the devastation a soldier can inflict with their weapon. They learn to honor those skills.
The Army also does not trust recruits while at the firing range. Once shooting and instruction have concluded for the day, “brass and ammo” checks are conducted: Every soldier lines up, strips off all their extraneous gear, literally turns out their pockets so the lining is displayed, takes off their covers, and must announce: “No brass, no ammo, Drill Sergeant!” They are then thoroughly searched, and god help the private who has not accounted for a spare round or bit of brass somewhere on their person. This ritual continues throughout your military career, and it is required of everyone, no matter their rank.
Nothing is left to chance. It is not taken on faith that a soldier, even one with years of experience, will conduct themselves appropriately. Every soldier, no matter how green, is considered an unofficial safety officer on the range. At any time, the youngest private, if concerned, can call out “Cease fire!” while waving their arms and all action will screech to a halt. This is gospel.
When I see a young man openly carrying a firearm in public, I can only think of how much could go wrong.
And this is just basic rifle marksmanship. In this phase, soldiers are stationary, either kneeling or laying in the prone. Moving around while firing at targets is a whole other ballgame and requires constant drilling that establishes strong muscle memory. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent going through monotonous exercises of intentionally falling on the ground with my weapon, getting back up, using a correct stance while in forward movement, and generally training my body to react with precision.
Yet, even in these controlled environments, with officers and sergeants who have ostensibly seen everything and typically exercise competent command of training operations, stupid mistakes still happen and people die. Even after all of this training, soldiers are still human beings who make mistakes.
When I see a young man openly carrying a firearm in public, whether to prove a political point or because he honestly believes at he could be called upon to stop an active shooter, I can only think of how much could go wrong. I do not see a “good guy with a gun”: I see a naive human who is more likely to exacerbate a tragedy than stop it. Is this person a civilian who has forgot to clear their weapon? Are they disciplined enough to avoid accidents? And if a mass shooting does occur, how do I know they will have the skills to take out the bad guy rather than, say, an innocent bystander?
I am a gun owner, a military veteran and a proud American. I believe in the essential right to bear arms, but with that right comes the obligation of responsible ownership. If a young man is brazen enough to brandish a powerful weapon just to attract attention, why would I trust they have the maturity to use it responsibly?
Charlotte Clymer is a transgender Army veteran and writer based in Washington, D.C.