Ask The Strategic Genius: Good Guys With Guns


In both the Pittsburgh shooting and the Thousand Oaks shooting, there were “good guys with guns” who tried to stop the shooter and wound up getting shot, themselves.

And then there was the Nashville Waffle House shooting, in which an unarmed customer rushed the shooter and took their gun away.

The strategic genius concludes that having a good strategy is better than having a gun.*

Of course, real experiences are always different. That observation alone ought to silence those who say “good guys with guns” are what you need to stop a mass shooter. But “depending on the situation a good guy with a gun may be a way to stop a mass shooter” just hasn’t got the same assertive ring to it.

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* sometimes “good strategy” means “have a gun” – so that covers all the bases.

Comments

  1. komarov says

    As awful as it sounds, the way gun control is going in the US – i.e. not at all – had me wondering briefly if a deterrence approach could “work”, if you can call it that. I was considering a rather grim dystopian world involving explosive collars and dead man’s switches to kill whoever killed you*. It hadn’t ocurred to me that the whole “good guy with a gun thing” already is the deterrence approach. Essentially you’re betting on not being shot by the angry idiot based on the assumption that he doesn’t want to be shot by the person next to you.
    Unsuprisingly it’s not working. Either, being angry, your attacker hasn’t thought things through or he has and you still lose. An armed society is not a polite society. And however else you dress it up, a MAD society is not very nice either.

    *Slightly more interesting if you turn it around: Your collar goes when you harm someone. If nothing else it would do wonders for the US police force. (And politicians depending on how you define “harm”)

  2. brucegee1962 says

    An armed society is not a polite society.

    Read Beowulf. Read about the Renaissance, when every guy had a sword at his waist all the time. Watch any Western.

    The saying is quite accurate — people are very polite in all those settings. Right up to the moment they pull out their weapons and kill each other.

    Armed societies aren’t peaceful, and your chances of meeting a violent death before you’re thirty are extremely high. But if you politeness is really more important to you than not getting shot or stabbed, then yeah, I suppose an armed society can get you that.

  3. says

    Instead of taking guns away from people or putting armed guards in synagogues and bars, why not have a world where synagogues and bars don’t get shot up?

  4. says

    brucegee1962 @#2

    But if you politeness is really more important to you than not getting shot or stabbed, then yeah, I suppose an armed society can get you that.

    Not exactly. Historically, people might have been polite towards somebody who looked dangerous, for example a young and fit looking man with a rapier (or alternatively a rich man with guards who had rapiers). Nobody was particularly polite towards unarmed peasants, weak looking people, children, etc.

  5. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#4:
    Historically, people might have been polite towards somebody who looked dangerous, for example a young and fit looking man with a rapier (or alternatively a rich man with guards who had rapiers). Nobody was particularly polite towards unarmed peasants, weak looking people, children, etc.

    Ieva wins the thread.

    Robert Heinlein famously said armed societies are polite societies, but he was a militarist old white guy, so his view of history was from the standpoint of the winning side of hundreds of years of oppression. In fact, armed societies were polite because the lower classes risked being killed with impunity at practically any time – the societies were mostly armed to keep the peasants in line, actual armed encounters between the elites were relatively rare (which is why gunslinger duel stories are noteworthy)

    My favorite comebacks when someone quotes Heinlein’s dictum are:
    “Yes, in the American South the society was armed to prevent slave insurrections and occasionally so that drunken southern elites could prune their gene pool. Carrying weapons ratified status and social oppression – not courtesy.”
    (pause)
    “Besides, the ‘old west’ was hardly polite.”

    Also:
    “In feudal Japan, it was an armed society. It was also rigidly stratified and the sword-carrying samurai mostly existed to keep the peasants in line and to preserve the privileges and power of their elite lords. Samurai didn’t do it often but they occasionally tested their swords on random peasants. But I’m sure they were polite about it.”

  6. says

    brucegee1962@#2:
    Read about the Renaissance, when every guy had a sword at his waist all the time. Watch any Western.

    Yeah, but in crusader times everyone was super polite.
    And everyone was real polite around Genghis Khan. There was always a huge outbreak of courtesy when the great Khan showed up.

    “This is Sparta, Sir! Do you need directions to the bottom of a well?”

  7. says

    komarov@#1:
    Either, being angry, your attacker hasn’t thought things through or he has and you still lose.

    I love when these “strategic genius” threads pull all of the strategic geniuses who read my blog into the limelight.
    You are, of course, completely correct. I’d rephrase it as that when you have to depend on a “good guy with a gun” you have already ceded the initiative to the “bad guy with a gun” which means they have choice of time, place, method, and even force structure. No strategic genius would depend on a “good guy with a gun” unless they did like US presidents do and have a scouting team out a day beforehand to set up the comms, check the lines of fire, and position snipers and gunshot detecting alert systems, so that the guy in the heavily armored limo surrounded by heavily armed “good guys with guns” has a decent chance of making it alive. That’s a strategy called “overwhelming force” and it’s been popular for a long time because it works really well.

  8. says

    a MAD society is not very nice either.

    There was that rather odd character in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash – the guy with the nuclear weapon in the sidecar of his motorcycle, rigged to go off when his heart stopped. Everyone was real nice around him.

    That’d probably be the only way to get courtesy out of NYPD or LAPD. Other than being rich and white, I mean.

  9. says

    Robert Heinlein famously said armed societies are polite societies

    Does anybody seriously believe it? It’s not like there’s evidence to support this claim.

    Let’s look at various modern societies, for example, Americans are much more heavily armed than, say, Germans. Are Americans more polite than Germans? I really doubt this. Just look at the current US president. He is pretty much the most impolite and rude leader of any country out there. He cannot even shake another person’s hand without being rude about it.

    Alternatively, let’s look at historical examples. People might have acted politely in movies and literature portraying aristocrats. Same goes for all those depictions of adventurers with swords/guns/knives strapped to their waists. But this is just a minor subset of history. What about all the slaves, serfs, and starving peasants? Did anybody behave politely there? If people learn about history by watching Westerns or reading novels that portray European aristocrats, they are bound to see a very biased picture. Fictional media rarely portray the desperate and abused as protagonists. Most movies and novels portraying historical settings focus on aristocrats or at least protagonists whose lives aren’t outright awful. Even if there’s a slave protagonist, then he’s probably trying to escape or revolt. Back when I was a child, I enjoyed reading novels with historical settings. And, yes, protagonists often were polite there. Then I stumbled upon a novel with several European serfs as the protagonists. The novel started with all of them being locked up in the basement belonging to a lord, because each one of them had done something that annoyed the lord. During the course of the novel they talked to each other and told their life story. The novel was incredibly depressing. It ended with part of the serfs being executed. The few who survived returned home to keep on living their miserable existence, but there was clearly no hope for them either. There wasn’t even a glimmer of politeness anywhere in the novel. That was probably one of the most depressing books I have ever read, it was the exact opposite of a bestseller, because people don’t want to buy depressing books. That was when I finally realized that the way how people depict history is biased and inaccurate. And it’s not just movies and literature with protagonists who are at least somewhat well off and respected by their peers. Also history books do the same. I remember learning about the life of Louis XIV of France from my school history textbooks. I learned about his court and the royal life. Yet for some reason my history book hardly mentioned all those starving peasants who supported this king, I didn’t learn much about their miserable lives devoid of any politeness.

  10. lorn says

    IMHO this conundrum; why aren’t armed people the answer to armed people, and many other contradictions come down to the way our minds work. Please, let me explain by way of a not entirely unrelated but well known example; what happened on 9/11.

    In rough nutshell format a bunch of guys armed with box cutters and threats of bombs hijacked some planes and succeeded, in three of four cases in using the airliners as weapons by driving the planes into buildings. For me the biggest question is why did it only work in three of four cases? The answer is that there was a delay in the flights that allowed the passengers to know the larger context of the situation. Having a clearer understanding of the intentions of the hijackers allowed them the thwart their intentions.

    Previous to 9/11 hijackers were capturing the planes and the passengers as payment for some other goal. Money, release of prisoners and various political objectives were the goals. The hijackers didn’t really want the airliners. They wanted to trade for something else.

    As such the airlines, quite logically, made it policy that they wouldn’t actively resist hijackers. The plan was to keep things as peaceful as possible, get the plane on the ground and negotiate a settlement. Failing that to send in the SWAT teams.

    This is why the box cutters and notional bombs worked. The crew, and by extension the passengers, were operating off a false model of the hijackers intentions. In the one case this misapprehension was corrected the hijacker’s plan failed.

    It was the mental model of how these situations work that holds back progress. Of course, now, IMHO, the people know about hijackers. A hijacker in today’s environment has a much tougher audience. You are going to be smothered with diapers, strangled with seat belts, beaten with ice mallets, and punctured with spike heels. There will be no negotiation or equivocating. Everyone will be all-in. As they should be knowing their lives are on the line.

    Similarly, in the case of a shooter, the problem is in the mental model. The western world has been raised on a steady diet of stories featuring heroes with guns. Part of the story is that shooting people is primarily a matter of hardware. Gun nuts have an endless capacity to be entertained with deeply nuanced analyses of various makes and models of firearms and ammunition selection. While not entirely useless in a real life shooting situation the details are largely meaningless. Reams of virtual paper and gallons of virtual ink have been used in writing about the differences of 9mm versus .45. I have been told that only a fool would use the weak and ineffective 9mm when a profoundly capable .45 (their words) was available. I have also read the same argument reversed. IMHO both arguments are mostly BS.

    They are BS simply because hardware, beyond simple common sense in its selection, doesn’t constitute the biggest factor in these shootings or how to deal with them. Or, specifically, why a good guy with a gun is usually not an effective counter to a bad guy with a gun.

    The decisive factor is the human mind. The shooter has typically spent weeks or months thinking about this specific event. Many have practiced and spent days picturing how it will go. They have work their way up to being able to calmly dispense death. They have pictured the location and time of day. They have learned the interior and have an understanding of the people present. They have learned to suppress their empathy, and remorse. In their mind they have already dehumanized the people they will shoot. They have gone over the plan thousands of times until it is down to muscle memory.

    On the other side is the ‘good’ guy. Yes, he may spend many hours in his own head planning some generic response to some generic, or a narrow subset, of possible situations but reality isn’t cooperating. Unless he is a psychopath he didn’t wake up thinking he was going to shoot someone today. He spends time at he range but paper targets don’t shoot back. If he is like most of us, even a law-enforcement officer, he spends most of his waking hours mostly worrying about raising kids, making money and paying bills.

    Given these dynamics the situation works out about how we would expect. Police sitting in a doughnut shop are gunned down as quickly as anyone else. Even their body armor was mostly useless because every psycho out there knows to shoot the head.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_Lakewood_shooting

    The American people have been lied to by Hollywood, comic books, Louis L’Amour, the NRA, and damn-near all the people who write articles for the gun magazines. We ride the internal circular logic around and around: We need handguns because we feel afraid. We feel afraid because there are bad people with guns. Bad people with guns have guns because people feel the need to have handguns so they don;t feel quite so afraid.

    It is our deeply flawed understanding and mental models of these situations that define the problems. If we keep working with the same models we will get the same, hopes and prayers, answers. On 9/11 people on a doomed flight over Pennsylvania had their mental model altered and they acted correctly. The fact that we are all controlled by mental models and assumptions that we can alter is being forgotten. We, as human beings, can reprogram ourselves. If we really wish to change the landscape of mass shootings, some do not, we need to forget the movies and comics, and novels, change our assumptions, and figure out how things really work.

    Failing that we are facing an endless litany of mass murders and failed responses that we don’t really understand.

  11. jrkrideau says

    Robert Heinlein famously said armed societies are polite societies

    Does anybody seriously believe it? It’s not like there’s evidence to support this claim.

    Unfortunately a lot of Americans do. I know it seems crazy but they really do.

    I think it was a “throwaway phrase” in one of Heinlein’s books (And possibly misinterpreted? I read the book 40+ years ago so memory is a bit hazy) but gun nuts in the USA seem to believe it is more accurate than the Bible.

  12. komarov says

    After post #2 I’ve already had the burning desire to clarify that I do not, in fact, agree with the Heinlein quote. Funnily enough I only just learned that Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel. Duels are one way for people in an armed society to be polite to one another. Of course if anything Hamilton would qualify more as an aristocrat than anything else, so naturally different rules would apply.
    Somehow I don’t see someone challenging a copper to a duel on the field of honour for insinuating that they might be a criminal. Not successfully, anyway. If anything it would be a way to get shot even faster for scaring the poor cop.

    If you’re a nobleman genuinely concerned about “honour” and such (e.g. power) it’s a necessary first step to decide that poor folk and serfs don’t have any honour to begin with. So it’s fine to treat them like crap, trade them to your fellow nobles or even put them to the sword when they get upset about their lot in life. It’s decidedly not fine when the serfs decide to repurpose their pitchforks and other tools of the trade. While I have no idea how you’d kill someone with a scythe I’m pretty sure that polite society would frown upon it. It’s different again for cossacks. At least while they’re loyal.

    I love when these “strategic genius” threads pull all of the strategic geniuses who read my blog into the limelight.

    Well, sir, I stand by my explosive collars – the footnote version – as a functional solution for a dysfunctional society. I work with what I’m given, even if I’m loath to do it.

    the guy with the nuclear weapon in the sidecar of his motorcycle

    Another version of this somewhere involved an anti-matter device implanted in someone’s eyeball. But it’s the result that matters. I’ll hazard a guess that motorcycle man ended up dead, just like the eyeball chap.

  13. says

    komarov @#13

    While I have no idea how you’d kill someone with a scythe

    I once read a novel where protagonists were peasants (serfs) who got fed up with their lot in life. For the revolt, they separated the metal part of the scythe from the wooden handle, and then they reattached the metal part in a straight direction. This way they got a scythe that was shaped more like a spear. But that was in a novel, though. So I have no idea about how historically accurate this would be.

  14. Dunc says

    A scythe would be pretty much my last choice from my shed for an improvised weapon… A scythe is basically a razor blade on a long stick – very sharp, but really quite delicate, and easily damaged or even broken if you try cutting anything much tougher than grass or weeds, or even if you just get the cutting angle too badly wrong. You’d be far better off with a hoe or a mattock. Better yet, a billhook on a pole.

    Of course, I’m taking about a modern Austrian scythe here, but even old-school scythes are going to have similar problems, as well as just being really awkward and ungainly.

  15. Pierce R. Butler says

    D.H. Lawrence, somewhere in The Plumed Serpent (I don’t have a copy to hand for looking-it-up purposes), while describing a crowd going to attend a bullfight in Mexico City, threw off a line in passing about the widespread mutual courtesy supposedly found in a society where many people carry knives.

    Dunno just when Heinlein uttered the dictum in question, but The Plumed Serpent came out in 1926, when Heinlein turned 19, so the latter seems to have a pretty weak claim on originating that dubious insight even if he didn’t read Lawrence’s version first.

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