The myth of ‘good guys with guns’

OPINION: In the Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas, shootings, the good guys had guns but that didn't stop the killings.

Police officers speak near a makeshift memorial for the shooting victims outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 27, 2022. (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

The “good guys with guns” canard is officially dead. In Buffalo, N.Y., an armed security guard—a retired cop—at the Tops supermarket engaged the murderer. The security guard was killed and the murderer continued. In Uvalde, Texas, the cops stayed back as the shooter attacked inside the school. That’s an insane thing to write. Parents yelled at them to engage. The cops are supposed to be society’s good guys with guns. Black people know better than to think of cops as good guys, but that’s what society sets cops up to be. It’s legal for them to use lethal force, and it’s expected that they’ll be there to battle anyone. But if they have guns and the law on their side and still can’t stop our greatest threats then what are we doing?

Some people act as if “defund the police” is an insane position, but in a world where the police are unable to protect us, it seems like the truly crazy position is funding the police as much as we can. We see the police repeatedly fail us in critical moments. We know the police are bad at stopping violent crimes from happening. We know they’re quite often a menace to innocent Black people. So how can anyone argue that we don’t need a significant revamping of the way we combat crime?

For the millionth time, defund does not equal abolish. There’s a whole police abolitionist community, and I respect their position, but that’s not what I’m talking about today. Defund means reallocating civic budgets so we spend less on the police. Police budgets often take up 30 to 40 percent of a city’s budget yet the police don’t truly stop crime. Only two percent of major crimes end in convictions. They do better at mopping up after it’s over.

We could have smaller police forces, or give them fewer resources while spending more on things that actually combat crime—better job programs, more mental health workers, improved public education, and perhaps, even a universal basic income. We do not lower crime by putting more cops on the streets. We do that by giving people jobs and money to keep them from poverty and by truly helping the mentally ill. And by making it far harder to purchase a gun. These initiatives combat the problems that lead to crime and mental instability far better than having people with guns roaming the streets looking for someone to arrest.

On a good day, the police are still a problematic element in our society. Internally, they’re judged based on the number of arrests they make, and they get overtime pay based on making arrests. They’re not incentivized to stop crime but to make lots of arrests, which is not at all the same as combatting crime. They’re encouraged to be violent as a way of establishing power, and they’re overstationed in Black communities because of our lack of power.

But the larger issue is guns—when the NRA says good guys with guns will stop bad guys with guns, they don’t just mean cops. They envision lots of citizens moving throughout the country with a gun on their hip as if that will somehow prevent crime. That is a recipe for creating more crime. Crime is not simply a thing done by criminals, i.e., people who commit crimes for a living. When an otherwise law-abiding citizen loses his temper in traffic or has too much to drink or gets furious with his spouse and pulls out his gun and uses it, that person has committed a crime. They are a criminal. We do not need more guns in America—this country is filled with guns. If more guns made us safer then we would be the safest nation on Earth. Instead, we’re the only nation where mass murders happen regularly. The notion that guns in “good” hands will save us is silly, and it’s been disproven repeatedly. It’s time to try something new—fewer guns.


Touré hosts the podcast “Touré Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.

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