What does it mean to be a “good guy with a gun” versus a “bad guy with a gun,” and how can you tell them apart? Who are the “sheep,” the “sheepdogs,” and the “wolves”? What does it mean to be law-abiding or not? And how much is the desire to own a gun about self-defense versus identity?
Note: This season of American Diagnosis was originally published under the title In Sickness & In Health.
Celine Gounder: Welcome back to “In Sickness and in Health,” a podcast about health and social justice. I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This season we’re looking at gun violence in America. Last episode we looked at how things turn out differently for men and women who use guns to defend themselves. Today, we’re going to take a look at this idea of the QUOTE “good guy with a gun” and the role race plays in determining what that a “good guy” looks like.
Celine Gounder: That’s Wayne LaPierre, the leader of the National Rifle Association. This line became a national talking point for gun-rights advocates after a speech Wayne LaPierre gave after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
Celine Gounder: The idea of a “good guy with a gun”… an armed civilian who runs towards a fight… not away from it… is central to the gun-rights movement… and especially to concealed-carry. Many call it being a QUOTE “sheepdog.”
Celine Gounder: This is retired U.S. Army Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman. Here he is explaining the sheepdog metaphor on a podcast in 2017:
Dave Grossman: “There are sheep. The vast majority are gentle creatures.
Celine Gounder: In the sheepdog narrative, anyone who doesn’t carry a gun is a “sheep”… people who go about their lives oblivious to the dangers around them… people who need others… like soldiers, police, or other civilians carrying guns—the sheepdogs—to protect them from evil wolves.
Dave Grossman: And then there are the wolves. The wolves feed on the sheep without mercy. Then there are sheepdogs. Sheepdogs are those dedicated to protecting the flock.” […] “We’re given the authority to administer life and death. You know, that sheep mindset is really pretty pathetic.”
Celine Gounder: Race doesn’t factor explicitly into the sheepdog narrative. But white America’s perception of whether someone’s a sheepdog—a self-appointed “good guy” here to help—or a criminal wolf, has a lot to do with race.
Alexandra Filindra: We did a study on that…
Celine Gounder: This is Alexandra Filindra. She’s a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Alexandra Filindra: …we showed people the picture of a black guy with a gun and the picture of a white guy with a gun. And we asked them, here are some descriptors. How much do they describe this person? So, is this a good citizen? Is this person patriotic? Is this person a criminal? Is this person a gang member? Is this person trustworthy?
Celine Gounder: Alexandra’s research found that respondents’ views on who the so-called “sheepdogs” were… had a lot to do with race.
Alexandra Filindra: Predictably, there is a huge difference in the percentage of white people who think that that the black… guy is a criminal versus the white guy is a criminal, and who think that the white guy is patriotic and a good citizen versus the black guy. So yes, we have very deeply ingrained stereotypes that a black guy with a gun is a criminal, and a white guy with a gun is a patriot.
Celine Gounder: Alexandra says this is nothing new.
Alexandra Filindra: That’s the narrative has been played in the country since the revolution. I mean, the term “patriot” comes from the white guys during the Revolution at Concord who fired the first shot. That’s the mental image of the white good guy and with the white gun owner. … By comparison, a black guy with a gun in the early part of the century was mortal danger because it was a slave who had gotten themselves a gun and was going to kill white people.
Celine Gounder: This idea that black people are a threat to white folk is a deeply rooted racist stereotype in American culture. And it informs how self-appointed “sheepdogs” react when they interact with people of color.
Celine Gounder: Angela Stroud is a professor at Northland College who studies concealed carry and race. She’s also the author of Good Guys with Guns. In researching her book, Angela interviewed almost forty concealed handgun license holders in Texas. Almost all her interview subjects were white, male, heterosexual and middle or upper-middle class. Those interviews showed Angela how the Good-Guy narrative can run aground when it comes to black people.
Angela Stroud: One of the really fascinating things, I think, that I found in my research is how often the people I interviewed who were– I focused on White people intentionally. They would say, “I carry a gun legally. I’m a good guy. I follow the rules.”… But during interviews, it would come up, actually, there were many times they carried illegally either by carrying in places where guns were not allowed, or they carried before they had a license.
Celine Gounder: One example was a white woman Angela interviewed who she calls Krysti.
Angela Stroud: Krysti was one of those, who, she’s like, “Oh, yeah, I carried all the time before I got a license.” She was also one who emphasized being law-abiding. So I would ask about that. “How did it feel like carrying a gun without a license? Were you ever worried about getting caught?” She said, “Oh, no. You have to give them a reason to get caught,” meaning the police. “You have to give the police a reason to get caught. I don’t need to worry about it. If I ever get caught, then I’ll just say I needed this to protect myself.” What I find so fascinating is that that sense of entitlement to breaking the law, to not feeling like the law really applies to you. … At the same time, they often characterize particularly young black males as carrying guns illegally. So you again have this good-guy-bad-guy idea where the bad guys are the ones who carry guns illegally even though white people do it, too, but of course, they’re not bad guys. They’re doing “good-guy illegal things.” That’s one of those paradoxes that has to be explained in terms of what it says about racism.
Celine Gounder: Again, that dichotomy between an armed white person—even if they’re carrying a weapon illegally—the good guy versus the hypothetical black person—the bad guy, the criminal, the threat. Angela’s research showed that race influenced not only how white concealed carry holders saw themselves, but those around them too. She told me a story about one interview subject named Jack.
Angela Stroud: That’s another moment that I think really reveals the worldview on concealed carry.
Celine Gounder: Jack generally tried to avoid the QUOTE “bad side of town.”
Angela Stroud: He says he was driving around in a predominantly Black neighborhood, and he got lost and a car stopped ahead of him. He didn’t know what was going on so he pulled his gun out. He held it by the door. … A man came up to the window and said, “I don’t know how to get to the freeway. I’m lost. Could you help me?” He said, “No, I don’t know. I can’t help you.” He says the guy walked and said, “God bless you,” and and walked back to his car. … Jack says, “I don’t know what that was, if he was actually trying to do something or what, but I was prepared just in case.”
Celine Gounder: Both guys were lost… but one was a good guy… and one… maybe not. But which was which?
Angela Stroud: I use that story to set it in contrast to what I heard from other people who said concealed carry holders, these are the good guys, they’re the ones who are going to stop, help, and render aid. They’re the ones who are going to be pack leaders and Boy Scouts, and they’re going to have first aid kits in their cars. If you ever need them, they’re there for you. … It’s like, “Well, not in this case.” Not in a poorer neighborhood. Not when a black person who’s lost is asking for directions. In that moment, that person is a threat. Jack wants to be armed, and in fact, pulls his gun just in case. And so it really calls into question, when you talk about being ready to help and render aid, who are you talking about? Who’s actually considered someone who’s deserving of help?
Celine Gounder: And who’s deserving of violence.
Angela Stroud:I find that as incredibly problematic. Justifying and rationalizing using a gun for self-defense because you’re afraid of certain neighborhoods. Seeing some people as inherently criminal because of race and class. That’s the kind of worldview stuff that I think is much more significant even than the number of people who are carrying guns legally.
Celine Gounder: Take the case of Bernhard Goetz. In 1984, Bernhard Goetz was riding the subway in New York City. Crime was rampant in New York City subways in the 1980s. Bernhard had been attacked and robbed in a subway station before, so he started carrying a gun… even though his application for a concealed weapon had been denied. One day, Bernhard was on the subway when four black teenagers approached him. One of the teenagers asked Bernhard for $5. Bernhard told police that the way one of the kids smiled at him made him afraid. So, he reached into his jacket, pulled out a .38 Smith and Wesson revolver, and shot each of the four teenagers. In Bernhard’s statement to police, captured in the documentary, The Confession of Bernhard Goetz, he said the only thing stopping him from shooting more… was that he ran out of bullets.
Bernhard Goetz: If I had more bullets I would have shot them all again and again. My problem is I ran out of bullets. I was going to gouge one of the guy’s eyes out with my keys afterwards. … I ran up to the first two to check them. They were on the ground, the first two that I had shot. And…they were taken care of. It was all very cold blooded. I’m going to offend everyone. I went back to the other two to check on them. … I said, you seem to be doing alright. Here’s another.”
Celine Gounder: The Manhattan district attorney at the time tried Bernhard with attempted murder. Bernhard—who was called the “Subway Vigilante”—was vilified… but also celebrated by New Yorkers. A jury made up of ten white people and two black people acquitted him on all charges except one: illegal weapons possession. Bernhard served eight months of a one-year jail sentence.
Mary Anne Franks: We tend to excuse and to mitigate and to even praise white men’s use of violence, particularly gun violence.
Celine Gounder: This is Mary Anne Franks. She’s a law professor at the University of Miami. We spoke with her in our last episode on gun violence and gender. Mary Anne points out that often… the use of a gun comes down to the perception of threat. And race is central to that calculus.
Mary Anne Franks: What that has meant historically, is that the perspective of that reasonable person is very heavily, one could say, racially classified. That we’ve seen over time that black men, especially black people generally, their bodies, their emotions, and their presence is seen as much more threatening than the bodies of other people.
Celine Gounder: Mary Anne says this has only gotten worse with Stand Your Ground laws.
Mary Anne Franks: We are encouraging white men who are scared effectively of black men. We’re encouraging them to act on those impulses and to think that their intuition should fill in for a fact. … What that leads to especially in situations of high conflict are encouraging men to engage in violent tactics before they know everything that they need to know.
Celine Gounder: This dynamic played out tragically in the shooting death of Jordan Davis. In 2012, four teenage boys pulled into a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida. The teenagers were listening to loud rap music while their friend was inside the gas station convenience store. Then Michael Dunn and his girlfriend at the time parked next to them. Michael was white, 45 and reportedly told his girlfriend he didn’t like the music. He told police he asked the kids to turn it down.
Michael Dunn: I roll down my window and I thought I was polite. I asked them nicely. I didn’t demand. I said, hey, would you guys mind turning that down? And they shut it off. I was like, thank you. Cordial.
The guy who was in the back seat is getting really agitated. My window is up. I can’t hear anything he’s saying but there’s a lot of “fuck him” and “fuck that.” “Fuck that bitch.” … And then the music comes back on.
Celine Gounder: Then Michael claims Jordan Davis, the teenager in the back of the SUV, ducked down to the floor of the vehicle and pulled up a shotgun.
Michael Dunn: I saw a barrel come up on the window like a single-shot shotgun where there’s a barrel. … And it was either a barrel or a stick but, sir, they’re like “We’re going to kill you.”
Celine Gounder: A witness said they heard Michael Dunn say, “you’re not going to talk to me like that.”
Michael Dunn: And then they say, “you’re dead, bitch.” I mean I didn’t wait to look to see um that they were going to point it at me. … I’m shitting bricks. But that’s when I reached into my glove box, unholstered my pistol. … So quicker than a flash, I have a round chambered in it, and I shot.
Celine Gounder: Michael shot three times into the teenagers’ SUV. As the teenagers drove away, Michael fired several more shots at the SUV. Michael’s girlfriend came out of the store to see what was happening.
Michael Dunn: She comes outside to see what’s up and I say, “Get in the car. We have to go.” I just didn’t feel safe there.
Celine Gounder: Michael Dunn drives off. Meanwhile, the teenagers realize their friend Jordan is struggling to breathe. Michael Dunn had shot him three times. Jordan died at the scene. Police found no weapons in the teenagers’ car and no evidence that Jordan got out of the SUV to confront Michael Dunn.
Mary Anne Franks: We’ve seen this in many high profile cases. You’ll have a white man say, “I felt threatened by this black person. Now, I didn’t see a gun but I imagined that maybe he would have one or I thought it was likely that he would and that he meant me harm or I’m quite sure that he meant me harm.” And it turns out that the evidence for that knowledge is not objective but actually my feeling was that he’s dangerous.
Celine Gounder: But in contrast to the Bernhard Goetz case, a jury convicted Michael Dunn of first-degree murder for the killing of Jordan Davis. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Mary Anne Franks: He obviously can’t say on the stand, “I shot him because he disobeyed me” or, “I shot him because of the music.” He said, “I was in fear of my life, and I saw a gun come out of the back seat.” Now, in this case that turns out he doesn’t convince the jury that this is what happened, and he does get convicted. Even if we could consider that to be at least not another miscarriage of justice, and at least in terms of his trial. The fact of the matter is Jordan Davis is still dead, and he’s partly dead because of the fact that this man thought that he was entitled to use deadly force in a situation that did not call for it by any objective measure.
Celine Gounder: Both Bernhard Goetz and Michael Dunn were white men who used guns because they were afraid of black crime. But one researcher I spoke with thinks white Americans’ attachment to guns isn’t fundamentally about fear of crime. According to Dr. Alexandra Filindra, the researcher we heard from at the top of the show, guns and gun rights have taken on a social dimension beyond the Second Amendment and debates about individual freedoms.
Alexandra Filindra: We know that because we, actually in a survey, we asked people to rank a variety of government given rights such as the right to freedom of religion, the right of freedom of speech, the right to vote, the right to a lawyer, and the right to bear arms. We asked them to rank them in terms of one, two or three.
Alexandra Filindra: The right to bear arms among whites is actually more important than the right to vote, than the right of freedom of speech. It’s quite astonishing to see how much they have elevated this attachment to firearms because this has become an expression of white identity.
Celine Gounder: Alexandra says this because Americans’ views on guns correlate with their attitudes towards people of color… what’s called “racial resentment.” But before we go too much further, we should explain what that is.
Alexandra Filindra: Racial resentment is a theory that suggests that the way that whites think about African-Americans changed in the 1960s.
Celine Gounder: Before the Civil Rights Movement, racism was justified in biological terms. That the differences between races were innate… inborn… genetic. The Civil Rights Movement changed that. It was no longer acceptable to use biological racism as an excuse to deny equal access and rights to people.
Lyndon B. Johnson: It was more than a hundred years ago that Abraham Lincoln, a great President of another party, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact.
Celine Gounder: The Civil Rights movement claimed huge victories. Advances in schooling, access to jobs, and military service came. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Lyndon B. Johnson: I will send to Congress a law designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote.
Celine Gounder: With the end of Jim Crow, everyone was supposed to be equal before the law. So, the thinking goes…
Alexandra Filindra: The law doesn’t discriminate anymore against African Americans and therefore the fact that they are now starting out at a much lower and much more disadvantaged position is discounted. It’s like from now on you have all the opportunities that I have. There is nothing separating us in from a legal perspective, so there’s no reason why you should be advantaged over me.
Celine Gounder: This is how racial resentment… as opposed to overt racism… emerged:
Alexandra Filindra: Racial resentment suggests that African Americans … do not value and do not follow the basic rules of the American culture. That American national identity is based on ideas about hard work, and individualism, and that people are expected to basically progress on the basis of their own effort… There is this perception today that African Americans do not adhere by these values. That they have rejected this value system, and that they have sought and received more than they deserve in, uh, from government.
Celine Gounder: Think welfare or affirmative action. People who harbor racial resentment don’t see these policies as a way to address structural racism or the disadvantages imposed on African Americans for hundreds of years.
Alexandra Filindra: They see them from the perspective of the present, and completely discounting the role of history and structures as an unfair advantage to people that they received because of their race. … They’re seeing what is really a loss of privilege, they see it as a loss of rights.
Celine Gounder: The Jim Crow laws were gone… but the prejudices never vanished. So, as America changed so did its racism. It was no longer socially acceptable to be openly racist. New color-blind, race-neutral categories became stand-ins for race.
Alexandra Filindra: Such as homeowners, and gun owners, and law-abiding citizens, and taxpayers. There’s a variety of groups that were portrayed in different situations depending on the issue as the “virtuous group.” The group that basically had done everything right, but was about to lose out because of another group…
Celine Gounder: Groups like welfare recipients, criminals and immigrants.
Alexandra Filindra: In the American culture, terms like “welfare recipients” or “criminals” are incredibly racialized. We have psychological studies that show that when people think of black people they immediately think about crime and vice versa.
Celine Gounder: Studies like the one Alexandra mentioned at the top of the show that associate black people with guns as “criminals” and whites with guns as “patriots.” So when Alexandra looked at how attitudes about race and gun regulation intersect, she found something interesting.
Alexandra Filindra: wouldn’t say most gun owners are racist. That’s not the proper way to express statistical relationships. What we can tell from statistics is that, there is a higher probability that if you are racist you will own a gun, than if you’re not racist. … Our work consistently shows … that racial resentment among whites predicts opposition to gun control even when you control for a variety of other factors.
Celine Gounder: Alexandra’s research is surprising because it reveals that gun ownership in the name of self-defense… may not be about crime… or fear of being a victim… at all. Having a gun… might really be… about identity.
Alexandra Filindra: It’s not fear of being harmed by African-Americans. It’s an identity concern. It is projection of your moral superiority over the other group that’s driving people to want their guns. Through guns, they’re expressing a positive group identity, a positive white identity compared to a negative perception of African-Americans. It’s not about how scared they are in any kind of realistic terms of African-Americans. It is about how much anger and moral contempt they have towards the out-group.
Alexandra Filindra: The gun becomes a race-neutral symbol to show how morally superior you are. You’re a good guy because you have a gun and through that you’re also saying to the people who understand the implicit language here that, “Hey, I am the good guy and these other people who are not supportive of gun controls and who are not like me are the bad guys.”
Celine Gounder: This finding that gun ownership is more about how people view themselves goes a long way in explaining why gun safety advocates have struggled to gain traction among white Americans.
Alexandra Filindra: Public health experts have focused on messaging that emphasizes the costs of gun crime and of just guns in general. They will have messages, things like, “This year alone, 10,000 people were killed by guns,” or “3,000 babies were killed by guns,” and focus on the costs. But when the key motivator among a group is not cost but rather identity these messages just don’t have an impact among high racial resentors.
Celine Gounder: This might be disheartening to some. But it also offers an alternative to the current public health approach to gun safety messaging: find a spokesperson who can address gun violence while also addressing these racial anxieties.
Alexandra Filindra: A conservative white male: a member of the group, basically. A gun-owning conservative white male would be even better.
Celine Gounder: In our next episode, we’ll go back in time… and explore the rape myth… and how that’s intersected with race and guns in our nation’s history.
Celine Gounder: Today’s episode of “In Sickness and in Health” was produced by Zach Dyer and me. Our theme music is by Allan Vest. Additional music by The Blue Dot Sessions. Archival audio heard in this episode came from the podcast Patriot to the Core; the documentary The Confessions of Bernard Goetz; and Michael Dunn’s police interview from The Florida Times-Union—all via YouTube.
Celine Gounder: You can learn more about this podcast and how to engage with us on social media at insicknessandinhealthpodcast.com. That’s insicknessandinhealthpodcast.com. If you like what you hear, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps more people find out about the show!
Celine Gounder: I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This is “In Sickness and in Health.”