Where are all the sheepdogs?

In what has now become such a famous speech that it has passed over into a cliché, Wayne LaPierre explained how the NRA was dealing with the Newtown, Conn. mass school shooting. He said a lot, which you can read for yourself here, but the phrase which still lingers is this: “As parents, we do everything we can to keep our children safe. It is now time for us to assume responsibility for their safety at school. The only way to stop a monster from killing our kids is to be personally involved and invested in a plan of absolute protection. The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Would you rather have your 911 call bring a good guy with a gun from a mile away … or a minute away?”

In the aftermath of LaPierre’s speech the only thing that really resonated with America was the line “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Indeed the phrase has become a kind of rallying cry for the NRA and pro-gun advocates. It has also become a point of critique and derision from gun-control advocates.

Another helpful phrase also tends to pop up around the issue of the gun in America, and now thanks to the film American Sniper it has become even more popular. The phrase itself, however, was invented by Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman, though he credits its origins to an anonymous soldier. The full phrase, thanks to Grossman’s website is this: “If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath—a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path.” So those good guys with guns are also sheepdogs.

Never mind of course that actual sheepdogs sometimes kill sheep, and this happens so frequently that there are laws about it in just about every nation where dogs herd sheep. But that is a minor quibble with the analogy, and besides plenty of people have blogged about why this is a ridiculous analogy. Instead of talking about why the sheepdog thing doesn’t work, it’s an imperfect analogy after all, I want to dive into the analogy and see how far it takes us.

So now, whenever a mass shooting goes down the pro-gun advocates invariably cry out that, if only a good guy with a gun (a sheepdog) had been there, they would have stopped this. They would have used that gun and killed the bad guy. Great story so let’s start in with the critique.

On wish fulfillment

Of course if a sheepdog had been there he would have stopped it, and by the way the mythical sheepdog is always male, even though real sheepdogs can be either. So the basic problem with the claim that the presence and decisive action of a sheepdog would have saved the day is obvious. It’s pure, pointless wishful thinking. If Batman had been there I am sure the bad guy would have also been stopped. If Superman had been there he would have blocked the bullets and taken the bad guy to jail. If Mr. Miyagi had been there he would have roundhouse kicked the bad guy through plate glass window.

The thing that all of those characters have in common with the sheepdog is that they are all products of your imagination. They are power fantasies of strong men fighting evil men, and they make for great entertainment, and simultaneously they have no effect on the real world of mass shooters. So in the first place this argument goes right up there with, If only the bad guy had been armed with a plastic butter knife this wouldn’t have happened. Short version? Wishful thinking does not stop killers.

The hypothetical scenarios

But let’s get wishful for a second, and imagine some possible situations in which there is a sheepdog present when the wolf comes through the door. Pro-gun advocates no doubt imagine some stupendously heroic situation where the sheepdog handily and safely murders the wolf. I can use my imagination too, so here is what I came up with while dreaming about what could happen.

  1. The first to go: The first possible scenario involves the wolf shooting the sheepdog first. And then I guess that would be it, and the wolf would continue on their killing spree unchecked. Of course this is not just some twisted fantasy, this is an actual problem faced by all armed security forces and police officers every day. If the sheepdogs are visibly armed, either as open-carry wielding private citizens or uniformed guards, then the wolf knows to attack them first. The conventional logic here is that mass shooters are insane, and yet for all that most cases of mass shooters involve greatly discriminate firing of their weapons in choosing targets. Wolves are not stupid, and if they see a clear and obvious threat then they will take it out first. Now you may counter that one of the sheep could pick up the gun, but our analogy makes the sheep out to be helpless, stupid, scared, and weak so they won’t be making any use of that gun. Also, in the real world, ordinary people don’t understand basic weapons handling unless they have been trained. Even then an ordinary person is not conditioned to shoot a gun, with any amount of skill, at a person who is actively killing people. You need special training, and/or conditioning to kill a person, unless you are a wolf.
  2. “Stop, or I’ll shoot!” : The second possible scenario assumes that the sheepdog is not killed first, either because they are concealing their weapon or because the shooter just does not see them. In this scenario, the sheepdog sees the wolf open fire and the sheepdog draws its weapon, takes aim, and then stops. You see the whole point of being a good guy, or a sheepdog, is that you follow the rules of society. You don’t break the laws and you do your best to get along with other people. This means that when wolf starts shooting you are morally, and probably also legally, obligated to warn them to drop their weapon before you open fire. That is, the sheepdog gets the wolf’s attention and we are back in scenario 1. The wolf has thus far proven that it has no compunctions about killing and it must now ignore all else and eliminate the threat that is facing it. This scenario ends with the sheepdog getting shot and the wolf resuming the killing spree. Now this scenario could end with the sheepdog killing the wolf, but only on the condition that the wolf is intimidated by the sight of an armed person pointing a gun at them. That few seconds of hesitance on the wolf’s part can give the sheepdog time to take aim and shoot to kill. Of course the sheepdog may also read that hesitance as a prelude to surrender, and may relax its guard. Still, the exceptionally quick and exceptionally lucky sheepdog might make it out of scenario 2 a hero just yet, so long as it can survive its own social limitations.
  3. Two sheepdogs: The third possible scenario is really just a variation on scenarios one and two where you have multiple sheepdogs. So even if the wolf takes down one of the sheepdogs, presumably the other still has the opportunity to draw, and say ”freeze”. Of course this situation might end up just like one or two, depending again on the hesitance of the wolf and/or how the sheepdog reads it. Of course if both sheepdogs are in the fight, then tactics may be used to distract and eliminate the wolf. In most real world scenarios where sheepdogs, armed or not, do succeed in taking out the wolf they usually have help from other sheepdogs and other sheep. This scenario can end quite well, which is why the police always assign MULTIPLE officers to deal with an active shooter situation. An outnumbered foe is much easier to kill. Though this scenario might still end up with several dead sheep, and even a dead sheepdog or two, depending on how often they give the wolf a chance to surrender.
  4. Shoot him anyways: In this scenario, whether alone or with others, the sheepdog does not give any warning to the wolf, but simply opens fire as soon as it can. This scenario would seem to be ideal, except for a few small problems. The wolf is one target, and often surrounded by sheep who the sheepdog is not supposed to shoot. It can be very difficult to aim, fire, and hit your target under stress without hitting anything else. This is amped up significantly if the target is shooting back. This is what makes military combat so difficult, at least military combat where the soldiers follow the rules of engagement and do not shoot the civilians, even the enemy civilians. Even so collateral damage is a part of war, but it is intolerable in situations of domestic violence. Another little problem is that the wolf might be armored, and even the best sheepdogs has trouble killing an armored wolf. Finally one last little problem here is that even if the sheepdog succeeds and kills the wolf, when the other sheepdogs show up, the cops, they aren’t going to be able to tell the difference between the wolves and the sheepdogs. They know not to shoot the sheep, but they aren’t entirely sure about whether or not to shoot the guy with the gun even though he is loudly protesting his rights to have it.

    Next time: we leave the world of hypothesis and go look at the facts!