Occasionally when Donald Trump misspeaks, he accidently points the way to a larger truth; a kind of Kinsley gaffe born less of momentary confusion than of accidentally taking a really bad argument to its inevitable conclusion. Just as his inadvertent pledge to criminally punish women who had abortions was immediately renounced by members of his party, even though it was the logical extension of their own policies, so too, his recent push-me-pull-you on gun rights accidentally shed some useful light upon the unbound “guns everyplace” logic of the National Rifle Association.
In Texas on Friday, less than a week after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history left 49 people at a gay nightclub in Florida dead, Trump spooled out a version of the standard “good guy with a gun” conservative response to modern mass shootings. Thundered Trump, in reference to the patrons of the Pulse nightclub: “If some of those wonderful people had guns strapped right here—right to their waist or right to their ankle … and one of the people in that room happened to have it and goes ‘boom, boom,’ you know what? That would have been a beautiful, beautiful sight, folks.”
Beautiful indeed. Of course there was an off-duty cop, Adam Gruler, working as security at the club that night, who engaged in a brief firefight with the shooter before retreating and calling for backup. And of course there was an armed man at the shooting incident in Tucson that almost killed Gabby Giffords, a guard who almost ended up killing an innocent man instead of the shooter.* But in Trump’s telling, if only bar patrons had all been packing heat, gunfight “beauty” would have ensued.
This one claim was, as it happens, a bridge too far for the NRA, which quickly repudiated Trump’s assessment of the facts. “No one thinks that people should go into a nightclub drinking and carrying firearms,” NRA lobbyist Chris Cox insisted on ABC’s This Week. “That defies common sense. It also defies the law.” A few channel clicks away on CBS’s Face the Nation, NRA chief Wayne LaPierre made the same point: “I don’t think you should have firearms where people are drinking.” LaPierre, perhaps embarrassed by this overly moderate position, later tweeted that what he meant was that it’s “OK to carry in restaurants that serve alcohol” but that “if you’re going to carry, don’t drink.”
By Monday, having been checked by the NRA, Trump hastily tweeted his own retraction: “When I said that if, within the Orlando club, you had some people with guns. I was obviously talking about additional guards or employees.” But Trump’s real sin lay not in contradicting the NRA on the “good guy with a gun” analysis but in pointing out the inconsistency of its position. The NRA has long been pushing the idea that Americans should be allowed to carry guns everywhere, including churches, classrooms, and, yes, bars. Between 2013 and 2014, NRA-backed bills were introduced in North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Kentucky that were intended to allow concealed carriers to take their guns into places that serve alcohol. Only Kentucky’s did not pass. Last week South Carolina became the 46th state to allow some form of carry in establishments that serve booze. So come on, NRA, can we drink and still be good guys with a gun or not?
It’s complicated, and as Amanda Marcotte points out, just before Cox insisted that patrons in bars shouldn’t be packing, he actually defended Trump. “What Donald Trump has said is that the American people know as common sense, if somebody had been there to stop this faster, fewer people would have died,” argued Cox. His boss, LaPierre, similarly hedged his own don’t-drink-and-carry message, with a paradoxical NRA-blessed carry-everywhere message: “I don’t think you should have firearms where people are drinking, but I will tell you this. Everybody, every American starts to have—needs to start having a security plan. We need to be able to protect ourselves, because they’re coming. And they’re going to go for vulnerable spots, and this country needs to realize it.” So followed to its conclusion, of course guns in bars make perfect sense. But presumably if you shouldn’t be carrying a weapon while drinking in a bar, you shouldn’t be carrying a weapon while drinking at home, or on campus. And that’s why the NRA has to dance itself in circles on this one.
The problems with the “good guy with a gun” theory of arming everyone at all times are myriad, and they have been explored thoroughly elsewhere. The problems as applied to a dark club at 2 a.m. where people have been drinking almost don’t bear discussion, unless you are one Donald Trump. But in a sense, Trump’s gaffe highlights the fatal flaw in the whole argument, and it takes an unrepentant narcissist like Trump to isolate it: This entire approach to defending against gun violence inevitably assumes that the heroic defensive shooter is a trained marksman and that everyone else is just a prop.
Now this is a worldview that holds lots of appeal in, say, Rambo movies and video games, in which the shooter really is a trained marksman and everyone else really is just a prop. But as numerous good guys with guns will tell you, during most active shooter situations, nobody is wearing identifying “bad guy” t-shirts, bystanders are racing around in terror, whatever training you have had is sorely challenged, split-second thinking is often erroneous, and mistakes are made more often than not (even by professionals).
In order to believe in the “good guy with a gun” theory of world harmony, in other words, you really need to believe that you yourself—devilishly handsome, fantastically trained, all-knowing, and unburdened by the wants or needs of anyone else in the crowd—will be the one to save the day. It only works as a political fantasy if you deny the agency and unpredictability of everyone else in the room. It is, in short, a grand unifying theory of human narcissism, pushed out by narcissists and given its ultimate expression—obvs—by the greatest narcissist public life has ever known. It only works to arm every guy at the bar if you assume that you are every guy at the bar, and in that sense it is the perfect Second Amendment theory for Trump and for the NRA. Forget the alcohol, the panic, the confusion as to who is shooting. You are the only good guy with a gun that matters, because you are indeed the only guy that matters. Trump should get some credit for laying it out in all its solipsistic glory, and then the rest of us should acknowledge that his version is no less silly than the watered-down version proffered last weekend by the NRA.
We don’t worry about people packing heat in bars because only they have been drinking and are apt to act crazy. We worry because everyone is drinking and apt to act crazy. That’s why practically anyone carrying a gun in a bar is dangerous, and that’s why we (including the NRA) hesitate to condone it. While it is certainly true that the 2008 holding in the Heller case gave individuals the right to bear arms, that ruling didn’t in fact make the rest of the world disappear. Which means that all those people who are not you are out there, and they are drinking, they are fighting, they are jealous, they are greedy, and, yes, some of them are pledging fealty to ISIS. That’s because guns are dangerous in the hands of even momentarily dangerous people, and nobody has the magical powers to disarm them all, even with a gun.
So here’s the irony of Trump’s gun gaffe: Only the world’s greatest narcissist could claim that each of these unpredictable actors would be rendered instantly harmless by the existence of your own omnipotent self with a gun. That’s how he plans to fix the economy and halt terror: omnipotence. But it seems unfair in the extreme to ask Trump to apologize for accidentally telling that story: It is, after all the logical endpoint of the NRA’s argument that when you—magical, powerful you—become the good guy with the gun, everyone else just falls quietly away.
*Correction, June 22, 2016: This post originally misidentified the armed bystander at the Gabby Giffords shooting as an armed guard. (Return.)