War and Peace

In Defense of a Good Guy With a Gun

In the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting and Boston attacks, Iraq war vet Brian Castner considers his own experience of returning from war and arming himself to protect his family. He speaks to gun expert David Grossman about why we need “sheepdogs” in schools to defend students, the power of violent video games, and profiling for aggression.

04.28.13 3:00 AM ET

Let’s begin with a brief thought experiment. Imagine a young child, yours or not makes no difference, and then imagine an adult next to them holding a gun. I am guessing you have an immediate visceral reaction to even this brief explanation of the scenario. Many readers will fear that the child is in extreme danger, no matter who is holding the gun. But others, fewer in number most likely, will have the opposite reaction, that the child is protected and safe because a guardian is standing over them. One extreme or the other seems inevitable after the killings in Newtown and Boston Marathon attacks.

I recognize that my memoir, The Long Walk, my story of my time as a bomb technician in Iraq and struggles with readjusting to life at home, contains many disturbing scenes. In interviews and at book signings, I have learned that two in particular haunt readers: me sitting outside my newborn son’s room all night with a gun so that no one will harm him, and practicing reloading my pistol one handed so I could defend my children while driving them to school.

I continue to be bothered as well, and even writing about them now twists my gut and fills my eyes. But the fear that grips me is a father’s concern for his children’s safety—a panic over the helplessness of a baby so small it could stop breathing at any moment. I thought my feelings were self-explanatory, but I learned quickly while being interviewed for my book that readers would likely view my experience from the other angle.

Take my exchange with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, one of our country’s most thoughtful hosts. We talked about the gun in the minivan for more than 30 minutes, a conversation that was (mercifully) edited down before broadcast. This is how it started:

Gross: I want to describe something you write that I found very disturbing ... You describe wanting to strap a pistol to the center console of the minivan. And I thought that’s just, that’s scary. I mean you have kids, who’d be driving in that family minivan.

Me: Well, I can understand how you would call it scary because my children were there. [But] that's why I wanted it because I needed to protect them ... I had seen so many dismembered children in Iraq that I, as a father, I really felt the need to protect them from something and this was how I knew to do it.

Gross was far from the only one disturbed. I had similar conversations with journalists and interviewers across the country, and in each case it was clear that associating feelings of safety with guns and children was a terrifyingly foreign concept for them.

The attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School restarted a long-delayed national debate about guns, and their proximity to children is on many more minds. The slaughter of young innocents, a war zone transported to small-town America, touched a nerve with an intensity that even other multiple homicides in workplaces and Sikh temples and movie theaters did not. In the last few months, gun control advocates saw an opportunity to finally make some headway, while guns were purchased at a frenetic pace by those who were afraid they may succeed. Whether the subsequent bombings and shoot-out in Boston will ultimately affect the gun-control debate remains to be seen, but this odd juxtaposition played out last week, nearly simultaneously: while the U.S. Senate was abandoning a gun-control bill, the Tsarnaev brothers were engaged in a complex firefight using weapons they were not licensed to own.

The so-far stilted public conversation could use additional voices of expertise. So consider retired Lt. Col. David Grossman, a rare figure in today’s America, a soldier and academic who crosses genres. He has appeared before Congress, the American Medical Association, and speaks to universities across the country, but also has been on Bill O’Reilly’s and Lou Dobbs’s shows. He is a former Army Ranger and professor at West Point whose first book, On Killing, about the psychological stresses of taking lives, received broad critical acclaim from the right and left. By his own description, he is the No. 1 trainer of law enforcement in this country, “whether measured by contact hours, number of courses, or evaluations,” on the road lecturing 300 days a year.

Grossman has a name for the kind of person who sees the gun as protector in the opening thought experiment: sheepdog. It’s a concise term for a phenomenon I never did get good at explaining on my book tour. Grossman divides the world into three kinds of people: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. From On Killing:

“Most of the people in our society are sheep. They are kind, gentle, productive creatures who can only hurt one another by accident ...  Then there are the wolves ... and the wolves feed on the sheep without mercy. There are evil men in this world and they are capable of evil deeds. The moment you forget that or pretend it is not so, you become a sheep. There is no safety in denial ... Then there are sheepdogs, and I’m a sheepdog. I live to protect the flock and confront the wolf.”

Grossman is quick to point out that he does not consider the term “sheep” a pejorative.

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“I mean nothing negative by calling them sheep. To me it is like the pretty, blue robin’s egg. Inside it is soft and gooey but someday it will grow into something wonderful. But the egg cannot survive without its hard blue shell. Police officers, soldiers, and other warriors are like that shell, and someday the civilization they protect will grow into something wonderful. For now, though, they need warriors to protect them from the predators.”

The number of self-appointed sheepdogs in this country is growing; the GAO estimates that 8 million Americans had active concealed-carry permits in 2011, a new record. And within the concealed-carry culture, Grossman’s sheepdog theory is well known.

“Pretty much everyone has heard of or read Grossman. I choose to be a sheepdog and live my life accordingly,” said one military veteran who is active in organizing shooting days and concealed-carry politics.

In Internet videos Grossman appears as an intense man who wears a slightly longer version of his military high-and-tight haircut. During a 45-minute interview on the phone, I did far more listening than talking, the facts and points spilling out of him in a flood. He speaks so quickly that a clichéd comparison to a machine-gun is unavoidable. Before I had even asked a question, he referenced an email I had sent him about school shootings, and he implored me to remember my writer’s sensibility, that words matter.

“We need to look at the words we use. We have started to use the term ‘shooting’ as a euphemism for ‘massacre.’ The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre killed seven. The Boston Massacre killed five. The killer at Sandy Hook killed more than both combined. We need to call these what they are. I’m a shooter. You’re a shooter. I’m a killer. You’re probably a killer. But we’re not murderers. We haven’t committed a massacre. These school massacres today are as devastating to our society as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was to an earlier time, except now it’s schoolchildren and not mobsters. When we call it a school shooting we hide reality, of how horrendous it is.”

On Killing was published in 1995, and the theories it contains have remained relevant if controversial. In World War II, it is estimated only 15 to 20 percent of soldiers ever fired their weapon in combat. To increase that rate, the military adopted a training program to desensitize human beings to violence, successfully increasingly the rate to 90 percent in Vietnam.

Grossman found a parallel between this successful program and the violence permeating the media. Specifically applying it to the problem of school violence, his prime thesis is that videogames have trained our children to kill.

“You and I both know,” he told me. “We’ve spent time on the range. You go through the simulator, you pull the trigger, you shoot the bad guy. You do it over and over and over again, it’s how the military trains you, so when it’s time to do it for real, it’s second nature, you’re desensitized to it. Videogames are the best simulators around.”

Similar thoughts were ridiculed by many in the media when mouthed by Wayne LaPierre at the National Rifle Association’s disastrous post–Sandy Hook news conference. Dr. Christopher Ferguson, an assistant professor at Texas A&M who studies violent behavior, noted in a 2008 survey of the literature that while medical research shows violent videogames increase aggression, “aggression may not prove useful in the prediction of school shootings.” Aggression is a momentary reaction, but recent cases of extreme violence were obviously the result of detailed planning. The FBI and Secret Service have struggled and failed to create a profile that predicts such behavior. Ferguson identified the family environment, genetics, poverty, and inequality as variables of much greater “causal” impact when determining who will commit violent acts, each far more predictive than the movies someone watches. Thus the conclusion popular in the national consciousness: videogames don’t make kids kill.

But Grossman is more interested in a retrospective look at the aggregate, and there is potentially a nuanced argument here. So many play violent videogames, and so few commit such heinous crimes, it makes sense that it would fail as a predictor of behavior. But for the mind already planning such an act, or predisposed to such desires, the videogame provides a way for them to train.

“They are turning their training into reality,” he told me. “Doctor Jim McGee of the FBI calls them Classroom Avengers. What links them? None were involved in sports. None in student body government, none in Boy Scouts, none in volunteer activities. All were obsessed with violent media.”


Grossman is outspoken in identifying not only the problem that violence is increasing and killers are becoming more effective because of time spent in the videogame simulator, but also a solution. While he calls for turning off violent media and getting kids outside, an approach with numerous supporters from early-childhood educators to anti-obesity advocates, it is his immediate in-school solutions that cause controversy.

Soon after Sandy Hook, Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times that it was time for the country to regulate guns as seriously as we regulate cars or ladders. Grossman argues that we should approach school shootings as we still do the terror of an earlier age: fire.

“The Department of Education says that in 1998–99, 47 students were killed in school attacks. In 2007 it was 63. Not only is a violent attack the leading cause of death by children in schools, it is more likely than all other factors combined. If there were this many children killed by fires, we’d be moving heaven and earth to stop it. Do you know how many children have been killed in schools by fire in the last 50 years? Zero.”

Fires have been reduced in schools because of a layered defense: sprinkler systems, fire-resistant building materials, evacuation drills, and, ultimately, firefighters on trucks. Do we need armored glass and bullet-proof doors as standard furnishings in school, part of the basic building code? Are fire drills applicable to the new threat? Yes, Grossman said, and more.

“Lockdowns work. Active killer drills work. Hunker down and hide works. But we need to make classrooms an area you can lock down. In Newtown they tried to secure an unsecurable area.”

Grossman is also an outspoken advocate of the NRA’s second initiative, also widely disparaged in the media: “a good guy with a gun.” Here our conversation returned to sheepdogs, and while Grossman admits that having police at every school is cost prohibitive, he has other ideas.

“There has never been a multiple homicide in a school where an armed guard was present in the building. In Columbine they waited until the cop was out of the building, on the other side of a parking lot. In Utah concealed carry is allowed in the classroom, and they have never had a multiple homicide in a school. I can’t even find a single homicide in a school. There might be one, but I can’t find it.”

Learning to shoot well is a time-consuming process, and even when proficiency is achieved, it requires constant work to maintain, to have the confidence to take a clean shot when it is most needed. I have spent many hours on the rifle range, and I question my own ability to take that shot to save my own child. Do we really want people carrying guns who don’t have a high level of training?

“We need to stop being gun snobs,” Grossman responded quickly, “saying we only want British SAS-trained snipers, or only want police. Do you know how much time your average cop spends on the shooting range? Not nearly enough. Grandma with a revolver in the bedside table has been a force to be reckoned with for a hundred years.”

But sheepdogs, by definition, choose themselves. Grossman says it is his experience that law enforcement is “extremely supportive nationwide, except for a couple of the big city police chiefs. But your average cop on the beat thinks it’s a great idea” to widen concealed-carry access and allow more sheepdogs. And there is another pool of potential candidates yet untapped.

“Veterans would make great sheepdogs in our schools. There is a prevalent myth in the media of the violent veteran. The New York Times ran an article in January 2008 about how there had been 121 murders in the country by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. But if you look at federal crime data, if they committed crimes at the national average, there should be 500 murders a year from veterans, not 121 total. We know these folks. Our veterans make good sheepdogs.”

Wolves and sheepdogs alike scare the sheep because they both bear the same fangs. The fangs are the equalizer. Implicit in this model is the understanding that any sheepdog without a gun has chosen to make him or herself, at least for that day, a sheep. Having the training and the will without the means still renders you powerless, when faced with a violent moment of truth. And I must admit, I am nearly always a bad sheepdog. I leave my teeth at home. My newborn is now 4 years old, and my nightly vigils ended long ago. Putting a pistol in my minivan never moved passed the planning stage. I don’t have a concealed-carry permit for the state of New York, and I don’t plan on getting one. I tell myself this is because the neighborhood I live in is so safe that my teeth are no longer necessary. Our robin’s egg has hatched. The blue shell is no longer required. But Grossman would say that all I am doing is leaving the sheepdog burden for others, that I am choosing to live in denial.