A drawing of Philip Marlowe, an icon of hard-boiled detective fiction created by author Raymond Chandler.
by Suzanna Lee Conversation edited by O Society June 9, 2019
At the end of May, it happened again. A mass shooter killed 12 people, this time at a municipal center in Virginia Beach. Employees had been forbidden to carry guns at work, and some lamented that this policy had prevented “good guys” from taking out the shooter.
This trope – “the good guy with a gun” – became commonplace among gun rights activists.
Where did it come from?
On Dec. 21, 2012 – one week after Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut – National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre announcedduring a press conference that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
Ever since then, in response to each mass shooting, pro-gun pundits, politicians and social media users parrot some version of the slogan, followed by calls to arm the teachers, arm the churchgoers or arm the office workers. And whenever an armed citizen takes out a criminal, conservative media outlets pounce on the story.
But “the good guy with the gun” archetype dates to long before LaPierre’s 2012 press conference.
There’s a reason his words resonated so deeply. He had tapped into a uniquely American archetype, one whose origins I trace back to American pulp crime fiction in my book “Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Decline of Moral Authority.”
Other cultures have their detective fiction. But it was specifically in America the “good guy with a gun” became a heroic figure and a cultural fantasy.
‘When I fire, there ain’t no guessing’
Beginning in the 1920s, a certain type of protagonist started appearing in American crime fiction. He often wore a trench coat and smoked cigarettes. He didn’t talk much. He was honorable, individualistic – and armed.
These characters were dubbed “hard-boiled,” a term that originated in the late 19th century to describe “hard, shrewd, keen men who neither asked nor expected sympathy nor gave any, who could not be imposed upon.” The word didn’t describe someone who was simply tough; it communicated a persona, an attitude, an entire way of being.
“Show me the man,” the protagonist, Terry Mack, announces, “and if he’s drawing on me and is a man what really needs a good killing, why, I’m the boy to do it.”
Terry also lets the reader know that he’s a sure shot: “When I fire, there ain’t no guessing contest as to where the bullet is going.”
From the start, the gun was a crucial accessory. Since the detective only shot at bad guys and because he never missed, there was nothing to fear.
Part of the popularity of this character type had to do with the times. In an era of Prohibition, organized crime, government corruption and rising populism, the public was drawn to the idea of a well-armed, well-meaning maverick – someone who could heroically come to the defense of regular people. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, stories that featured these characters became wildly popular.
Their stories’ plots differed, but their protagonists were mostly the same: tough-talking, straight-shooting private detectives.
In an early Hammett story, the detective shoots a gun out of a man’s hand and then quips he’s a “fair shot – no more, no less.”
In a 1945 article, Raymond Chandler attempted to define this type of protagonist:
“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. … He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.”
Selling a fantasy
Gun rights enthusiasts have embraced the idea of the “good guy” as a model to emulate – a character role that just needed real people to step in and play it. The NRA store even sells T-shirts with LaPierre’s slogan, and encourages buyers to “show everyone that you’re the ‘good guy’” by buying the T-shirt.
The problem with this archetype is that it’s just that: an archetype. A fictional fantasy.
In pulp fiction, the detectives never miss. Their timing is precise and their motives are irreproachable. They never accidentally shoot themselves or an innocent bystander. Rarely are they mentally unstable or blinded by rage. When they clash with the police, it’s often because they’re doing the police’s job better than the police can.
Another aspect of the fantasy involves looking the part. The “good guy with a gun” isn’t just any guy – it’s a white one.
In “Three Gun Terry,” the detective apprehends the villain, Manual Sparo, with some tough words: “‘Speak English,’ I says. I’m none too gentle because it won’t do him any good now.”
Could this explain why, in 2018, when a black man with a gun tried to stop a shooting in a mall in Alabama – and the police shot and killed him– the NRA, usually eager to champion good guys with guns, didn’t comment?
A reality check
Most gun enthusiasts don’t measure up to the fictional ideal of the steady, righteous and sure shot.
In fact, research has shown that gun-toting independence unleashes much more chaos and carnage than heroism. A 2017 National Bureau of Economic Research study revealed that right-to-carry laws increase, rather than decrease, violent crime. Higher rates of gun ownership is correlated with higher homicide rates. Gun possession is correlated with increased road rage.
There have been times when a civilian with a gun successfully intervened in a shooting, but these instances are rare. Those who carry guns often have their own guns used against them. And a civilian with a gun is more likely to be killed than to kill an attacker.
Even in instances where a person is paid to stand guard with a gun, there’s no guarantee that he’ll fulfill this duty.
Hard-boiled novels have sold in the hundreds of millions. The movies and television shows they inspired have reached millions more.
What started as entertainment turned into a durable American fantasy.
Maintaining it is a deadly American obsession.
Sometimes, the Forces of Light and Goodness get a little bit too hardcore. In a deadly combination of Well-Intentioned Extremist, The Fundamentalist,Moral Guardians, and sometimes He Who Fights Monsters, they get blinded by themselves and their ideals, and this extreme becomes tyrannicalsociopathy. It’s not the Forces of Darkness’ fault, but they are laughing their asses off and taking a great deal of satisfaction that they were right.
Usually, the Knight Templar’s primary step (or objective) to his perceived “utopia” is to get rid of that pesky “free will” thing that is the cause of crime and evil. Many Knight Templar types are utterly merciless in dealing with those whom they consider evil, and are prone to consider all crimes to be equal. The lightest offences, such as jaywalking, are met with Draconian punishments such as full imprisonment, death, brainwashing, or eternal torture. If you’re in a story like this, don’t jaywalk, or even THINK aboutjaywalking. And may heaven help you if you so happen to show any mercy or pity for a “wrongdoer.” Sometimes even simply being a jerk or being annoying can earn someone a Knight Templar’s wrath.
It’s important to note that despite being villains/villainous within the context of the story, Knights Templar believe fully that they are on the side of righteousness and draw strength from that, and that their opponents are not. Trying to reason with one isn’t much good either, because many Knight Templar types believe that if you’re not with them, you’re against them. Invoking actual goodness and decency will have no effect, save for making Knights Templar demonize your cause as the work of the Devil. After all, they are certain that their own cause is just and noble, and anyone who stands in the way is a deluded fool at best and another guilty soul to be “cleansed” or evildoer to be killed at worst, and doing so is not even Dirty Business (except, sometimes, for how much it makes them suffer, having to hand out all this justice). Indeed, it may take them a while to realize that a person with sense and good will really oppose them; the righteousness of their cause — and their own selves — is self-evident to them. One of the few ways to actually change a Knight Templar’s mind is to, frankly, kick their ass down to the ground. This is because most are convinced that Might Makes Right, and that since they are good they only kill the evil, so if you beat them but don’t kill them, you are good too. They won’t necessarily join you, but with a little luck their mild concussion will stop them fighting for long enough to listen to your side of the story — unless, of course, they conclude they’re still inherentlysuperior, and that you only beat them because you called upon the powers of darkness to cheat.
The Knight Templar is often the ultimate incarnation of Light Is Not Good, and in series where Dark Is Not Evil, you can count on this guy being the villain who believes that the “dark” characters are evil and must be destroyed (though a dark user can still be this if they believe themselves to be heroic). If a Knight Templar is not the antagonist of the story, expect to see What the Hell, Hero? and/or Not So Different come into play at least once. If not, then they are aDesignated Hero. If they are still nominally good, expect them to be a Hero Antagonist.
Note that not all Knights Templar are explicitly evil from the beginning. Many an Anti-Hero will start by Paying Evil Unto Evil, and when they’re not busting ass, are perfectly decent people. They may even overlook small fallacies and be classed on the good guy roster. These guys are often concerned that they run the risk of falling into He Who Fights Monsters and become this trope.
Many Knights Templar can be found in the ranks of the Corrupt Church, the Church Militant, or the Path of Inspiration: expect them to be screaming that they are Holier Than Thou and we should all “Burn The Heretic!” Even a Saintly Church can have one of these as a foil for the Good Shepherds. If the deity behind one of these churches is one of these, on the other hand, you’ve got problems — count on an Easy Road to Hell due to them being so impossibly strict that few (if any) of the mortals under them can live up to their standards of morality.
A Knight Templar in a fantasy setting is usually a Principles Zealot, religious or otherwise. In a modern or Sci-Fi setting, the Knight Templar is just as likely to be a Totalitarian Utilitarian instead. In either case, they’re likely to be a bigot who hardly qualifies as noble, but might be troubled by their own Black and White Insanity. Sometimes, the Knight Templar is an artificially intelligent computer that took its instructions to “protect humanity” a bit too far. Prone to the Breaking Speech and/or Motive Rant about how the heroes going up against them are evil and they themselves the good guys.
Another thing to keep in mind is that while Knights Templar will insist that they’re good guys, even the ones that are practically villains, they often aren’t completely ignorant of the pain they cause; they simply consider it to be acceptable collateral damage, or regret the means they “must” use to achieve their ends. If the Knight Templar fails to see anywrong in their actions, then you’re dealing with a variant known as the Tautological Templar, who is so convinced that they’re doing the right thing that they can’t even fathom the idea that anything they do might be questionable or hurting others. It can get to the point where their rebuttal to anyone that tries to call them out will basically amount to “My actions are good because I know I am good and can’t possibly be bad, and furthermore, you oppose me because you’re bad!”
Very prone to It’s All About Me, thus, expect their pride on being the only righteous ones to bring them down. Many Templars are Lawful Neutral or Lawful Evil, but the most egomaniacal and self-centered ones are Neutral Evil (though they’ll never admit it), and the Animal Wrongs Group version is Chaotic Evil.
See also Knight Templar Parent, Knight Templar Big Brother, and Lawful Evil. Those who will really do anything for their beliefs count among The Unfettered. A mild, comedic version is the Lord Error-Prone. Blind devotion to All Crimes Are Equal without the religious zealotry falls under Lawful Stupid.
Contrast with Card-Carrying Villain — a villain who is fully aware of their evil nature and proudly embraces it. A Knight Templar can become this if they have a Heel Realization and decide to keep being a villain anyway. Alternatively, they might turn Necessarily Evil. Compare and contrast with the Knight In Sour Armor, who is what happens when a Lawful Good character chooses to err on the side of Good instead of erring towards Law.
Compare/contrast Knight Errant.
The medieval Knight Errant stems from the Chivalric Romance, where individual Knights In Shining Armor would wander the land, searching for evil to slay and ladies to rescue, guided by the Damsel Errant. Since then, knights have declined in popularity, but the Knight Errant is still around in full force — instead of knights, they are now often Samurai, Cowboys, or Samurai Cowboys.
Historically, a knight errant would refer to a landless knight who would travel in the service of his lord and hoping to earn his own land. If he is traveling because he was sent by someone it might be a case of My Master, Right or Wrong. They are basically the feudal equivalent of The Stateless.
Knights Errant have some or all of the following traits:
- They, by definition, have Chronic Hero Syndrome. They may or may not request compensation, but will always try to do the right thing.
- They have no fixed home, and spend their lives Walking the Earth (Errant means “wandering”). When they’re finished smiting the local evil, they’ll up and leave.
- They have a code of honor. If they are heroes, they can be a Knight In Sour Armor, but will always have some degree of idealism inside. On the rare occasion they’re a villain, they’re usually a Noble Demon or He Who Fights Monsters.
- They seek out wrongs to right, generally on a small scale — a town beset by bandits, a dragon preying on the locals, etc. Only occasionally will they be pitted against an Evil Overlord with earth-conquering ambitions. They often have one specific quest they are on, but you can count on them running into unrelated trouble along the way.
- They are loners. They do not have any True Companions and are not part of a Five-Man Band. They may travel with a squire or two, but not with peers; they leave allies behind when they leave town. Their love interests, if any, are left behind or bumped off by the bad guys.
- Sometimes, they are The Stoic, almost to the point of being less a character and more a physical incarnation of justice. They are very prone to having a Mysterious Past. This type generally overlaps with The Drifter.
- The classic Knight Errant of Chivalric Romance is often accompanied by his Distaff Counterpart and complement the Damsel Errant. He is seeking adventure and she knows where adventures are to be found.
There are many variations on the Knight Errant outside of Knights In Shining Armor. The Western very often stars a Knight Errant in the form of a wandering gunslinger or cowboy. Samurai are often, and Ronin are almost always, Knights Errant. Wuxia heroes are Knights Errant. Because of the shared archetype, stories about one type of Knight Errant can easily be Recycled IN SPACE — New Old West and Space Western are examples of this.