Guns: The (Il)Logic of Self-Defense

I’m afraid I just don’t get this.

As I mentioned last week, I don’t like guns. But a lot of people do like them or, at the least, feel a gun is necessary for self-defense.

I try to consider all points of view, although it’s tough in this case since I don’t know much about guns, nor do I understand criminal behavior. Even so, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking through the various scenarios so I can understand how a gun would make me safer. But as I run through these situations, they don’t add up. There are certain situations where a gun might help, but in most cases, it seems of limited use, particularly given the potential for accidents and mistakes.
Maybe someone who understands guns can explain to me what I’m missing in the following scenarios…

On the Street
I’m walking down the street, carrying a concealed handgun, and someone pulls a gun or knife on me. I don’t think even the densest crook would just walk straight up to me and whip out a gun. He (and I’ll stick to the male gender since men are responsible for the vast majority of violence) would likely approach from behind, or pass me and then turn around.
Now that they’ve got the gun or knife pointed at me, what am I supposed to do? I’m not Wild Bill Hickok. I’m not going to “outdraw” the bad guy nor would I think most people could (outside of the movies).
Of course, maybe someone would be stupid enough to pull a weapon out right in front of me. Again, I would need to outdraw him (or if he’s got a knife, hope that I can shoot him before he stabs me). I would also need to know (and this is really important) that he’s reaching for a gun, and not just pulling out a cellphone.
You’ll note I’m not distinguishing between a knife and a gun. I assume anyone robbing me with a knife is going to hold it very near, again requiring me to have much better reflexes than I do – particularly if they’re behind me, which would require me to somehow spin around while pulling my weapon.
I know there are states that allow “open-carry,” which would presumably be a severe discouragement to criminals. I certainly think this is a more effective deterrent than a concealed weapon. But there are some obvious issues with letting everyone carry weapons openly, starting with the fact that law enforcement officers would be in the very difficult position of not knowing who’s supposed to have a gun and who shouldn’t. And there’s the broader question of whether we want to live in a society in which it’s necessary to constantly carry a weapon.
In a Car
We’ve all heard about road rage incidents in which people shoot at each other while driving. Good reason to drive with a weapon, right?
I don’t think so: if someone starts shooting at me while I’m driving, I’m going to get the hell out of there, not fish around in my glove box for a gun. Even if I had a gun handy, I can’t envision shooting out the window while driving and not 1) losing control of the car (driving being the most dangerous activity most of us engage in on a regular basis), or 2) hitting some innocent bystander.
The other situation is the one people are probably most afraid of: car-jacking. You’re sitting at a stop sign or red light, and someone sticks a gun up against your window. We’ve also got the (possibly apocryphal) stories about gang members tapping the read-end of a person’s car, and then stealing the car when they get out to see the damage.
As in the street situations I outlined above, I can’t imagine a gun does much good if the bad guy’s already got his gun on me. If it seems feasible, I might just duck, stomp on the gas and get the hell out of there. Otherwise, he’s welcome to my dirty Subaru.
Seeing someone coming is the one situation where a gun might serve as a deterrent. If I see someone getting out of the other vehicle with a weapon, I can then pull the gun out of the glove box. And I suppose that in the aforementioned “accident” situation, I could get out of my car with gun displayed if I’m suspicious. That would seem to require a degree of situational awareness training that I suspect most of us lack. Still, it might help.
In My House
Someone breaks into your home: a thief or, even worse, a sexual predator. While these situations are rare (more on that in the next chapter of this piece), they are terrifying. What better reason to have a gun than to defend against an invasion of your home?
First, we’re really talking about active defense here, not deterrence, for a simple reason: how is a criminal supposed to know you’ve got a gun in your house? You could put a sign up, but given the prevalence of guns in the country (almost 100 million handguns, according to the NRA, with 44% of people indicating they own a gun in a survey earlier this year), a criminal has got to assume a gun will be present (almost a 50% chance, and higher obviously in certain locales).
If someone chooses to break into a home in spite of this, and knowing that someone is present, I’ve got to think they’re either crazy or desperate. Having a gun might allow me to protect my family (assuming I don’t accidentally shoot my teenager who’s just sneaking in after curfew, or the family pet knocking over a lamp). There’s also the danger factor in having a loaded gun in the house (a few years ago, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study showing that homes with guns suffered considerably higher rates of suicides and accidents), but given the (over)attention paid to the rare but awful random home invasions, such as the Petit case in Conn., I can understand the impulse to have a loaded gun handy. Not that I’d do it myself.
Mass Shootings
Although very rare, mass shootings are terrifying due to their random and unpredictable nature. An armed citizen is unlikely to stop a mass shooting from starting since these often begin with no warning. (In the recent Tucson shootings, the alleged shooter just pulled out his gun and shot Congresswoman Giffords through the head before anyone knew what was happening.)
Once a shooting like this has started, however, I can see where an armed citizen could end it more quickly. If, God forbid, I were ever in a situation like that, I doubt I’d have the presence of mind to do more than try to find cover for me and anyone nearby. But hopefully someone with the right training and awareness could end the massacre earlier. They’d have to be really good to 1) identify the right target(s), and 2) shoot him/them without 3) taking out innocent people. It’s worth noting that police departments have whole tactical teams to deal with these situations.
My Conclusions
I count three situations in which a gun might help: against some car-jacking situations, home invasion, and to reduce the impact of a mass shooting. Balanced against these are situations where the gun wouldn’t help, not to mention the whole issue of overreaction, mistakes, accidents, etc. On balance, I’m not sold on the need for a firearm.

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2 replies

  1. I'm not sold on the mass shooting argument. The likelihood that an average citizen would panic and randomly start shooting is so much higher than her/him having enough training, presence of mind and understanding of the situation to hit the target. Multiply that by several people trying to do the right thing and you would have a chaotic shoot-out at your hands.


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