I don’t know if it’s appropriate or inappropriate to be talking about this subject after the tragedies recently in the news. But I’m troubled, and angry, and sad — and disgusted, and appalled, and then sad some more. I doubt that I’m the only person in the country who feels this way.
A friend and I, both distressed by the news, fell to talking the other night until the wee hours of the morning about a wide range of subjects that included terrorism, bombs, and guns, and that led to the discussion of a gun for “protection” in the house.
I don’t own any guns for any purpose, and I’ve occasionally wondered if I should have one for protection. I had a girlfriend once break up with me because I didn’t have a gun I could use to protect her and her daughter when the End of the World came, which she was convinced would be initiated by the Y2K computer bug.
I’ve tried to picture any realistic scenario in which a gun would protect me in my home.
For instance, there’s the nightmare scenario where I live in a bad part of town, and someone bursts through my door without knocking. It turns out to be a SWAT team that really meant to be knocking down the door of a neighbor down the hall who runs a meth lab in his kitchen, and when I reach for my trusty nine, they make hamburger out of me before it clears my belt-line…. Skrrrrk. (That’s the sound of the rewind-erase button being pressed.)
For instance, there’s the nightmare scenario where I live in a bad part of town, and someone bursts through my door without knocking. It’s a drug-crazed customer of the neighbor who runs the meth lab in his kitchen. When I reach for my trusty nine, he puts sixteen bullets through me before it clears my belt-line…. Skrrrrk.
For instance, there’s the nightmare scenario where I live in a bad part of town, and someone bursts through my door without knocking. It’s a drug-crazed customer of the neighbor who runs the meth lab in his kitchen. He catches me with a beer in one hand and a bowl of popcorn in my lap. My trusty nine is on the end-table next to my bed in the other room; I don’t wear it inside my own apartment, particularly on a hot summer evening when I’m in my underwear, because it chafes. I smile and politely ask the meth-head to excuse me while I go get my gun…. Skrrrrk.
Right, so there’s this nightmare scenario where I’ve gotten a little older with a better-paying job and I’ve moved to a better neighborhood so I can raise my kids in relative safety, and some guy breaks into my house to steal my 12-year McCallan (even the thieves are higher-end here). It’s two in the morning, and I have to turn on the light to find my glasses, so I can hunt around in my dresser drawer for my trusty nine, which is currently unloaded because I keep the ammo separate from the gun, as is recommended by even the NRA when you have children in the house. The light and sound scares off the intruder, and I spend the rest of the night cursing up a blue streak because I can’t find the key to the ammo drawer…. Skrrrrk.
So the intruder at two in the morning is hopped up on bad drugs. When I turn on the light, he gets angry instead of scared and comes looking for me. He catches me in my underwear, blinking in the light, my trusty (unloaded) nine in my hand, trying to remember where I put the key to the ammo drawer, and …. Skrrrrk.
Okay, I keep my trusty nine in my dresser drawer next to my bed, loaded and ready to go, safety-on of course, and … wait, there are grand-kids in the house…. Skrrrrk.
There’s one simple, central problem with any “intruder came into my house” scenario. The intruder is already prepared for a confrontation. If he’s got a gun, then the gun is out, it’s loaded, and the safety is off. Even if he’s unarmed, he’s keyed up and ready to throw a cell phone at my head and run like hell at the first sign of trouble. By contrast, I’m invariably caught by surprise, because I’m not expecting an intruder. I’m watching television with a beer in one hand and popcorn in the other. I’m sitting at the dinner table. I’m catching up on my bathroom reading. I’m asleep in bed. The gun that I keep for protection is almost certainly out of my immediate reach, maybe in my dresser drawer, probably in a locked drawer or gun cabinet, likely unloaded.
Of course, there are the other nightmare scenarios.
I used to work late on contract down in Boulder, and my boss gave me a key to his house so that I could sleep there rather than making the late-night drive to Fort Collins. One evening, I forgot that he’d told me he had house-guests that weekend. He went home early to entertain them, and promptly forgot that I was working late.
I let myself into his house quietly, well after midnight, set down my things, and padded through the dark house up to the guest room, which was pitch black. I started to undress, when I heard a sudden snore, and someone turned over in the bed I was about to climb into. A big, male snore. I suddenly remembered the house-guests. Crap.
I very quietly slunk out of the room, down the stairs, and out the front door.
As it turns out, the father-in-law was upstairs; he never woke, and never knew I was there. The mother-in-law, however, had not been able to sleep, and had moved down to the couch in the living room. She was still mostly awake when I came in. She saw my dark silhouette enter silently, slink up the stairs, then slink down a few minutes later and vanish. She was too terrified even to scream: she was certain I’d murdered everyone upstairs in their sleep. Then she wondered if she’d been dreaming.
I was the intruder.
My friend said that he had experienced a similar situation, except he was the person at home, and one of his wife’s out-of-state co-workers walked into the house at midnight. She’d forgotten to tell her husband he would be arriving late and spending the night in the guest bedroom.
Or there was the time my sister barged straight into my house, carrying an infant in one arm and a folded crib with the other hand. She just turned the knob and shouldered the door open. No knock, no phone call, no notice at all, and she lived five hours away: the last person in the world I expected to walk through my door.
Thank goodness none of us had a loaded gun handy.
Of course, there are situations outside the home. A gun seems a little more practical outside the home. After all, you’re going out into that big, bad, scary world full of terrorists and drug dealers and thieves and murderers — you should be frightened, keyed-up, ready to react, right? You can strap on your six-gun and swagger a little, and if it chafes? Well, you can take it off again when you get home. In the meantime, you’ve made the world a little safer for everyone with your public display of lethal armament.
So the NRA argues.
Then I look at cops. They train to deal with physical confrontation. They keep their gun in easy reach, in a holster. They use a target range regularly. They call for backup at the first sign of real trouble.
With all that going for them, they can still die in a shoot-out with a terrified seventeen year old kid. So what chance do I really stand?
I like to play first-person shooter video games. They’ve taught me a valuable lesson: that I die a lot in a firefight. I die even when I know exactly what the other guy is going to do, because I’ve watched him make the same moves each of the fifteen times I’ve already died.
All of those miraculous bits of split-second timing in the movies use the same principle of repetition (plus a big helping of computer graphics): multiple takes of the same scene, over and over, practice makes perfect, until they finally get it right once. Then they cut-and-paste relentlessly until it looks natural.
In real life, muffing the first take means you lose an eye, or an arm, or your life. You don’t get a second take.
We had a tragic real-life situation a number of years back, where a woman, stalked by her psychotic ex-husband, was gunned down on the steps of the police station where she sought sanctuary. Someone wrote a letter to the editor claiming the tragedy would not have occurred if she’d had a gun and “stood up for herself” instead of running to the police.
I thought about that. The police station was diagonally across from the Catholic elementary school playground, and there were children playing there during recess who saw her get shot. I believe the husband was shooting from somewhere between the playground and the police station. Had she pulled out her trusty nine and shot back, she’d have been shooting toward the kids.
Just how good is her aim when her hands are shaking?
Plus, we need more mano a mano shootouts on our public streets? We’re sure the good guy is always the better shot? No one ever misses their target and hits someone in a nearby apartment or house or schoolyard?
The whole concept seems incredibly dim-witted.
Ah, the argument goes, but if everyone had a gun, the bad guys would be too intimidated to use theirs.
I pointed a gun at someone, once, to intimidate him.
It happened like this: I was working at my employer’s house in his extended home office, when he suddenly burst into the room and told me he needed my help. He had a shotgun.
“Jesus!” I said. “What’s going on?”
“Hoodlums,” he said. “They come up on my property and take drugs.”
“You’re going to shoot them?” I asked, appalled.
“Nah,” he said. “It’s not loaded. But I don’t want them to run off while I call the police.” He cracked it open and showed me — it was a simple, single-load shotgun, a bare metal pipe, and I could look down the barrel and see daylight.
I followed him outside, and he confronted two teen-aged kids sitting in a grove of trees just on his side of the property line. On the other side was a railroad right-of-way, and beyond that, a Wal-Mart parking lot. I couldn’t read the kids very well — they were probably pretty high on pot, so they were too mellow to react much, but I think they were also terrified and trying to cover it up. They just sat there with defeated “oh shit” expressions on their faces. I felt sorry for them.
“Here,” my boss said, and shoved the shotgun into my hands. “You keep an eye on these two while I call the cops.” He took a few steps away, turned his back, and pulled out his cell phone.
I stood with the gun pointed at the ground in the kids’ general direction and wondered how many laws I was breaking at the moment.
I’ve thought about that situation on and off over the last sixteen years, and in hindsight, I wish I’d handled it differently. While the boss was looking the other way, arguing with the dispatcher — he argued with everyone — I think I’d have pointed the gun away from the kids, and quietly gestured for them to beat feet and get out of there. The point had already been made: this is bad property to trespass, the guy who lives here is crazy and he has a gun.
Had our roles been fully reversed — had it been my property — I think I’d have handled it very differently. On the one hand, I’d probably have ignored it. Kids grow up and move on: the problem solves itself. On the other hand, there’s a reason these kids decided to light up right there and not somewhere else — probably convenience, and that will be the same for the next batch of kids, year after year — and there’s always the risk of a “tradition” forming around the spot. So if it really bothered me, I’d likely have walked up to them, hunkered down, maybe bummed a toke off them, and talked. I don’t personally care for cannabis, but there are proprieties to be observed when approaching members of a foreign and potentially hostile tribe. If you approach with respect, you’re generally okay.
I learned this from a different girlfriend — long blond hair, sexy, beautiful — who had once lived in one of the roughest neighborhoods of a big city. She didn’t have a gun. She didn’t need a gun. She had bikers. She befriended those rough, tough bastards who surrounded her, and they treated her like a favorite kid sister. Had anyone raised a finger against her, he’d have been hunted.
All it required from her was a little respect.
I think I could have reached a workable deal with the kids. Who knows — maybe a tiny touch of respect would have turned their lives around in a good way. Probably not. But being sucked up into the legal system as enemy combatants in the Drug War had zero potential for helping them in any way.
I’ve often thought about how dangerous my boss’s action was. The gun wasn’t loaded; even if it had been, it was a single-loader, and there were two kids. Suppose they had been armed? Supposed they had been jacked up on something crazy-making? Suppose they were as crazy and suicidal as the two kids at Columbine? Or the Sandy Hook shooter? What my boss did was classic escalation of threat of violence, simply assuming it would overwhelm these two kids and make them fearful and compliant. That’s not a reasonable assumption.
There’s an old saying: if you’re going to hunt bear, for God’s sake, use enough gun. If you’re going to threaten another person with deadly force, you need to be willing to use deadly force and then, for God’s sake, use enough gun. An unloaded single-shell shotgun pointed at two potential threats is not enough gun.
What I can say with absolute personal certainty is that pointing an unloaded shotgun at two teen-agers to bluff them into not running did not feel good, and it isn’t something I’d ever want to do again.
I can’t leave this topic without at least a mention of the paranoid, delusional “defending our nation against tyranny” argument for private ownership of assault weapons, which is basically an argument that owning a machine-gun with hollow-point rounds is a patriotic duty.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with this idea, it’s based on the belief that The Real Enemy is Government: specifically the United States Federal Government. It claims the Second Amendment to the Constitution as the basis for our right to bear arms against our own government, should it get too uppity.
Well, that’s not what the Second Amendment is about. Truth is, they don’t teach what the Second Amendment is about in the schools, because it’s part of our shameful past as a nation.
The Second Amendment is about preserving slavery. Read this article — it’s an eye-opener. In a nutshell: the slave states had what they called “militias,” also known as “slave patrols.” White men in the slave states were required by state law to serve in the patrols — it was their duty, just like jury duty. Their job was to keep the African slaves under control, and to do so effectively, the militias needed to be armed. The slave-states feared that the wording of the Constitution was such that the federal government could disarm (and therefore abolish) their militias, thus destroying their ability to keep their African slaves, so they insisted on the Second Amendment as a condition to signing the Constitution.
We no longer have “militias” of this sort, because slavery is now illegal. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished the principal reason for the Second Amendment.
That isn’t to say that States could not organize militias against internal threats other than slave revolts, but the idea of “well-regulated” means that they are organized under and subject to state law, and are therefore subject to federal law as well. The State Highway Patrol could be considered a “well-regulated militia” organized under the Second Amendment.
Now I can’t speak to the broader question of whether or when we’ll need to throw off an oppressive Federal Government, a la The Hunger Games. But it’s quite clear that it isn’t legal to do this now, and isn’t going to be legal to do so then, with or without the Second Amendment. Furthermore, we come back to the earlier notion that if you’re going to hunt bear, for God’s sake, use enough gun.
A rabble of disgruntled citizens armed with assault weapons isn’t even close to enough gun for the job of overthrowing an oppressive national government. The only gun big enough for that job is a citizenry that is substantially willing to die rather than submit to continued oppression.
Such a citizenry doesn’t need guns to overthrow the government.
So how do I come down on the moral issue of owning guns for safety?
I have no idea: I can’t get that far. I can’t get past the practical issues.
When it comes to promoting safety, guns simply don’t work.
What guns provide is a means of projecting lethal force with great accuracy over a relatively long distance. They do that quite well, but that’s all they do. There are certainly times when that is appropriate. But it is lethal force. If you’ve used enough gun for the job, it will kill your target. If you don’t intend to kill your target, you’re using entirely the wrong tool.
Using a gun for intimidation does not promote safety: it is one of the riskiest things you can do. You rely upon the other person being afraid of death, and willing to stand down in the face of your threat of force. But the only thing you know about their mental state is that they are already outside the bounds of civil behavior: they’re in your house without permission, or they’re stalking you on the street, or they’re robbing a convenience store with a gun of their own. They’re a little bit crazy at the moment. How will they react if they see you pull out a gun?
You have absolutely no idea how they will react. No one does.
Maybe, like in the movies, they’ll suddenly come to their senses, and they’ll put down their weapon and meekly submit to being tied up with a convenient bit of rope lying nearby, so you can call the police and have them “taken away” to wherever the police take the bad guys when they tidy up.
And maybe Gwyneth Paltrow really will step out of her hiding place behind the Coke machine and smother you with kisses.
I sure wouldn’t bet my life on it.