Some years back — maybe 10 years before the Great Recession — I wrote a story about a stockbroker who’d become homeless in an economic crash. The only possession of value he had left was an Uzi and for awhile he thought it would save him.
At some point in the story, a character says, “Guns are just another tool, and ultimately no tool is ever the answer.”
The more I think about that line, the more I think it has meaning beyond the story.
I’m thinking about guns and self defense a lot because I’m in the process of preparing a presentation on self defense for FOGcon this weekend. The theme for this year’s convention is Law, Order, and Crime, so it’s a relevant topic even if it isn’t directly about science fiction.
After doing a lot of thinking and research, I’ve come to a conclusion about weapons:
Most people don’t need a gun for self defense.
A few weeks back, NPR had a long segment on testimony about gun issues on Capitol Hill. A woman named Gayle Trotter said guns made women safer. According to the transcript, she said
The peace of mind that a woman has as she’s facing three, four, five violent attackers, intruders in her home, with her children screaming in the background, the peace of mind that she has knowing that she has a scary-looking gun gives her more courage when she’s fighting hardened, violent criminals.
I’m sure I’d want a gun in that situation, too. But the odds of my being in that situation are very low: home invasion is rare. Besides, a gun is only useful to you in defending yourself against armed attackers like that if you really know what you’re doing.
The issue isn’t whether guns might be useful for self defense in a few circumstances, but whether buying a gun and spending the time necessary to learn how to use it is a useful thing to do given that you’re unlikely to ever be in one of those circumstances.
Besides, a gun isn’t a benign household object. The availability of a gun increases the likelihood that it will be used in circumstances that don’t warrant it. There’s an old saying: To a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
A gun, like a hammer, is a tool. And to a person with a gun, every conflict looks like something that can be solved by pointing a gun. Somehow, we in the United States have let that kind of thinking take over: a very large number of people in this country believe that guns ensure personal safety.
I could go on and on (and will at FOGcon) about self defense skills that are more universal and effective than guns for the average person, but at the moment I’m more interested in why we have such faith in guns.
One reason, I suspect, is that a lot of the stories we consume — from books, from movies, and especially from reading the news — are about situations where someone with a gun solved a problem. If you replace the word “gun” with “violence,” you probably find even more stories in which dealing death and destruction turns out to be the solution. I don’t think most people are deliberately writing these stories to promote guns; I suspect they’ve just read a lot of similar stories and think that’s the way it’s supposed to happen.
The National Rifle Association and people like Trotter are the worst offenders on this front, but it is not unreasonable to look at movies and books and video games to see how many of them assume a violent response is the solution to a problem.
I’m not advocating censorship — censorship is almost always bad — but I am suggesting that all of us should examine the stories we create and consume to see whether the violent solutions proposed by many of them are, in fact, the right choice. There are times when guns or violence are the solution, but I’m pretty sure they’re a lot more infrequent than most of us think.
I am not blaming school shootings and other horrors on movies and video games. I am saying that the cultural idea that violence is a solution leads to such silly ideas as having teachers carry guns to school in the wake of those tragedies.
Crime has decreased in the United States over the past 20 years, but we still have too many murders (by guns and other means). I don’t think the violence problem will go away until we create a culture that doesn’t view weapons as a solution to all problems.
This is not to say that I disagree with such things as background checks and restrictions on the weapons people can buy. In fact, I’d like to see a requirement that all prospective gun owners must pass both a written and practical exam showing they understand safety protocols and know how to operate a weapon before they can purchase one. We do it for drivers; why not for gun owners?
Such rules will help keep guns out of the hands of people who should never be allowed near a weapon. But we’re still going to have too much violence in this country so long as we keep thinking guns are the answer to every safety question.