Guns and Self Defense

Uzi 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.

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Guns and Self Defense — 22 Comments

  1. I’ve run across this problem from a purely writing perspective as well. It’s often easy to work up to your major problem and then solve it all with a good fight scene. But that isn’t always the way that fits the book. I have a character who’s entire MO is that she doesn’t like fighting and she thinks that using swords to solve all your problems is dumb. She’s also no good at fighting, but she’s …spunky…(that word, I kind of hate it), so I need to show that she’s not going to back down. And she loves a good verbal battle! But when I’m in the middle of action sequences I have to figure out how to foreground her other skills, handy, good with knots, can sew like mad. The goal of the book is to show that there is never a single right way to do things. But that means I have to show this to be true. And that means fighting a lot of ingrained ideas about the obvious answer to a problem. Again, “if you’ve got a hammer…” But the worst thing is, if you’re used to having a hammer, and suddenly you don’t, you feel stupid, because everything still looks like a nail, and you keep reaching for the one tool you think will fix things, even though it will actually wreck your whole set up.

    • ‘handy, good with knots, can sew like mad’

      Oh my, I would LOVE to read about her! She sounds amazing!

      love Maggie (unhandy, can tie a reef knot, can sew v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y)

    • sounds like a great idea for a character. I think I would like to read her, and can think of at least 5 close friends/ rels who would as well. Write on. Hope to see it soon.

  2. How much of the gun (and overall violence) in stories is driven by publishers? 30 years ago, I was a big mystery fan. Now I rarely read the genre, since – more often than not – the climax of the story has to be some kind of shoot-em-up. I know a lot of women fantasy writers are pushed into writing romance by publishers. Are publishers doing something similar with guns and violence?

  3. I don’t think it’s the publishers specifically; I think there’s been an escalation of violence in all branches of fiction generally. I mean, I love the ridiculousness of the Die Hard movies, but I don’t take them as being in the least realistic. I also believe that in a really emergent situation thinking clearly enough to act like John McClane is highly unlikely. But many people want to believe that they would be That Guy in a dangerous situation. It’s a nice fantasy (I want to believe that someday I will be 5′ 9″ and willowy), and it panders to our idea that using a tool is going to be quicker and easier than using our words.

    Today’s best example of the “every problem looks like a nail”: a woman who pulled a gun when the clerk at Walmart wouldn’t honor her dollar-off coupon. Yoicks.

    *It is an interesting thing that, in my most recent Sarah Tolerance book, one criticism was that there wasn’t enough sword-play (I know. Not a gun, and yet…). Me, I find getting out of a jam with your wits to be really exciting, but I suppose not everyone does.

  4. How nice to write on a controversial subject and get such thoughtful responses.

    I think the problem isn’t publishers per se, but rather just a general feeling that violence is a necessary part of a story, especially an adventure story. That is, I don’t see anyone (except the NRA and others like them) pushing an agenda that violence is a solution in fiction or real life, but rather a societal consensus that things just work like that. Despite being someone who loves to write a good fight scene, I’d like to see more stories that defy that consensus.

    However, I once told someone I was working on a story about a martial arts master who never got into any fights and they responded, “You don’t want to sell that story very badly, do you?” I don’t think I ever finished it. Maybe I should go back to it.

    • go back to it! The idea sounds right to me… isn’t one of the arguments for having guns – if you have it you should never have to use it, the threat of it being there is enough – same with a double dan black belt. lol

  5. I’ve just finished watching the marathon of “Farscape.” Even though the series and mini series wrap up are now 10 years old, I was struck by how much this subject fits the arc of the story.

    In the first episodes John Creighton is a scientist. He drops guns, can figure out where the trigger is and uses his brains to get them out of tricky situations. By the end of the series he takes a nuclear bomb to a peace conference. Over the 4 years and 88 episodes he has been pushed, and pushed hard by the culture around him to respond to violence with bigger violence. His enemies will consider no other course of action and understand no other reaction.

    Is this the kind of culture we want our children and grandchildren growing up with? It looks to me like it is. Violence doesn’t have to be the only action/reaction but we seem to be training ourselves to think that way.

    We all need to step back and THINK. Not just react with the closest weapon handy.

  6. Home invasion is all too common in New Orleans — and it’s not confined to the poor and / or blocks that are primarily populated by people of color.

    It happened to us, even. We were asleep and woke to man leaning over us.

    Much screaming and pushing and shoving ensued and it turned out OK — he didn’t have a gun, and we didn’t have a gun. If there had been gun over there by my husband’s side of the bed he probably would have shot the young rich white tourist so drunk out of his mind he didn’t know where he was. That would have been an awful thing.

    The next day my husband went to Walmart and looked at shotguns. Then he bought a police baton instead.

    Love, C.

    • That brings up the interesting question of whether having a gun will escalate a situation that can better be resolved in other ways. Sounds like you all decided it might.

      Do you know of any statistics on home invasion in New Orleans? It seems to be hard to get any real data on it.

  7. I don’t know off-hand. My husband may. Or a Tulane friend, who has been paying close attention to New Orleans crime for years, long before the Failure of the Levees. I’ll ask tonight. But I do know large number of the most horrendous murders are home invasion. New Orleans is a gun mad city, and an extraordinarily violent city. It always has been, from the very first days of its founding at the start of the 18th century. When it was turned over to the Americans in 1803, most of the territory’s administration was appointed by Jefferson, and he appointed his own Virginians or Virginians who came via the Kentucky migration ‘west.’ They were all gun mad. The collision of the Catholic and the Protestant cultures then, created even more violence.

    After the F, a number of our friends spent their days sitting in front of their homes or business with their weapons prominently displayed. And then you had all those Black Water thugs running around the city, rogue feds — the violence they caused and committed was horrendous. Murders that to this day have remained swept under the rug.

    Love, C.

  8. I just went noodling about now with “home invasion crime New Orleans” and then stripped it even further down to “home invasion New Orleans.” URL after URL come up.

    Here is a NOLA.Gov crime map site:

    http://www.nola.gov/government/nopd/crime-maps/

    We’ve discussed it. If we live in NO again, we will have a gun. Even though I can’t see for shyte, etc. We’ll get trained. But — I dunno. You can do things wrong so easily with a gun.

    Love, C.

    • Thanks for the link.

      And if you do decide to get guns for protection, do get very good training in how to use them.

      I was doing research today for my presentation and came across two interesting pieces. One, in Pro Publica was an interview with the leader of the Centers for Disease Control study on guns and violence that was shut down by Congress because the NRA didn’t want any research on the subject. According to that piece, the researchers found a huge correlation between having a firearm in the house and being a victim of homicide. There was also a major correlation with suicide.

      The second was a piece by Maggie Koerth-Baker on boingboing on why the science on gun violence is so weak. Both are worth a read.

      • After the Newtown shootings the papers and other local media like the public radio station began keeping of every death by guns around the country. They put these stories up every day at first. But there are so many, they do it weekly now.

        It was then I learned that the NRA had managed to force the government to NOT TRACK THESE SHOOTINGS when the government agency — health and human resources? — had started to do so, back in the 90’s, I think. WTF??????

        I grew up with guns, for hunting, and for putting down sick or injured animals, as I grew up on a working family farm. My father and his friends on nice days, holidays, set up targets and shoot. Sometimes he just did it himself, by himself. Of course as we kids got big enough, i.e. strong enough, to hold his rifle, he gave us lessons. Now that so much a weapon is made from plastic, maybe they’re not as heavy as his shotguns and rifles?

        Love, C.

        • Congress blocked the Centers for Disease Control from studying gun violence in the 90s. So one of the things that keeps coming up in the wake of the Newtown shootings is how little we know about what’s important and what’s effective in dealing with guns and violence.

  9. The one time I was in a physical confrontation with a mugger, I had a knife. And decided not to bring that into the equation. 1) I really didn’t want to kill someone, and frankly, given the disparity in our sizes, I didn’t think I would be able to stop the guy if I made him angry by stabbing him, unless I stabbed to kill (regardless of my success). 2) I had no assurance the knife was not going to be taken from me, or that the young man who wanted my purse would have the same sorts of scruples I have about hurting someone else. I let the guy take my purse. I suspect that, if I had truly thought my life was in danger, I might have made another decision. But my instinct was that all he wanted was the bag, and no trouble. So I gave him both.

    One fear, if I’d had a gun, was that it would be taken from me and used against me, or that I would not be able to use it if forced to. And frankly, I don’t like the idea of my own emotional and cognitive fallout if I did shoot someone.

    • You make a very important point here: Your instinct was that all the guy wanted was your bag and no trouble, so you acted on that instinct and no one got hurt. Acting on your instinct is a key part of self defense. Human beings are very good at reading each other. Where we get in trouble is usually in disregarding our instincts and doing something else.

  10. I own guns. I like them. I carry one almost every day. Am I likely ever to need to use one to defend myself or another? No. Is that likelihood zero? No. Do I gain recreation and relaxation from using them at a range and in competitions? Yes. Are the rules for safe handling of firearms difficult to understand? No. Are modern firearms difficult to operate? No. Is training advisable? Yes. Where can you get training? Ask at your local gun store or ask the NRA. What’s the best kind of a gunfight? The one you don’t have. No, we do not require one to pass a test before buying a car; we require one to pass a test to OPERATE that car on public roads. I have carried a gun almost every day for many years now and I have never seen a problem that made me want to shoot at it. I am just an ordinary man, nothing special, nothing grand. Older and weaker than most.

    • You sound like a sane and responsible gun owner and you make a good point: the best kind of gunfight is “the one you don’t have.” Or, as a friend of who often carries a gun (and who would likely disagree with much of what I’ve said) often says, “Everything that can happen once you draw a gun is bad.”

      I’m most concerned about the people who think buying a gun will keep them safe. They are confusing the tool with the use of the tool and I think that’s dangerous. Awareness and attitude are so much more important.

      As for the gun license/car license analogy: Yeah, you can buy a car without a license, but you can’t test drive it before you buy without one or operate it on the street without one.

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