The Gun Fanatic’s Fantasy
The United States has as many guns as it has people. That’s roughly 40 percent of the world’s firearms for about 4.5 percent of the world’s population. It’s no secret that America is packing heat. The secret is who owns it — and why.
Just 3 percent of adults own half of all civilian guns in the U.S.; 22 percent of adults own them all. For that top 3 percent it works out to an average of 17 guns each. Assuming that each of these people also has an average of two hands, they must have a reason beyond mere pragmatism for being strapped to the nines. That reason is an American cultural peculiarity, one that’s captured perfectly by the National Rifle Association’s favourite phrase: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” It’s the same thing that makes James Bond and Tony Stark popular characters, that makes the U.S. military a worshipped institution, and that leads 2 in 3 gun-owners to cite self-protection as a major reason for owning a weapon: the desire to be a hero.
I’d be tempted to call this noble if it wasn’t founded on such a misguided moral mythology. Much of western culture is based on Judeo-Christian tradition, but for whatever reason, puritanical undercurrents run especially strong through American life. Virtually every conflict is framed erroneously as a struggle between good and evil.
Few things are more dangerous than someone with half an idea.
The implicit connection between heroism and Hollywood is so strong that most people, I suspect, don’t even truly grasp what it means to be a hero. They picture someone swinging in to save the day, then — and this is the key — receiving the accolades at the end of the story. When James Bond leaps through a hail of bullets unscathed, it’s routine. When someone in real life does the same, it’s a god-damned miracle. Gun aficionados who picture themselves gallantly fending off armed intruders are neither imagining themselves getting shot in the process, nor considering that they may accidentally kill an innocent bystander. They ought to.
Just Like in the Movies
As an example of such magical thinking, I give you Exhibit A. Lillie Allen is the principle of a school that goes out of its way to (try to) prepare students for an active-shooter scenario (even though such situations are incredibly rare). She “demonstrates,” smugly, how by keeping a pistol in her purse she will simply turn the tables on any would-be assailant.
Easy as pie.
Nice try, lady. Real life isn’t so neat and tidy. She must assume that her attacker would, what, stand at a convenient distance while requesting politely that she surrender the goods? Not to mention that when you reach into a purse, pocket, satchel, or glove box while there’s a gun pointed at you, it doesn’t take a genius to know what happens next. Trained cops panic in these high-stakes situations all the time; here we’re talking about some dude who’s so desperate for cash he’s mugging elderly women. Sure, her gun could protect her just like she envisions. But there are also several possible outcomes in which her brilliant plan might go horribly awry. Let us count the ways.
- The mugger grabs her purse by surprise, running away before she has the chance to do anything. (Compared to most of the alternatives, this one isn’t that bad. The only thing she loses is her purse.)
- The attacker catches her by surprise, wrestling her to the ground before she can reach her gun. Already pinned down, she’s at his mercy.
- The attacker points a gun at her. While she reaches into her purse, he shoots her.
- She reaches into her purse, but the attacker is close enough that he grabs the gun. During the struggle, someone gets shot. Flip a coin to find out who.
- She successfully retrieves her gun from her purse. She pulls the trigger, but nothing happens. In her panic, she had forgotten to disable the safety. Game over.
- Her gun lacks a safety catch mechanism so that she can fire quickly if needed. While rummaging through her purse for candy, her young grandson accidentally shoots himself.
I wish Ms. Allen luck. She’s going to need it.
Exhibit B: the vigilant women “training” to engage in a gunfight with their child at their side.
My favourite part is when the NRA-Certified instructor, Melody Lauer, completes her demonstration of one-handed firing by recommending that the soccer moms smite the bad guy with “two to the chest, one to the head.” Just like in the movies.
I deliberately treat the word “training” with contempt here, because it’s impossible to prepare adequately for a situation where not only your own life, but the life of your child, is in jeopardy. (Also: Do these people know that attackers move and shoot back in real life?) Fine, I suppose it’s better than nothing. But that’s not saying much. If you ever find yourself searching for a shining example of naivety, look no further. You’ve found the Holy Grail.
For anyone other than those who have completed hours upon hours of tactical training, as police officers and soldiers have (and yet even they still get killed sometimes), a gunfight would be a frightful, paralyzing experience. Professionals know that every time bullets fly, it’s a dice-roll. So if you believe that some two-bit, once-a-week, shoot-at-idle-targets-then-have-coffee practice session can prepare you for the most terrifying 15 seconds anyone can be forced to endure, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. If push ever came to shove for these intrepid folks, there’s every chance they’d be struck down — or shoot the wrong person — quicker than they could say “2nd Amendment.”
It comes down to biology. Think about a time when you were crossing the street absentmindedly, or even driving yourself. Maybe you were daydreaming or listening to music. Suddenly, you snap out of it and realize there’s a car headed your way, or a pedestrian in your path. If you’re on foot, do you instantly leap out of the way? If you’re driving, do you instantly slam on the brakes? No: for a split second, you freeze. This is the first step of the freeze-flight-fight response that has been hardwired into the brain of every mammal through millions of years of evolution — it’s harder for a lion to see a gazelle that’s perfectly still than one that’s moving. It’s the “deer in the headlights” feeling that we’ve all experienced. And it’s literally unavoidable, because it takes a short moment for the electrical signal to go from eyes to brain to legs, allowing you to take evasive action. A short moment is more than enough time for a bullet to reach you.
Welcome to Mt. Stupid
Guns and fantasies are a dangerous combination. When people imagine themselves being heroic, especially with guns, they pay scant attention to their own limitations. Their fantasy doesn’t include factors beyond their control, and doesn’t account for the possibility that things might not go as planned. Fantasies translate poorly to the real world in which the “good guy” doesn’t always win.
Much like a driver who overestimates his skill on the road, someone who has a flippant, cotton-candy view of guns is likely to have an inflated opinion of his ability to wield one.
The gulf between one’s capability in their imagination and in reality can be explained by something called the Superiority Illusion, also known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Behold:
Few things are more dangerous than someone with half an idea. Like anyone who subscribes to Social Darwinism. Or like undergraduate university students who fashion themselves as infallible purveyors of social justice. Amateurs perched on “Mt. Stupid” think they have it all figured out. They lack the experience to recognize their own weaknesses. They’re ignorant of big-picture context, and have yet to learn that there are exceptions to almost any rule. They desire recognition and respect for a skill they wish they had, but lack the patience and perseverance required to attain it. Experts, by contrast, know better than to view the world in terms of black and white absolutes. And most of all, they know they’re not invincible.
Most of us know someone who fears flying on a commercial jet more than they fear driving to the airport, even though, statistically speaking, driving on the highway is far more dangerous. Claustrophobia, turbulence, and the dramatic acceleration during takeoff can explain part of flight phobia. The main difference between driving a car and flying in an airplane, though, is a matter of agency. People are more comfortable when they feel in control. Needless to say, many drivers aren’t as masterful behind the wheel as they think they are: research indicates that up to 80 percent of drivers believe their own driving skill is above average.
Firearms proficiency is bound to be much the same, especially because guns in America have important psychosocial significance for men, who own most of them. Let’s face the elephant in the room: some men are attracted to guns for the same reason that they want to drive a big pick-up truck with 22" chrome rims — it’s a way of seeking hyper-masculine validation. That doesn’t make them stupid or immoral. (It means the culture they live in teaches the wrong lessons and provides the wrong incentives. I’ve written elsewhere about why men and feminism need each other.) But someone who fetishizes an activity is more likely to get ahead of their skis because, deep down, it makes them feel cool. When it comes to using a lethal weapon, that’s dangerous. Much like a driver who overestimates his skill on the road, someone who has a flippant, cotton-candy view of guns is likely to have an inflated opinion of his ability to wield one.
None of this is to say there aren’t gun enthusiasts who recognize that storing and operating firearms safely is a serious responsibility. The gun-owners I know well take safety very seriously. They also happen to live in rural areas, and own their guns primarily for hunting.
A troubling trend has emerged over the last two decades. In three snapshots, here are the top two main reasons American gun-owners cited for possessing a firearm (percentages may surpass 100 because respondents were free to choose more than one option):
Protection: 26% Hunting: 49%
Protection: 48% Hunting: 32%
Protection: 67% Hunting: 38%
Rural inhabitants who grow up hunting learn to respect firearms as dangerous tools — not treat them as cool toys. This contrast is reflected in the data. Two-thirds of people who own guns primarily for hunting or sport have received firearms training, compared to only about half of those who own guns for self-defense. You may have noticed the concerning implication: there are many complacent, untrained gun-owners out there who sit squarely on “Mt. Stupid.”
A study by researchers at Mount St. Mary’s University in 2015 concluded:
in order for a citizen to safely carry, and if need be, use a firearm in a stressful situation for self-defense, one must pass extensive, certified initial training that includes classroom, firing range, and scenario education.
But don’t take my word for it, or theirs. Watch the video below to see for yourself how ordinary people respond with guns when put in dynamic situations.
Most U.S. states don’t require a license to purchase or possess a gun, and even fewer states compel gun-owners to complete firearm safety training. We’re not talking about strenuous, active-shooter response training, either. Again, unless you’re a law-enforcement professional who has the time to receive months of painstaking tactical training from experts, you will never be truly equipped to deal with a life-or-death situation.
Common-sense gun control legislation has proven to be politically impossible in America, largely because a small but vocal minority mobilizes against any attempt to regulate gun purchases. But even this band of fundamentalists must surely agree that anyone who possesses a firearm should be made to demonstrate that they also have the wherewithal to keep and use it safely.
This Is Real Life
Many gun-owners, notably in rural areas, are safe and responsible. Their example can be used as a model for what sensible gun policy should look like. The problem is that there are even more people, it would seem, whose reckless attitude toward guns is not just callow, but delusional.
I was once riding in my friend’s car when he slammed on the brakes, nearly rear-ending the vehicle ahead of us. “I didn’t expect that truck to stop!” he remarked. I replied: “Nobody who’s been in a car accident ever expected it.” Just like how no young soldier, eager to taste combat for the first time, expects his Humvee to hit a landmine on day one. No police officer wakes up anticipating that this will be the day she mistakenly shoots a kid playing with a toy gun. No 2nd-Amendment apostle arms himself with the expectation that someday his son will commit suicide with that same weapon. And yet these things happen. Even George Zimmerman presumably felt some skewed sense of heroism as he approached Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager he shot and killed in February 2012. I bet that encounter didn’t turn out as he had envisioned. Losing one’s tether to reality seldom ends well, particularly when one is armed with deadly firepower. As Mike Tyson once observed, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
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