January 2, 2013

Some Things to Consider Before Buying a Gun (An Open Letter to a Friend)


So I hear you’re arming up.

I have to admit that I’m surprised. You’ve always struck me as something of a hippy. And I mean that as a compliment. I’ve always seen you as a Jesus-loving, pot-smoking (yes, I know you’ve been trying to stop) type of guy. Someone who isn’t above retweeting cute kitten photos. Again, I mean that as a compliment.

I understand that the Newtown tragedy has you rattled. I’m rattled, too. And I understand your reason for wanting to buy a gun and apply for a concealed-carry permit. I just hope you fully understand what you’re getting yourself into.

Along with its potential benefits, owning a gun comes with many risks. People with guns sometimes have accidents. Sometimes they mistakenly shoot themselves or others. According to the Center for Disease Control, there are around 15,000 accidental firearm injuries each year, around 600 accidental deaths.[1]

When you own a gun you also run the risk of your gun getting into the hands of someone who shouldn’t have it, for example, a child or criminal. Statistically speaking, when you purchase a gun you also increase your chances of committing suicide.[2] I know that your struggles with depression aren’t all that frequent, but at the same time I worry that during your darker moments it might not be good having a handgun so available.[3]

Of course, guns can also save lives. That’s why you want one. I get it. But I think you should know that the odds of this happening are infinitesimally small. You’re just not likely to ever find yourself confronted with a deranged gunman. This country is not nearly as violent as the media would have us believe. Senseless violence sometimes occurs, but the violent crime rate is actually at a 40-year low. The murder rate is lower than it’s been at any point since 1963.[4]

And even if you found yourself in the middle of a Newtown- or Aurora-like situation, it’s highly unlikely that you’d be able to save any lives. You just don’t have the necessary training, experience, and ability. Imagine that you’d been in that Aurora movie theater last year: it’s dark, smoke bombs going off, a gunman in full body armor firing an assault rifle. You really think you would have had any chance of taking him out?[5]

On those rare occasions when armed citizens have taken out gunmen, they’ve usually been individuals with sufficient combat training, usually off-duty police officers or retired soldiers.[6] According to Dr. Stephen Hargarten, a gun violence expert at the Medical College of Wisconsin, armed civilians in such situations are more likely than not to inadvertently “increase the bloodshed.” Even those individuals with the necessary training often fail to respond properly. Take the New York police officers who, while trying to take out a gunman near the Empire State Building last year, inadvertently shot nine bystanders.”[7]

None of which is to say that a gun might not end up saving your life. It might. I’m just not sure that the potential benefits of having a gun outweigh the potential costs.[8] In addition to the problems I’ve described above, having a gun has a way of changing one’s mindset. As Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, puts it, “If all you have is a gun, everything looks like a target.”[9] Having that piece of cold metal strapped to your ankle can engender an inflated sense of fear and paranoia.[10] It can cause you to lose trust in others. (In this beautiful yet tragic world, we need to do all we can to increase, not decrease, our trust in others.) It can cause you to make foolish decisions that you wouldn’t have otherwise made. Indeed studies show that most purported defensive guns uses occur in “escalating arguments and are both socially undesirable and illegal.”[11]

Anyway, I’m done. I’ve given you my two cents. For the record, I think that you, and other mentally-stable, law-abiding individuals, have the right to own guns. I just ask that you carefully think through this issue before proceeding. And if you decide to go ahead with it I ask that you get the proper training, that you keep your gun secure, and that you always follow the four basic rules of gun safety as though your life and the lives of those around you depend on it, for they very well might.[12]

* * * * * 

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Injury Prevention and Control: Data and Statistics.”

[2] Linda L. Dahlberg, Robin M. Ikeda, Marcie-jo Kresnow, “Guns in the Home and Risk of a Violent Death in the Home: Findings from a National Study,” American Journal of Epidemiology, 160 (10), 2004.

[3] Over 19,000 Americans killed themselves with a firearm in 2010 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Injury Prevention and Control: Data and Statistics”).

[4] Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics, “State and national crime estimates by year(s).” See also Andrew Mach, “FBI: Violent crime rates in the US drop, approach historic lows,” NBC News, June 11, 2012.

[6] Forrest Wickman, “Do Armed Citizens Stop Mass Shootings?” Slate, December 18, 2012.

[7] Mark Follman, “More Guns, More Mass Shootings—Coincidence?” Mother Jones, December 15, 2012.

[8] Some will tell you that citizens use firearms in self-defense over two million times a year, but as far as I can tell this claim has been entirely debunked. See David Frum, “Do Guns Make Us Safer?” CNN, July 30, 2012.

[9] Alan Jacobs, “A Christmas Thought About Guns,” The American Conservative, December 26, 2012.

[10] Alan Jacobs, “Guns, Risks, Safety,” The American Conservative, December 17, 2012.

[11] Harvard Injury Control Research Center, “Gun Threats and Self-Defense Gun Use.”

[12] From Jeff Cooper: Rule #1: All guns are always loaded. Rule #2: Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. Rule #3: Keep your finger off the trigger till your sights are on the target. Rule #4: Identify your target and what is behind it. 

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