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One of the most common responses to crime and gun violence is for people to say and think something along the lines of…

  • If only she had a gun, she could have defended herself.

  • If those teachers had firearms, this never would have happened.

It’s taken almost as a given that if a person was only armed when tragedy struck, the outcome would have been completely different. Little attention is given to the details of this idea, of course, and even less merit is paid to the thousands of ways that this idea can go wrong. If there’s one thing Americans seem sure of, it’s that gun + good guy = tragedy averted. If only life were this simple.

The following statement by politician Carly Fiorina echoes the sentiment felt by many Americans: “I’ve never had to protect myself, my home, or my family from an intruder – though nothing levels the playing field between a 230-pound man and a 120-pound woman like Smith & Wesson.” (Fiorina, 2016) Ah…good old guns. The great equalizer; the device that delivers ultimate power into the palm of one’s hand. The statement above certainly sounds reasonable. Yet the ignorance of Fiorina’s remark shines through to anyone well-educated on the subject. Notice that even while admitting she’s never been in a position of having to defend herself, she seems entirely certain that a gun is the great “equalizer” that offers her protection. So let’s take this statement and hit it with a sobering dose of reality.

Consider the two main scenarios in which a gun might be used: aggressively (i.e., homicidally) or for legitimate self-defense. In order for a petite woman to realistically have any chance of using a gun on a much larger, stronger man, she would have to be a significant distance away. Drills conducted by police have shown that an attacker can easily cover 15 to 30 feet in the time it takes to get out a gun. So the person would have to be a safe distance away. True self-defense situations, however, almost always occur up close; it is only unnecessary killings and murders that occur from a distance. A woman needing to defend herself is likely to be in close proximity to her attacker.

In this more true-to-life scenario, having a gun doesn’t “equalize” things between a 230-pound man and a 120-pound woman. It’s going to give the 230-pound man a new weapon to use against the 120-pound woman, because the odds of him being able to overpower her and take the gun are far, far greater than her defending herself with it in this more true-to-life self-defense scenario. In other words, a gun is more likely to become a liability than an asset. A stun gun would be far more useful. It’s just one example of how guns provide the illusion of protection more than actual protection.

Does having a gun make a difference for crime victims?

In fact, if you start to look at the actual crimes that take place and how they occur, you quickly see that having a gun would matter for surprisingly few of them:

  • Most property crimes like burglary in which things go bump in the night are non-violent, so you don’t need a gun to defend yourself. Your voice and your eyes and your feet do just fine. The ironic thing about all the shootings of family members who are mistaken for burglars is that if someone is sneaking around, they are trying to avoid you, and never represented much of a threat in the first place.
  • If someone really has it in for you (an ex-boyfriend, a rival gang member, a homicidal predator), they’re going to look for ways to get the jump on you, and you will be incapacitated before you have the chance to strike back. People die all the time with guns in their pocket, purse or shoulder holster, or even one in their hand. Very few murder victims would have been helped by having a gun. The one who’s the aggressor wins virtually every time on simple account that they are the aggressor and can get the jump on their victim.
  • A rapist is going to be on top of you before you realize what is happening, in which case a gun is more likely to be used against you.
  • Same with a home invasion. They’re not going to announce themselves. They won’t knock on the door like a Jehovah’s Witness or come dressed in uniform. No they will barge their way in and have you at gunpoint before you’ve had a chance to do much of anything.

A gun might come in handy if a gang of knife-wielding attackers is banging on your door and trying to get in, thus allowing you time to prepare to defend yourself. But in the vast majority of situations – and especially actual self-defense situations where you are truly in danger from a violent person – you’re not going to have a lot of advanced warning that an attack is coming, and guns are going to be surprisingly useless. Which is why guns are used in less than 1% of all crimes that occur in the presence of a victim (Wenner-Moyer, 2017), and most of these cases involve people shooting at would-be burglars. Guns were always intended as an offensive weapon, not a defensive one.

I don’t ever want to hear ‘Well, if she only had a gun.’ Her having a gun was not going to save her life. Her not getting one would have.”

– Theresa O’Rourke, whose best friend, Jitka Vesel, was ambushed and killed by a stalker (Welch, 2016)

The idea that having a gun will keep you safe is a myth perpetuated by the gun industry, and one that’s entirely insensitive to victims of gun violence, since it insinuates that their choice to forego firearms was somehow responsible for their death. Throughout the rest of this chapter, we’ll demonstrate just how ineffectual guns truly are as a means of self-defense.

A rare opportunity
Another problem is that most of those people carrying concealed weapons don’t actually reside in areas with high crime, which means a miniscule probability of ever needing a gun for self-defense is paired with a high probability for miscalculations, accidents, or errors in judgment. As Melinda Wenner-Moyer states, “Most Americans with concealed carry permits are white men living in rural areas, yet it is young black men in urban areas who disproportionately encounter violence. Violent crimes are also geographically concentrated: Between 1980 and 2008, half of all of Boston’s gun violence occurred on only 3 percent of the city’s streets and intersections. And in Seattle, over a 14-year-period, every single juvenile crime incident took place on less than 5 percent of street segments. In other words, most people carrying guns have only a small chance of encountering situations in which they could use them for self defense.” (Wenner-Moyer, 2017, p. 61)

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