That Time When Someone Pointed an Assault Rifle at Me

In the fall of 1984, I was traveling in Colombia during a time when drug wars were very active. Drug cartels were fighting each other and various government agencies were fighting the drug cartels. I was in a small rural town outside of Bogotá. It was evening after sunset, and I was walking with two other students down the street. A group of men with military rifles came up to us. They asked for our papers. I reached into the soft-sided attaché I was carrying and one of them quickly raised his assault rifle and pointed it right at me. His finger was on the trigger. I moved slowly, hoping he didn’t have a nervous twitch, and continued reaching for my papers. Fortunately, my fluency in Spanish allowed me to negotiate through that difficult encounter and save my life. If I had been carrying a gun instead of linguistic skills for self defense, I probably would not be alive today.

Over the years, I’ve lost friends to gun violence, and have personally known people who survived difficult gun related situations such as being robbed at gunpoint, and one who was held hostage at gunpoint. Last weekend, I learned that a musician who I’ve been inspired by over the years, Christina Grimmie, was shot in Orlando, about 24 hours before the nightclub shooting there. In our own small Iowa community, we’ve had numerous shootings. These experiences have undoubtedly shaped my own views about guns.

I’m not a gun owner. I don’t hunt, and don’t feel a personal need to own a gun for self defense or for sport. I’ve had friends over the years who are gun owners, so I’ve learned a bit about their views. I’m thankful to live in a country where gun violence is still relatively low. I know that in the U.S. we’re about as likely to be killed by a gun as to be killed by an automobile. So, I fear each of those about equally.

Earlier this year I developed a proposal for a safer gun that would help reduce gun accidents — “Scaleable, Effective, Safe Firearms.” Unfortunately there wasn’t much interest in the proposal.

Like millions of other people in the United States, something I’ve been trying to think through is the role that government should play in upholding gun rights while enforcing gun regulations. This article is an attempt to share some thoughts on that topic.

What I’m exploring in this article are the perceptions we have about gun safety compared to the facts we know about gun safety.

How We Perceive the Danger of Sharks

A conservation group recently created two videos to help promote public awareness about the actual data we have on shark safety. The first video (below) reminds the public that last year 652 people were killed by chairs, and only 4 were killed by sharks. In another video, a similar comparison is made with defective toasters which killed 791 people in a given year. The point of these videos is to bring into perspective the actual threat presented by sharks.

How We Perceive the Danger of Guns

Guns are statistically more dangerous than sharks, yet there are many things in our society that are more dangerous than guns. By some accounts, there are about 32 other things more likely to cause death than gun violence such as: Leukemia, Parkinson’s disease, Kidney disease, Alzheimers, or a simple fall.

In 2015, there were approximately 12,000 people killed by guns with about 20,000 deaths from suicide. This is why it’s said that people are more likely to get killed by their own gun. A very small percentage of those deaths (3%) were from the kind of high-profile mass shootings covered by the national news media. You’re more likely to be killed by a chair or defective toaster than a shooter. So, statistically, assault rifles kill fewer people than defective toasters or chairs in the United States. Where’s the outrage about defective toasters? Diabetes will probably kill more than 76,000 people this year — yet we don’t see protests in the streets over Diabetes.

Highly publicized shooting incidents are horrific for everyone involved and traumatic for the entire nation. It’s understandable that there would be candlelight vigils mourning those who were lost, gestures of compassion toward the families who are grieving, as well as public proposals to repeal the 2nd Amendment and suggestions that the government confiscate millions of guns.

Consider that about 200 people per year die from peanut allergies. That seems like a small number, but if someone you love is among the 200 then it’s a serious issue for you. It’s understandable that for those personally impacted, statistics don’t matter. Over two years, the same number of people are killed by peanuts as are killed in one year in mass shootings. It’s important to keep these numbers in perspective when discussing proposals to restrict gun ownership.

National Policies Should be Based on Data

There are two things to keep in mind when considering national policies:

  • Personal or national mourning is based on emotions. It’s natural, healthy, and important to grieve personally and nationally.
  • However, national policies need to be based on facts and data. For example, just because peanuts kill hundreds of people annually, we can’t have a Federal law prohibiting all peanuts and confiscate peanuts from everyone who has them. We can mourn those who have died from peanut allergies, but should not let that emotion (personally or nationally) drive national policy. Assault rifles are about as dangerous as peanuts, yet we’re now having a serious nation-wide debate about making them illegal. If assault rifles can be made illegal based on deaths per year, then just about anything can be made illegal.

The Impact of Gun Confiscation

A recent report from Reuters suggests that applying Australian gun regulations in the U.S. would involve destroying 40 million guns. After Australia destroyed about half the guns in their country, there was a 59 percent drop in gun-related homicides. It’s unclear if there may have been other factors contributing to that statistic.

In the U.S. without any massive gun confiscation, according to a Pew Research report, “The nation’s overall gun death rate has declined 31% since 1993.” So, apparently there are ways to produce dramatic reductions in gun violence other than confiscation.

Had we taken 40 million guns from U.S. citizens in 1993, and then seen a drop in gun death rates of over 30%, we would have concluded that it was gun confiscation that caused the drop. Yet, correlation does not imply causation.

Categories and Causes of Gun Violence

The data about gun violence will inevitably be disputed with some reports emphasizing the danger of guns and others focusing on the life saving self-defense benefits of guns. However, examining the categories and causes of gun violence can help us better understand the nature of gun violence.

Categories of gun violence include: accidents, suicide, homicide, and self-defense (where a perpetrator is injured or killed because the potential victim had a gun).

There are many possible contributing factors to the four categories of gun violence including: drug use, alcohol use, mental illness, depression, uncontrolled anger, jealousy, acts of revenge, radical religious extremism, intolerance, racism, hate crimes, other criminal activity, lack of safety training, inadequate maintenance, incorrect handling, manufacturing defects, improper assembly.

Depending on the circumstances, it may be accurate to say that a firearm was not the primary cause of the violence, but instead that drugs or mental illness was the cause. Some of these contributing factors would likely result in harm and violence regardless of whether guns were involved or not.

Radical Religious Extremism

In U.S. history there have been a variety of home brewed versions of Christianity in which religious scripture was used as the basis for racism, hatred, intolerance, and acts of violence. Most recently, radical Islam is in the spotlight as the latest religion to be popular among those who commit atrocities. Criticisms of radical Islam are incorrectly perceived as a criticism of Islam. They are really a defense of Islam and call for a more tolerant and progressive version of Islam.

In the weeks leading up to the Orlando shooting, a Muslim teacher was invited by Floridians to speak on Islam, and he said that according to Islam and the Quran, Muslims should kill homosexuals.

There are people who interpret and preach on Islam (or other religions) from a viewpoint of intolerance and violence. It’s probably fair to say that radical Islam is likely the actual cause of the Orlando shooting (not mental illness, homophobia, or gun culture). It’s possible to have mental illness, homophobia, and/or be part of gun culture without being violent or harming people. What usually pushes people over the edge are charismatic and persuasive religious or social leaders that call for acts of violence. People who are impressionable, for whatever reason, will always be susceptible to extremist teachings, and such teachings will very likely be the cause of more incidents of violence.

Religious extremism is the upstream cause of many horrible things, and until we address that upstream cause, we’ll only be repeatedly dealing with the horrific downstream consequences.

We Need More Data on Lives Saved By Guns

We need more data on how many lives have been saved by guns — where a potential victim is saved because of using a gun in self defense. By some estimates, there are over 300,000 people who use a gun annually in self-defense where the gun saved their life. Let’s say this number is inflated, and in reality, only 100,000 lives are saved annually because of guns used in self-defense. That number is about ten times larger than those who are killed by guns annually. As was stated above, if one of the 12,000 people killed by guns is someone you know, then you (understandably) don’t care about the other 100,000 saved by guns.

In the 60 years since 1950, rates of gun violence have gone up and down, but for almost 20 years, gun violence has remained at a 50 year low. Despite all the advancements in automobile safety, with numerous airbags and crash avoidance technologies, cars are still much more dangerous than assault rifles (for example — as a subset of all guns), and equally dangerous when compared to all guns combined. So, something designed to be as safe as possible (the modern car) is equally safe as firearms.

As we consider national policy regarding gun rights and regulations, those policies should be driven by data and desired outcomes. Studies that examine actual causes of death show that tobacco, poor diet, lack of exercise, and alcohol are among the top causes of death in the U.S. with medical errors recently taking third place. Why is nobody calling for a Federal ban on tobacco, alcohol, or foods that kill people? Why just the outrage about firearms?

To me, what’s more scary than guns is the thought process that would ban guns because of the harm that was done by a few.

People I’ve met who are bigoted generally point to a few negative examples about those of a certain race or religion. Then they go on to say that all people of that race or religion are horrible. It’s dehumanizing, hurtful, and wrong — but it’s also irrational.

If our society is going to develop phobias and fears based on something other than actual data, and then enact legislation based on those phobias and fears, it won’t make the world a better or more rational place. It will make the world worse. It will be a form of institutionalized bigotry and irrationalism.

The Futility of Banning Assault Rifles

Assault rifles such as the AR-15 are some of the most popular guns today among hobbyists. Their common use in recent shooting tragedies is a reflection of their popularity. There’s nothing inherently unique about these guns that would make them a choice of violent shooters. Other guns are actually more dangerous and deadly in a shooting, such as shotguns or a variety of legal guns with clips that provide multiple rounds. Were assault rifles to be banned, confiscated, and destroyed (as has been proposed), some other weapon would become the next favorite gun. In addition to these facts, when we look at the actual data regarding shootings, handguns are a more common firearm. In terms of actual fatalities, peanuts are more lethal in the U.S. than assault rifles.

Going Upstream to Fight Actual Causes of Violence

Domestic and foreign-sourced mass shootings and terrorist attacks on U.S. soil have one thing in common, and it isn’t guns. It’s hatred, intolerance, and bigotry. The weapons used vary widely, but the root causes of these tragedies are similar.

Take away all the guns, and we’ll still have people using other more dangerous means to harm others, such as knives, cars, trucks, and planes. An example would be the truck bomb used by Timothy McVeigh that killed 168 and inured over 680 people. Or the planes used on 9/11.

We can’t confiscate all the knives, guns, trucks, planes, and anything else perceived as possibly able to cause harm. We can’t confiscate all the pointed scissors and replace them with safety kindergarten scissors. In an unfortunate irony, calls for banning guns always end up resulting in more guns being purchased.

The antidote to all of this may sound unrealistic, like something spoken by a beauty pageant contestant, but we need to focus on promoting understanding, respect, compassion, kindness, diplomacy, common sense, and rational thinking (as well as teaching safe gun handling for those who use them).

Given the recent national and global rise of intolerance and extremism, this should be considered a matter of national security and global stability. Without it, we’ll live in a hellscape where neither the presence of guns or the absence of guns will save us.

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Article Notes

  • Collaborative Input. This article has been and will continue to be revised and corrected based on reader feedback. If you notice anything that’s factually inaccurate or would like to suggest an additional viewpoint for consideration, please make a suggestion in the comments. Thanks!
  • Image Credit: The image used at the top of this article is the work of artist Michael Murphy.