Defining Both Sides of the Gun Debate
The two sides of the gun debate could be simplistically summarized as follows.
Some people believe that easier access to guns, more guns, and fewer gun regulations will help ensure that an abundance of well trained ‘good people with guns’ can help establish a strong deterrent that will cause criminals to re-think violent crimes. They would point out that people who are armed can protect themselves against aggressors.
Some people think that establishing barriers to gun purchases and having fewer guns in circulation will result in fewer bad people with guns and thus result in less gun related violence. They would point out that in addition to crime related gun violence, there are also gun related accidents and suicides.
Flaws with the “More Guns” Position
Here are some flaws with the “More Guns” position.
- Armed Defense Limitations. We assume that carrying a gun will allow us to defend ourselves. Yet, most of the high profile mass shootings, as well as many gun related homicides, involve circumstances where an individual would not have been able to save their life even if they had been armed. Here are some examples:
- Attack From Behind. When an assailant attacks from behind without warning.
- Bombs. When explosives are used by an assailant, a gun would be a poor tool for self defense.
- No Clear Shot. In some cases, gun owners who have been in active shooter situations explain that they would not have had a clear shot of the assailant, so their gun was not useful in that situation.
- Sniper. When an assailant is at a high position or a great distance away (sniper attacks). If you’re carrying a handgun, it will be of little help. You would need to carry around a high power sniper rifle with a scope everywhere you go — which might draw attention. For protection, rather than a gun, in such circumstances people would be better protected by having a bullet proof vest instead.
- Vehicle Attack. Instances of people driving cars or trucks into crowds is a reminder of how guns aren’t a guarantee of safety. If we’re serious about the Second Amendment and self-defense, we would allow people to carry rocket launchers to stop cars in such instances.
- Breakdown of Society. Among the subset of gun owners who primarily own a firearm for self defense, some would acknowledge that America is a great country with mostly law abiding citizens and safe communities. For those who live in safe communities there is very little likelihood of needing a gun for self defense. The concern expressed by some is that there could be a breakdown of society that would make it more necessary to be armed. For example, if our power grid was shut down by hackers or if a natural disaster left millions of people without food for days, there could be roaming gangs of thugs and people would need to defend themselves. While there could be a chance of something like that happening, there would be an array of needs beyond just self defense. The NRA video “Unprotected Power Grids: A Ticking Time Bomb” describes a dooms day scenario where chaos unfolds in America. This is an example of the kind of scenario envisioned by those who are preparing for every eventuality.
- Good Guy or Bad Guy. Let’s say one day we live in the proposed utopian wild-west world that gun enthusiasts envision, where everyone is carrying a gun. Let’s assume the ‘good guys’ outnumber the ‘bad guys.’ If there’s an incident, where shooting ensues, how will other citizens or police determine who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? You can’t just shoot at anyone who has a gun.
- Legal Liabilities. There are a variety of scenarios where having a gun could put you in serious legal jeopardy. Laws are different from one state to the next, but even if you feel you are within your legal right to shoot someone in self defense, that will need to be proven in court.
- Crowded Area. In the movies, gun fights often take place in crowded city streets with each shooter having almost marksman-like accuracy — but not too accurate because that would end the gunfight too quickly. So, bullets fly and miraculously pedestrians and innocent civilians are unharmed. Sometimes a person gets shot, but they continue fighting. That’s not real life. In real life, if you start shooting a gun in a crowded area, there would be a likelihood that an innocent person could get hit by a stray bullet and you would be liable.
- Lethal Force. If someone is robbing you, maybe expecting a few dollars to support a drug habit, you may justifiably be afraid for your life, but if you shoot them, you’re becoming the judge, jury, and executioner in a moment of time. You will have made a decision that the penalty for robbery is the death penalty. You’ll end up be the person on trial trying to prove your innocence.
- Shoot First Ask Questions Later. There’s a trend among conceal carry gun owners today to carry a gun that is loaded and ready to fire. Videos show that this is a more effective way to carry a gun for self defense because it provides a few split seconds of faster response making it easier to quickly shoot someone. Unfortunately, making it easier to pull the trigger has resulted in situations where police mistakenly shot people who were not armed. In such cases, the police are often legally protected, and people expect that an officer will be a little jumpy in such situations. However, what legal protection or defense would you have if you mistakenly shot someone? What if it was proven in court, and confirmed by a jury that you were not justified in killing someone? Now, the firearm you hoped would protect your life is giving you life in prison.
- Unauthorized Use. What if kids somehow get into your guns. You could be liable for not having secured the firearm properly. What if a criminal stole your gun, and committed a crime with it. The gun would be traced back to you.
- Martial Arts. Just having a gun, and being well trained on how to operate it won’t be enough to protect you in all situations. Here are some considerations.
- Disarmed. If someone takes your gun, you may need to defend yourself with hand-to-hand combat.
- Non-Lethal Threat. What if it was just a drunk person getting aggressive, but not lethally aggressive. The burden of proof will be on you to demonstrate that you felt your life was in danger from someone who was not armed. It’s not a good situation.
- Proportional Response. If someone is pushing you around, or getting in a fist-fight with you, you are probably justified in punching them back, but would not be justified in shooting them.
- Restrained. If someone attacks you from behind and restrains you, you’ll need training in martial arts to overcome your assailant.
- Situation. In the Waffle House shooting of 22 Apr 2018, the assailant was disarmed by an unarmed person and in that situation, confidence and physical body strength was the best defense. Sometimes to stop a bad guy with a gun, you need a good guy without a gun to rip it out of his hands.
- Militia. The 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This is understood by some to be a provision that will ensure people can defend themselves against ‘threats foreign and domestic.’ Individuals or groups if armed can better defend themselves. The thought is that citizens should be able to fight against tyranny. While this all makes sense at a certain level, the fact is that the government will always be better armed that citizens and can completely devastate any fortified compound of well armed people if they ever want to. The Waco Siege of 1993 is an example of this. Rather than sending troops, they could send a missile strike. Your guns aren’t going to protect you from missiles, bombers, and tanks of this or any other government.
- Pressure Situations. Police and others in law enforcement receive significant training and ongoing practice to stay well trained for firearm use in high pressure situations. Even so, police make mistakes. When those critical of police are asked to participate in training exercises, they almost always fail tests and shoot (with ink ‘bullets’) unarmed people. This has resulted in the public being more aware and understanding of police who may make mistakes in high pressure situations. So, how would you perform, with less training and practice, in a high pressure situation? Would you be able to differentiate between an armed assailant and someone with a cell phone in a dark alley?
- Readiness. Just owning guns doesn’t mean someone is able to defend themselves. If there’s a break-in, and a person is at home but in a room of their home that doesn’t have a gun, then the person will be without any form of self defense. Let’s say you’re swimming at the beach, and obviously don’t have a gun on you, and someone tries to rob you with a knife. The point is that while guns may be helpful for self defense in some situations, they aren’t a guarantee of self defense all the time.
- Secured Guns. To prevent an assailant, children, or other unauthorized user from accessing a gun, the gun should be secured in a safe. Some people use locks on guns to prevent them from being used by anyone other than the owner. You don’t want to just leave a loaded gun sitting around the house. If you have a gun in a safe, then it’s not going to be very easy for you to access that gun, in the dark, at night, if you wake up with someone standing over your bed. For this reason, some people sleep with a loaded gun under their pillow, yet this is a dangerous practice. If someone partially awake, shoots at someone they believe is an assailant, they could injure or kill a friend or family member. The more accessible and ready a gun is, the more dangerous it is. The more secure a gun is, the less useful it is. These are competing aspects of gun ownership for self defense.
- Sport Shooting. The activity of sport shooting has grown in popularity. This includes target shooting and hunting. Target shooting is a more publicly accepted activity, since many people don’t like the idea of killing animals for sport. For this reason, target shooting at a gun range is emphasized as a legitimate reason why people should be able to have guns. However, the second amendment does not guarantee the right to own guns for hunting or target practice. The second amendment is about self defense. So, while sport shooting is at the forefront of getting public approval for gun ownership, it’s really unrelated to the second amendment. It’s worth noting that people who are primarily sport shooters will own ‘safer guns.’ How can their guns be safer? Because it’s likely (though not guaranteed) that someone who shoots for sport will not feel a need to keep loaded guns on them or within arm’s reach all the time.
- Statistics. Let’s say it can agree that there’s a statistical chance you would be in a situation where having a gun to defend yourself could save your life. Here are some considerations.
- Likelihood. What are the actual chances of being in a situation where you’d need a gun for self defense? For most people, it’s probably more likely that a fire extinguisher would be needed than a firearm. A fire extinguisher is an example of something we own, but probably will never use. Yet, it’s less lethal and less expensive.
- Risks. We take risks every day — when driving a car, taking a train, flying, riding a bike, using a ladder, or stepping out of the bathtub. The chances of actually having an accident are slim. One can’t really prepare for every eventuality in life. There are some risks we don’t prepare for because the cost of protection is excessive considering it may never happen.
- Value and Cost. The cost of gun ownership for self defense is high. In addition to the cost of buying a gun, training is needed, ongoing practice is needed, expensive ammunition is needed — all for something that we will very likely never need. Here’s a comparison… There’s a chance when flying your plane could go down. You could buy a parachute, take skydiving lessons, train regularly, and always have your parachute when flying. But people just don’t do that because the cost of time and money are too high given the slim likelihood of needing to jump out of a plane. Each person’s circumstances are different, but for many people, having a gun for self defense is as unlikely to be necessary as a parachute on a commercial airline flight.
- Suicide. Guns give people quick and easy access to a means of suicide — either the gun owner or someone else with access to the gun could die if they develop deep depression or desperation. Someone who appears to be stable could later become at risk if they are off their medication or switch to a new medication. Many pharmaceutical drugs include as a side effect ‘suicidal thoughts’ and if someone taking those drugs is a gun owner, the eventual ‘side effect’ could be death.
- Training. Someone who enjoys target practice and shooting at a gun range need not engage in any rigorous ongoing training. However, if you’re planning on using a firearm for self defense, you should have regular training. That’s a big commitment. No doubt there are some people who get their conceal carry permit, and begin carrying their gun everywhere. Then later the enthusiasm wears off. They begin to realize they are carrying something around that will most likely never be needed. They stop carrying their gun around and discontinue ongoing practice. If someone is not prepared and skilled to use a weapon, it’s not going to be as useful.
Flaws with the “Fewer Guns” Position
Here are some flaws with the “Fewer Guns” position.
- Alternate Weapons. We assume that reducing guns will mean that there will be fewer armed assailants and fewer violent crimes. However, there are other weapons an assailant can use such as knives, improvised weapons, physical strength, explosives, or vehicles. So, eliminating guns in society just makes an unarmed person unable to defend themselves. It doesn’t create less threatening assailants who may turn to even more damaging weapons. Also, laws will only be followed by law abiding citizens, so criminals will still get access to outlawed firearms.
- Assault Rifles. There’s a belief that assault rifles are unnecessary for self defense or hunting, and that they are the most dangerous firearms available. Yet, in reality, they may be some of the safest guns currently available for the reasons listed here. So, eliminating assault rifles would not remove the most dangerous guns from the streets. Here are some things to consider:
- Sport Use. The popularity of assault rifles is prevalent among those who engage in shooting at firing ranges where such guns are reliable, easy to purchase, easy to clean, easy to learn to use, and ammunition is cheap.
- Hand Guns. A person with several hand guns and extra clips could have just as many rounds of ammunition as an assault rifle, and because hand guns are easier to conceal, that person could go undetected.
- Larger Capacity Clips. In a sporting / shooting range environment, larger capacity clips mean fewer reloading incidents where the gun could be pointed in a dangerous direction or otherwise fired by mistake if a user isn’t careful. Smaller capacity clips result in more reloads and more opportunities for error (when clips don’t insert properly a person may get flustered). This can also be a hinderance in a self defense scenario — when a clip is empty, the time it takes to reload makes a person more vulnerable. If they drop a clip, then they are suddenly without any self defense.
- Rifles. Long range high power rifles with scopes can be extremely dangerous because an assailant could be positioned in a high location (as has happened in numerous mass shootings). However, because these guns are used for deer hunting or big game hunting, they are unlikely to be heavily regulated.
- Self Defense. If several armed intruders enter a property and are threatening the residents of that property, the resident(s) may need more than just a few bullets in a handgun to defend themselves. This certainly isn’t a common occurrence, but it’s something that could conceivably happen in a self defense scenario. If guns are indeed for self-defense, then people should be able to own guns that can offer them the best self defense possible.
- Shotguns. Shotguns are an example of a firearm more dangerous than assault rifles. Semi-automatic shotguns can project multiple ‘bullets’ with each pull of the trigger. Also, shotguns can be loaded with large caliber slugs that do much greater damage than a typical rifle bullet. A small bullet from an assault rifle going through someone is likely to do less harm than a huge shotgun slug or multiple large buckshot pieces which would probably kill them. People are sometimes treated for bullet wounds, but it’s less likely that someone would survive if shot with a 10 gauge slug. Shotguns used in an attack by an assailant are more likely to hit people. Because shotguns are used for hunting, they are unlikely to be heavily regulated.
- Single Bullet. Assault rifles shoot a single bullet at a time. Even if they can shoot rapidly, it takes many shots to do the same damage as a shotgun.
- Visibility. Larger guns look more scary, but because of their high visibility, they make it easier to spot an assailant and stop them. It’s better to see and stop (or shoot) an assailant with an assault rifle than to not see or stop an assailant with one or more handguns — until it’s too late. In the Waffle House shooting of 22 Apr 2018, a customer was able to wrestle an assault rifle away from an assailant. The size of the gun makes it easier to grab than a pistol.
- Background Checks. Presumably more effective background checks will ensure that only responsible people will get access to guns. While they offer some layer of protection, they don’t prevent criminals from stealing guns. They don’t prevent mentally ill people from somehow getting access to another person’s guns. Background checks don’t account for people who are qualified to own a gun at the time of purchase, but later become a threat. This isn’t to suggest that therefore background checks are not useful. They are useful, but not a guarantee that guns won’t mistakenly get into the hands of others. Sometimes people who obtain guns legally harm themselves or others later. Comparing a gun purchase to a drivers license, it’s fair to say that just because someone was competent at one time to own a gun it doesn’t mean they will be competent 5 years down the road.
- Gun Confiscation. One thing we need to keep in mind is that we could confiscate and destroy all the guns on the entire planet, including those possessed by criminals, and we’d still have people using knives to harm others. We could confiscate all the knives, and we’d still have people driving cars and trucks into crowds to harm people. We could confiscate all the cars, and we’d still have people mailing bombs (as happened recently). At some point, we really need to address the basic breakdown of civil society that’s resulting in so much violence.
- Guns Are Dangerous. It’s probably fair to say that guns are potentially dangerous, but so is sky diving, using pressure cookers, drinking alcohol, driving a car, smoking tobacco, or eating too much fast food. There are lots of very dangerous things that are more dangerous than guns, and we don’t outlaw those activities or products. It doesn’t seem fair to arbitrarily single out a particular product or activity that someone enjoys, and make that illegal. To get a more informed and well rounded insight into how guns compare with other dangers, read “Leukemia and 32 other causes of death more dangerous than guns.”
- Killed With Your Own Gun. Data clearly shows that people are much more likely to get killed with their own gun, rather than being able to use the gun for self-defense. This fact is undeniable and incontrovertible, and seems to be a solid argument for people being safer if they have no guns at home. However, while having a gun at home is potentially dangerous, not having a gun at all would almost certainly result in a person being defenseless against an assailant. People who are killed with their own gun, by an assailant, have probably not locked and secured that gun properly. So it doesn’t necessarily follow that having a gun at home is guaranteed to be dangerous. An assailant who enters a room and gets shot, is unlikely to take a gun away from someone across the room.
- Marijuana and Alcohol. Millions of people believe in the benefits of legalizing marijuana and alcohol. Regulated industries are easier to monitor, research, control, tax, and document. Regulated industries reduce or eliminate a criminal element. Regulated products are safer, and ensure more effective consumer advocacy. Public recall notices are possible. An unregulated gun industry, or even a class of gun that is made illegal, will become only available on the black market, difficult to track, risky to buy, risky to own, possibly tied to criminal activity, and possibly defective.
- The NRA. As an organization the NRA has been chosen as the lighting rod for a lot of public outrage and vilification. While some may find reasons to justify this, it’s clear from the list on this page that gun safety and reducing gun violence is a much more complex issue than simply blaming a single organization. An oversimplified narrative of outrage against the NRA is unlikely to foster meaningful solutions.
We Need To Work Together
Although it may seem impossible, we need to work together to find solutions. Those who find guns to be unnecessary, dangerous, and scary need to work together with gun enthusiasts. We need to work together because separately we’ll just fight against each other and make no progress. There are many ways that gun owners and those who aren’t gun owners can work together, respect each other, appreciate one another, and work for common good.
For those interested in reducing guns in society, a logical strategy would be to stigmatize gun ownership and make gun ownership difficult. There’s a fear among some people that if we normalize gun ownership, then guns will become more prevalent. Here are some points to consider:
- Respect. When gun owners are stigmatized, it may discourage some from joining the culture — perhaps this is considered a ‘win’ by those wanting fewer guns around. However, the problem with stigmatizing gun ownership is that it pushes people into hiding and results in anti-social behavior. It invites shunning or potentially bullying of young people who perhaps are legitimately involved in sport shooting with their family and friends. In cases where someone is unstable, and guns are a potential danger to them and others, if stigmatized, those people won’t get the support of community they need, and their situation may get worse. So, it’s important to promote a culture of respect for gun owners. Respect doesn’t make the gun situation worse. It makes things better.
- Safety. As long as we have guns in society, there’s good reason to have shooting ranges where people can learn to use guns safely and properly. This benefits everyone, even those who aren’t gun owners. Having ranges that are safe, well maintained, and equipped with proper signage would be important. They potentially promote social interaction and build community among gun owners.
Those of us who are not gun owners should make an effort to befriend gun owners and support their right to own guns. The reason that’s important is because otherwise we’re at risk of developing entrenched bigotry based on misinformed stereotypes. For further reading on this topic, see the article, “Reducing Gun Violence and the Rebranding of the NRA.”
The above document is written based on personal experience as well as discussions and interactions with gun enthusiasts and conversations with those in favor of expanded gun regulations. Everyone has a mix of life experiences that shape how they feel about guns. I have friends and acquaintances who are all over the map on gun related issues: hunters and vegans, gun enthusiasts and those wanting to eliminate all guns. While I’m not currently a gun owner or involved regularly in today’s gun culture, I was a gun enthusiast as a young teenager. The gun owners I’ve known through my life have been responsible, intelligent, friendly people. Over my lifetime, I’ve had incidents where guns were a threat to me or loved ones. One time while in a foreign country I was confronted by armed soldiers and had a loaded assault rifle pointed at me. I didn’t have a gun at the time, but if I did it would not have been a help. Knowing a foreign language saved my life that day. I’ve known people who have been robbed at gunpoint or lost loved ones. I have compassion for animals and wildlife, so I’m troubled by the idea of animals being killed for sport. I generally feel that guns are impractical for self defense in many situations. The study of martial arts for self defense seems like a more practical investment of time. With regard to guns used for target practice, I can see how people enjoy that activity. As I budget my own time and money, I choose to spend my leisure time doing other things. I want to understand and respect people, so I seek out conversations with people of various positions. Thanks for taking time to read the article.
Thanks for taking time to read this article. Please feel free to use the comments section below to leave feedback. This document will be revised and updated based on reader feedback. Corrections and necessary updates will be made above in the document and comments will be shared below. As a reference page, it’s important to have predominant viewpoints reflected. Your feedback helps make this document better. Thanks!
The following response comes from a reader by email on 22 April 2018:
You make the argument that a gun at the beach may not provide protection (because you can’t get access to it). That’s true in other situations as well. Gun owners who follow the advice to keep the gun unloaded, and in a safe or other place inaccessible to children, may find themselves as unprotected in an emergency as if they were at the beach. But it’s worse than that. Not only will gun ownership often fail to provide the protection that motivated the owner to buy it, it’s actually much worse than that. The existence of a gun in the home can actually increase, rather than decrease, the risk of gun injury or death to the owner or his/her family and friends.
If I recall the data correctly, a gun in the home is 16 times more likely to be used on the inhabitants as to be used for their protection. (1) There are instances of kids getting access to guns and then accidentally, or intentionally, killing or injuring others or themselves. (2) Adults as well as kids occasionally have similar gun accidents. (3) The gun owner may kill one of the family members — thinking a kid (other family member, neighbor, friend) coming home late, or arriving unannounced, is an intruder. (4) In an exchange of shots with family members or others around, especially if the owner is nervous or doesn’t have good aim, innocent bystanders may be injured or killed. (5) Intruders with and without guns know to look for them, find the owner’s gun, preventing the owner from using it, and may end up using it on the owner or family members. (6) The intruder may take it from the owner during a physical scuffle. (7) Most significant, when suicides are attempted, and a gun is available in the home, it is often the means of choice by the owner or family members; indeed one of the largest categories of gun deaths are those self-inflicted in suicides by gun owners or their family members.
I would also question arguments that seem to suggest guns — let alone military assault weapons — can be equated with knives or other weapons. Yes, knives can kill; but guns can kill easier, quicker, and over greater distances, by those with less physical strength and athletic ability. Military automatic assault weapons are designed to, and can, kill far more people far more quickly in a crowd (or school), than even the most skilled warrior with a knife. So, no, even if all guns disappeared there would still be violence, and intentional injury and death of others. But there is also no denying (1) the truism that — as Australia’s response to its last mass shooting reveals — without guns there are no deaths from guns, (2) gun fatalities are one of the leading causes of Americans’ death, (3) the numbers and percentages of gun deaths in the U.S. are the highest in the world, and (4) the overall firearm-related death rate among U.S. children under age 15 is 12 times higher than the death rates of the other 25 high-income nations combined.
The following comes from a reader by email on 23 Apr 2018:
My position — which people on both extremes will not like — is:
* Civilians should be able to own any weapon the police *routinely* use (e.g., not ‘flash bang’ grenades, tear gas, or machine guns).
That said, there need to be some common sense requirements:
* Before buying a gun, a buyer must complete a civilian version of the firearm training the police go through. Not as extensive, but a comprehensive course.
* They should also have to show proof that they have a safe way to secure their gun(s) — a trigger lock(s), a safe, etc.
* There should be universal, comprehensive background checks, for all firearms sales — including private sales.
* Some sort of waiting/cooling off period. The background check and/or training could be done during that time.
* Fire a couple rounds through each weapon sold so law enforcement has a record of the rifling marks — making it much easier to tie bullets from a crime scene to the gun owner.
* Registration — including private sales. A gun owner would not have to get the buyer’s info, but if they don’t, and the gun is used in a crime, it’ll come back on them.
While I do believe the Second Amendment clearly gives any sane, non-violent adult the right to own guns, I think in most cases any potential ‘pros’ are outweighed by the cons.
In addition to the stats mentioned in the reader feedback above, and your “Flaws with the “More Guns” Position” list, I think a lot of people mistakenly think that because they are the “good guy” they will behave like Dirty Harry, James Bond, or some other movie or TV hero. The “bad guy” will stand perfectly still, out in the open — an easy target; they (the good guy) will be perfectly calm and be able to ‘drop’ the bad guy with 2 quick shots — just like on NCIS LA!
In reality, the bad guy is likely to get the drop on the good guy/gal. It doesn’t matter how many weapons the good guy has if they are taken by surprise and are staring at the muzzle of a gun.
There have of course been tragic situations where a ‘good guy with a gun’ could have saved multiple lives — that cannot be denied, but how often is that likely to happen?
One last thing — just FYI, there are very safe, secure, handgun safes that use fingerprint readers. All the gun owner has to do is lay their fingers in a glove-shaped impression on the safe door and it springs open. That solves the ‘safety vs access’ problem, but not the very real risk of easy access resulting in family members getting shot, etc. Access is so quick that it’s not much different from keeping a gun under a pillow or in the nightstand.