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Sunday, 6 January 2013

Do guns protect you?

John McGowan

Since the Newtown school shootings it’s hard to remember such an outpouring of antipathy towards guns in the United States. After Columbine maybe, but I’ve never heard a right-of-centre US politician be as forthright as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg after the killings at Sandy Hook:

“And it happens again and again… We kill people in schools. We kill them in hospitals. We kill them in religious organizations. We kill them when they’re young. We kill them when they’re old. And we've just got to stop this.”
It’s beginning to look like President Obama will produce a more concrete response than tears, and the fight for restrictions to gun ownership laws is likely to be one of the defining political battles of this coming year in America. 

It’s not clear that there is a straightforward link between outlawing gun ownership and a fall in gun-related fatalities. Changed laws in Australia have provoked impassioned debate over what the effects have been and why. What is clear is that firearms availability (legal or otherwise) is associated with high rates of death by shooting (see a useful summary here). The lesson from the Australian example is that legislation is not the only priority. If people still want guns, then gun-related death rates may remain very high, even in a situation where restrictions on availability are in place.  A more productive strategy is to change the law and seek to develop a different culture around firearms. Changing one may help to change the other and vice versa. In the case of America, to achieve both of these aims it would help to understand the attachment of many US residents to guns.  From the perspective of someone who lives in a society with highly restricted gun ownership this can be absolutely mystifying.  Why does the US love-affair with deadly weapons continue? After wading through coverage of the Newtown shootings I’d propose two main reasons.

The first is the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, with all that stuff about the peoples’ right to bear arms. How much do people care about this? A lot it seems. An anecdote from a colleague of mine who worked as a psychotherapist in South Africa (different country but similar problem) suggests something of the depth of feeling. Her client was a man who had shot and killed both (both!) his children in separate gun accidents. In two years of working through the aftermath of these events his commitment to the freedom to possess arms was unshaken. While it’s tempting to dismiss this view as simply bizarre, it might be helpful to try and understand it. Just a little. Since hearing that story  I've wondered if, say, I accidentally killed one of my kids with my car, would I ever drive again? I don’t know. I hope it’s a situation I never face. Would I campaign for cars to be banned? I probably wouldn't  And even if I did, I suspect no-one would listen. Drivers would be unlikely to see my tragedy as their problem. For some people, I think, owning a gun may feel as much of a right as owning a car. And the regular incidents that flash across our TV screens every few months? They’re easy to dismiss as someone else’s problem. And, let’s face it the someone else is probably crazy too.

Whatever the strength of attachment to it, the Second Amendment was originally intended to maintain a citizen militia to tackle the Brits. As paramilitary organisations are mostly superfluous these days, this seems a thin justification to own private weapons. I'm not completely convinced it’s the whole story.  Why would you hang onto a constitutional provision if sufficient people didn't want it ? Equally, why would the National Rifle Association be so influential unless it spoke for a significant number of voters? A further explanation is necessary, for why so many people want the right to have guns.

A reading of the justifications for private gun ownership offered up following Newtown (and there are plenty) suggests the second reason for the continuing appeal. It’s not a constitutional explanation but a personal one. People want firearms because they feel that owning deadly weapons protects them. Recent comments by a congressman suggesting arming school teachers may have appeared extreme, but he was essentially making the same point. It’s only if you believe that guns are protective that being allowed to own automatic assault weapons (which are not used for hunting or sports) makes any sort of sense. It also may account for the 49 states that allow concealed weapons to be carried. How realistic is this perception of safety? Figures from the US, repeatedly cited in the last few weeks but still shocking, show that the level of gun-related deaths is far, far ahead of that in European countries with tighter laws. This makes it difficult to argue that having a large number of firearms in circulation enhances public safety. However, similar figures have been around for decades and don’t always have an impact on policy. As the NRA president recently argued, if a bad guy is coming for you with a gun you need to be tooled-up too, no matter what the stats say. A more nuanced version of this view was put forward by the writer Sam Harris. The argument is the same though. The world is seen as a Hobbesian trap, and other factors which may contribute to a more peaceful society aren't considered.

In the face of such entrenched beliefs, how can the right to bear arms be challenged? One way may be to break down exactly what people think they are going to do with their gun. The implication of seeing guns as protection is that, in extremis, people can be their own police force (and in fact judge and executioner).  It is an easy fantasy to fall into and we have seen hundreds of films that reinforce it. However, accounts from people who actually use firearms against others suggest that this is, at best, a highly simplistic view.  Confrontations involving shooting (or just the potential for shooting) are actually quite breathtakingly stressful for the person wielding the gun. This makes it very difficult to operate a firearm effectively. Even trained police officers make inadequate appraisals of threat and poor decisions in situations of extreme fear and arousal.  Some of the most interesting developments in US police policy in the last few years have concerned developing training and operating protocols to the point where potentially deadly confrontations can either be avoided, de-escalated or managed in a more controlled fashion. These are intended to lower the risk of armed police getting involved in high-risk confrontations simply because they are packing heat. Such de-escalation and avoidance also helps prevent officers getting into a state of confused hyperarousal and pulling the trigger when it may not be necessary. As well as the difficulty of actually wielding guns with any efficiency in a threatening situation, research on police officers who have shot someone suggests that they don’t simply blow the smoke from the end of the barrel and make a laconic remark.  They are far more likely to have a traumatic reaction.

If civilians are to be their own armed response unit it seems they will do very badly and will pay a huge price in emotional trauma. Of course the NRA has an answer to that:  give nursery teachers and the like a high level of firearms training and have armed guards to protect schools. It’s one logical conclusion to reach in a society with a load of guns sloshing around. The right to bear arms becomes a duty with the additional obligation to train yourself appropriately.

It may just be however, that America has reached a point where they are ready to pass on that vision of society and explore alternatives.  If this is to be a watershed moment in US gun availability it’s clear that a revolution of sorts is required. The political calculus is clearly tricky as many elected representatives have gun-owning constituents. If not after a tragedy like Newtown though then when? However, if change is to come I’d suggest the first fatality needs to be the idea that guns make you safer.


  1. The interesting thing is that people who aren't well-trained AND up to date on gun handling are pretty useless at using guns in an emergency, as shown here:

    Even police suffer severe stress when faced with a hostile situation, so I just don't trust members of the public with them, particularly the inaccurate short-barrelled pistols.


  2. As a South African who has on three separate occasions been held up at gunpoint in that country and survived to tell the tale, I feel somewhat qualified to offer a response. Surgeons from all over the world study trauma medicine and the management of gunshot wounds in South Africa because of its high incidence of gun related incidents. There is little or no evidence that owning guns is protective. In fact, to the contrary. It is much more likely in situations of extreme stress that the presence of weapons will add to any damage. To some extent, it is easy to make glib statements from the safe, leafy streets of Tunbridge Wells, though, than it would be from within a society under stress where safety cannot be taken for granted. It will never be easy to convince people living in such societies of the folly of gun ownership, as people do believe that weapons are protective. In a contribution to 'A public health approach to violence in South Africa' ( in Bornman et al (1998) 'Violence in South Africa - A variety of perspectives'); Johan Kruger, Alex Butchart, Mohamed Seedat and myself argued that a public health approach should be taken to the problem so as to acknowledge causes that can only be addressed through concerted inter-disciplinary involvement. The public health approach is partnership driven and places a high premium on participation and co-operation by all stakeholders, including the participant community. Individual approaches are almost doomed to failure in situations where violence has been deeply inculcated into the culture. Sadly, this does seem to be the case in parts of the US today.

    Angela Gilchrist

  3. As someone who has lived for quite some time in both the US and UK I have come to believe that many Americans, but probably not the majority, will not give up gun ownership without a fight to the death. I do not say this lightly. Guns symbolise freedom, safety, liberty, independence, control, power, individuality and protection for a large portion of the US population. I will be happily surprised if substantial gun legislation will be passed. Massacred American children may remain in the short term memory of many Americans but probably not become a decisive factor in changing Federal laws. It is not only the NRA. In my opinion it goes far beyond the NRA and embodies the psyche, heart and soul of millions of Americans. These people are not evil, crazy or uncivilised, as some European news media imply. Guns and gun ownership are part of the identity of some Americans and it could likely become very violent of legislation gets a serious chance of passing.
    PM Camic

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    Angela, yes I do think that a public health strategy has something to offer. Clearly you are capturing something of the Zeitgeist as it links to this very recent article in JAMA ( advocating just such an approach.

    I fear though that comparisons with other public health initiatives (like restricting/taxing/controlling tobacco or cars) are limited though. People didn't seriously make the case (not in any widespread way) that cigarettes are vital for your personal safety. With guns, this belief is everywhere. I even come across a tacit acceptance of the safety benefits of guns in the home in left/liberal commentary. I suspect that any concerted attempt to reduce the huge pool of privately owned guns in the States has to tackle de-programming that mindset.

    Like Paul, I'm not hugely hopeful but I've just come off reading the Pinker book on the decline of violence and (for all it's flaws) it does leave a sense of hope.

    John McGowan

  5. There are quite a number of things to address in your article, but generally I suspect attempting to do so would be futile. However, I am a bit curious, you wrote "If civilians are to be their own armed response unit it seems they will do very badly and will pay a huge price in emotional trauma." Is it your contention that they would be better off not being able to defend themselves when they are under violent attack?

    Most criminologists that I am aware of, who are probably more likely to be 'experts' on the question of whether guns make one safe, seem to believe that guns are used at least as often defensively as they are criminally, and possibly an order of magnitude more often.

    All rights come with obligations.

    1. Clearly I am a lost cause though, given that addressing the shortcomings of my argument is "futile" I may never know why!

      My contention is that societies are safer without a lot of guns in circulation. However, What I am at least trying to acknowledge is that there are those who (perhaps with some justification) feel safer having the means to defend themselves. It could be argued that it's a difference between individual advantage and societal gain. The NRA argues the former and President Obama, Michael Bloomberg etc the latter.

      If I, for example, lived in a very fragmented and violent society like South Africa I wonder would I take the individual advantage position and own a gun. Probably not though I might choose, Oscar Pistorious style, to live in a gated community. These things do not seem to me to be a long term answer though as they tempt sidestepping the causes of a culture of violence and increase fire-arms related risks in many different ways.

      My second main contention in the piece is that this idea of individual advantage (i.e. the right to protect yourself with a gun) is, at the very least, somewhat more complex than it at first appears. Being able to apply lethal force against another human being is something that is difficult, can exact a cost in emotional trauma and can itself exacerbate risky situations. I expect you are familiar with such research though. The NRA acknowledges (up to a point)this and suggests more training in a way that would seem to lead to an increasingly armed an militerised society. Wouldn't be my choice I have to say.

      A third point of the article is to suggest that the concentration (from President Obama etc) on the overarching argument that reducing guns reduces risk ignores the perspective of individual gun owners who feel the need to protect themselves. However simplistic their opinion I think it needs to be addressed more clearly.


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