David French, editor of the right-wing National Review, recently explained why he carries a gun. The brief version is that it makes him feel like a sheepdog – safe and powerful. Protected and a protector. More a member of his community. I don't want to deny the reality of this feeling. I'm sure it feels great! What I do want to say is that it's delusional. And all the rest of us are being asked to pay for these comforting delusions with our lives.
Or, put another way, this post is a bit of an analysis of the pros and cons of owning a handgun. So let's start with the ur-case for gun advocates: there's a Bad Guy with a gun. And, if you (a Good Guy) are there, you stop it. French considers himself to have "master[ed] so potent a tool." The trouble it is overwhelmingly likely that your average gun owner has not, in fact, mastered so potent and tool, and they're not going to respond well in a crisis situation.
Let's start with a little video. The short version: when your average person is trained to use their concealed weapon in an "active shooter situation," then thoroughly primed that this is about to happen, they are not capable of effectively responding. Someone comes through the door and shoots them: game over.
To give a little theoretical backing to this video, we can turn to Dave Grossman's On Combat, where he discusses the basic difficulty faced by modern armies: how to turn your average citizen into an efficient killer. Because the average human, when caught in a lethal situation, is hit by such an overwhelming flood of adrenaline they can't think, can't aim, can't really do much of anything. And no amount of training on a range can solve this problem. It's only repeated (according to Grossman, at least five) combat encounters that burn that reflex out of us. In other words, when someone starts shooting, the most likely outcome for the average gun owner is panic, shooting the wrong person, sowing confusion, and then getting shot by someone else who thinks they're the Bad Guy.
Okay. Let's leave the realm of fantasy and get into reality. Here's a thorough breakdown of gun violence in America. Short version: forget about those Death Wish fantasies. If you own a gun, the most likely outcome is that you put it in your mouth and pull the trigger. Not right now, not today, but at a bad time. You lose your job, or your home, or your spouse. You get depressed, and drunk, and then instead of having one bad night, that gun is right there, offering you a way out. And you take it.
Next most likely is you don't get depressed. You get angry. At your spouse, or your neighbor, or someone who cut you off on the highway. And instead of just being angry, you're an angry person with a gun. Next most likely is you kill someone else.
It's sometimes said (by conservatives) that conservatives view human nature as essentially bad, while liberals view it as essentially good (French: "There are evil men in this world, and sometimes they wish you harm"). This has never struck me as particularly apt. Instead it seems that conservatives view humans as divided into two camps, the Good Guys and the Bad Guys (strangely, women rarely figure in this view). Liberals, to paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, think that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. So of course conservatives think that the solution to gun violence is to ensure that all the Good Guys have guns and the Bad Guys don't. But liberals know that you might be good – in one time, in one way, in one place – and bad in another time, way, place. That the gun that makes you feel safe in the morning is the one you put in your mouth at night when the walls start closing in.