This past Sunday, The Daily Beast published my essay on gun-ownership, violence in schools, and the ways we guard against it. I referenced the work of David Grossman, a leading author, speaker and authority on the psychology of violence. I presented his opinions not because I agreed with every word, but because I found them interesting, counter-intuitive, thought-provoking, and thus potentially useful in a pragmatic national discussion about gun violence. Grossman breaks society down into three groups – sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs – and as an entry to the subject, I related my own experience of feeling a burning need to guard my family after my tours in Iraq. Because I am trained in firearms, using a gun to protect my children seemed obvious, so obvious to me that it caught me off guard that my plans disturbed news interviewers and common readers alike.
It is safe to say those feelings persist. The day after my essay appeared David Frum wrote a thoughtful rebuttal, emphasizing the inherent risks of anyone owning a gun and echoing the sentiment of Terry Gross and others that the existence of the firearm is the dangerous part. I have long admired Frum as a writer, we share many of the same public policy opinions, and so I should say that while I have gotten used to many aspects of this new semi-public life of an author, seeing Frum’s piece pop up Monday was a new experience. I’m honored to have him respect my work enough to devote a column to it.
I agree with nearly everything Frum wrote, especially the (implied) need to address gun violence as we would a public health crisis. Where we diverge is on the psychology, the reasonableness of the protective feelings, and his selective application of the deficiencies of human behavior.
Let us consider the second part first, as it is the most straight-forward. Frum correctly notes that gun owners are not “competent, responsible, sober” all of the time. The pro-gun lobby conceives of such a thing as a good gun owner, but “… in the real world, human beings spread themselves along much longer gradients of behavior. Some are well-intentioned but careless. Some are admirably well-tempered, except when they have had too much to drink.”
All true, but while Frum admits there are trust-worthy veterans and valiant grandmother shotgun owners, he states that it is this variety of human failings that make guns dangerous to even the well-intentioned.
But it is no more difficult to keep one’s gun locked up when drunk than one’s car keys. When not competent, reasonable or sober, there are a multitude of bad behaviors we humans could engage in. Gun ownership and an increased propensity for such carelessness do not have to go together. Or, to put it another way, human beings are careless, and some of them happen to own guns. Many more of them recklessly and imperfectly drive cars. An awful lot also own swimming pools.
This has relevance. Frum states “In the US, however, the greatest risk to children comes not from roadside IEDs, but from carelessly handled handguns belonging to the loving adults in their lives.” Not true, actually. The CDC says the greatest risk to children is motor-vehicle accidents. The second is accidental drowning, most often in swimming pools. Each year 600 children die in gun accidents, while more than 700 children aged 1-14 years drown.
No matter how many safety nets we erect, we still live in an occasionally dangerous world.
These are not perfect comparisons. The difference between owning a gun and driving a car or owning a swimming pool, of course, is that the first seems rash and “poorly conceived” and the second two are more accepted behaviors in society, either for practical transportation or simple entertainment. One could move to the city, take public transit, not go swimming, and do more to make your child safe than you would by keeping a gun out of the house (interesting that generally in our society we address the threat of drowning with fences and teaching children to swim, while we address accidental shootings with trigger locks but little education). Arming oneself as a guard against potential violence is statistically unnecessary, though, which brings us to the second point, the psychology and reasonableness of that protective feeling at all.
“Will violence happen to me? Am I the kind of person violent things happen to?” Who even asks themselves this kind of question? If a combat veteran doesn’t reflect on this before they join the military, they know the answer after their first firefight.
Mitch Albom at the Detroit Free Press addressed this immediately after the Boston bombings:
I read a quote from a female spectator in Boston, who suffered minor injuries and who told CNN, “I personally will never participate in an event of this nature in a city in fear that something like this could happen again. … Seeing terrible things … all over the world on TV, my heart would always go out to those directly affected. But I never imagined in a million years I would be a spectator at the Boston Marathon running for my life.”
This is a very telling statement. She admits she has seen terror happen all over the world, yet says she could never have imagined running for her life. Why? If it happens all over the world, why couldn’t it happen to her?
Is violence something that will happen to you? This is not fear-mongering. It is an honest question that I wonder how many of us ask ourselves. If the answer is yes, what to do about that realization is not at all obvious.
Frum used two words to describe my need to be on guard: irrational and unreasoning. They are inaccurate. I surely reasoned, perhaps over-reasoned, my way to choose my spot at the top of the stairs to guard my son’s door. And it is completely rational to note you have the skills and means to protect your children and then plan on how to best go about it; no different from installing a car seat, really. I am reminded of the column by David Giraldi where he argued that when we say senseless to describe terror attacks what we really mean is useless. I think the same applies here. Arming yourself to protect your children is not irrational but useless. What practical effect was I trying to achieve? Who was I guarding my children against, after all? I still don’t have a good answer.
While noting that, because of my time in Iraq, I may be excused for over-protectiveness, Frum nonetheless dismisses any lesson I may have learned there. That my experiences left me “Crazy” (my word, in my book) makes this especially easy; a clinical mental health diagnosis sanitizes what is a normal human reaction. There is a wink and a nod here, a certain “well, you know Brian saw lots of bad things, but that was a war, after all. That’s not a shared reality. That stuff doesn’t apply back here.”
When does it apply? What lesson would we all listen to? There is always a disclaimer – it’s a gang-on-gang shooting, everyone knows New York is a target, she was asking for it, who would walk home by themselves at night, they are the one’s that volunteered for the military – that explains why violence happens to other people and not us.
This is what the statistically-based public policy teaches: it will not happen to you. Do not own a gun because it is far more likely to harm you than protect you. And in the average, this is right, and for the general public, that is probably the right message. Except when the individual learns that it is wrong in the personal case.
Why should any American fear a violent encounter? “Human beings are notoriously poor estimators of risk,” Frum says. “We are phobic about flying, but not about driving – although driving is vastly more dangerous.”
True, but a plane crash is what we in the military used to call a “low probability/high impact” event. The risk from an auto accident is easier to compartmentalize – many of us drive every day, have been in a fender-bender and lived through it. But we fly less often, and a plane crash is far more often fatal. It is unlikely an armed and violent intruder will enter my home, but the consequences if it happens? Devastating.
Should I internalize this, or will it only make me a security hypochondriac?
In the film “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Ben Stiller’s character, Chas Tenenbaum, loses his wife in a plane crash and then becomes obsessed with the safety of his sons. He runs fire drills from their apartment. He sleeps in the same room with them. He loves them fiercely. Perhaps there is a Rorschach Test here. Is Ben Stiller’s character a caricature to be laughed at? Or a sympathetic figure to empathize with? I am guessing one’s personal experience is a great predictor of the answer.
What seems wise in the aggregate (the nature of public policy, and Frum’s specialty) is difficult to apply in one’s life, especially when the impact for rolling snake eyes on the dice is so large. I question the utility or practicality of applying the statistical average to one’s individual behavior, especially when our brains are programmed to consider personal experience above cold theory. Once something unlikely happens to us – major car accident, loved one drowning, rare cancer, violent attack – we are predisposed to be more on guard against it, not less.
It is interesting to note that Frum does not address the basic sheep/wolf/sheepdog structure. I admit that I am uncomfortable with it. The existence of and need for sheepdogs seems certain – observe the many in uniform at work in Boston, immediately after the bombings and in the days of hunting that followed – but are they protecting us from wolves, from obviously evil men (and only occasionally women)? Ehren Tool, who I interviewed for a previous piece on this blog, reminded us of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
We need protecting, but when in war you see so many average reasonable human beings doing horrific things to one another, it is hard to label what we need protection from. This bother me not; I don’t need to know who is shooting at me to realize I’m being shot at.
But if we agree on the need to have sheepdogs, who then is to fill that role? What is my responsibility for bearing that burden myself versus leaving it to others? This is the hesitancy Frum notes, that I am unsure if I made the right decision to keep the gun out of the minivan. It is not insecurity because logic overcame emotion, but rather my reliance upon others for something I could do myself. It is being the recipient rather than the provider of protection.
Because there has not been a triumph of reason over irrational fear, or an embracing of the statistically probable over the unlikely (or some might say a return of denial to avoid messy reality), but rather a choice to live my life in a more peaceful way. I learned in war that violence can happen to me, a white kid from suburban Buffalo. I learned it is not something that just happens to other people. I learned that when you are being shot at you should take cover behind your weapon. That if you are shooting at them they will put their head down and not shoot back at you. That when bullets fly – and they will, remember – that I should fight and not hide. I have not reasoned my way out of this to the “right answer.” I am choosing not to participate because of the calm it brings to my present. I am choosing to turn the other cheek; that I will be slapped again someday is not a theoretical question but an inevitable certainty.