One More Time: Guns Don’t Make You Safer

Demonstration of front checking kick

“Bitch!” G.I. Joe is saying, “Let GO of my GUN!”

Recently, a woman I know through my martial arts training escaped from an attempted abduction at gunpoint. Armed abduction is a rare crime, but one that comes up often as a hypothetical worst-case scenario when people are debating how best to protect themselves–if, for example, they ought to carry a concealed handgun.

Helen Yee was not carrying a gun, and managed to escape her armed attacker uninjured. She credits her self defense training for this: “It’s not all about kicking and punching,” she told an interviewer. “It’s about using your head.”

I have noticed that this sentiment often seems to upset people who believe in guns as everyday self defense tools.

The question “Do guns make you safer?” is only answerable in a broad statistical sense.* On a case-by-case basis–all those “I heard about this woman who was home alone and an attacker broke in and . . .” scenarios that propagate throughout our civic discourse on guns–it’s virtually impossible to predict whether the presence or absence of a gun (or of another gun) would result in more or less violence. This is because safety, in a situation where guns might be relevant–i.e., during a violent encounter–rests only partially upon basic forces like strength, speed, and size. This is why 4′ 11″ Helen Yee, who is 52 years old, was able to escape unharmed from a much larger, younger, stronger attacker, even though he had a gun and she did not. Human behavior and communication are much more significant factors in these scenarios. In an assault, it is the complex interplay of opportunity, initiative, and the choices individuals make as they assess these variables, that determines who ends up injured, and to what extent.

A gun does not magically solve this equation; it merely adds another variable. Guns can change the choices available in an attack; they may make certain choices more or less likely. But violent encounters are extremely fluid situations, much more so than what we typically experience in day-to-day contact with other people. When violence is introduced into human interaction, behavioral options that we would normally consider off the table are suddenly viable. The everyday restraint that keeps us from hurting other people may be set aside. We can plunge a thumb into another person’s eye. We can bite through an ear. Likewise, when in danger, we may be willing to do or say things we would otherwise never say or do, in order to ensure our safety. We may bargain, lie, soothe or threaten in ways we would never attempt in a non-violent encounter.

When violence is imminent or occurring, our range of physical options also expands. Our adrenaline kicks in, making us temporarily stronger, faster, and less susceptible to pain. For many people, mental processing changes as well. Sometimes people go into shock at the sight of a gun, or the impact of a blow. But other times, people in danger become hyper-aware, extremely fast-thinking, acutely tuned in to their assailant’s emotional state. They find ways to connect verbally. They may become instant therapists, prayer partners, or confidants, gaining an attacker’s trust in order to avert violence.

Any one of these variables can completely shift the balance and determine the outcome of a violent encounter. Guns, on the other hand, are mere machines. They can do one thing: Put holes in people (or scare someone into thinking they’ll have holes put in them). That can be useful, but only in a limited way, under very restrictive circumstances (viz., when you have sufficient warning that you need the gun, and the gun is loaded, where you can reach it, ready to fire, accurately aimed, before your attacker has gotten close enough to overpower or disarm you, and it does not jam or misfire).

What can reliably improve your odds of safety in a violent encounter are, as Helen Yee attests, skills and knowledge: knowing the vulnerable areas on the human body, understanding how to use your own body to cause damage, some awareness of attacker psychology and the types of responses most likely to work in certain kinds of attacks. Human ingenuity and instinct are the most reliable ways to thwart human violence, because humans–especially violent ones–are complex organisms. A gun is a machine. It is not nearly adaptable enough to produce good outcomes with any predictability. Only humans are adaptable enough for that.

In other words, believing that a gun will keep you safe is like thinking an ATM will keep you solvent. Such a belief conflates the action of a crude mechanical device with the much more subtle and complicated reality of how power is negotiated between humans.


*The answer, broadly, is “No.” Since a gun’s only purpose is to shoot things (mainly people), a gun can only provide a benefit when there is a readily available target. If no one is attacking you or likely to attack you, then having a gun around is a net negative for your personal safety, because it creates the potential for accidental shootings and suicides. That potential is considerable.

New McSweeney’s Column

I have a new installment of Bitchslap up this week at McSweeney’s, titled “It’s the Little Things,” about microaggression, Rhonda Rousey, and why I don’t have any Native American friends:

One telltale marker of microaggression is that it disrupts empathy. Regardless of the purpose behind it—whether the act is well-meaning but thoughtless, or intentionally hurtful—it tends to make people angrier at each other, to move them further apart, not closer together. I suppose this is one reason I’m interested in it; when I see disruption between people, I see a fight, and when I see a fight, I want it resolved. I want an armbar or a knockout or a rear naked choke hold; something that puts a definitive end to the conflict, so the fighters can shake hands.

Call me a dreamer.

On Saying “No”

Best-selling author Rhoda Janzen recently wrote a lovely column for Christianity Today that mentioned Smile at Strangers (she has an advance copy!). I was thrilled that she focused in on one chapter where I recount having to say “No” over and over again in a self defense workshop, and how unexpectedly transformative that was for me. What was I so thrilled? After reading this scene, Janzen GOT UP AND DID THE THING I WAS WRITING ABOUT, enlisting her husband to ask her a bunch of questions that she could say “No” to. She goes on:
God has a nice sense of timing. If you start working on a weakness, you can pretty much count on an immediate opportunity to practice what you’re working on. The very next day I found myself in crisis mode. Mind you, my crisis did not involve carjackers or assault rifles. But it tore me up inside. Saying no would inflict hurt. It did. But that’s not the point. The point is that I finally said no after five hours of worry and fear.
Assertiveness! Self-care! Boundaries! VICTORY!
Janzen also makes some astute observations about gendered approaches to saying “No.” She’s always a thoughtful and very funny writer. Click through to read the entire piece: Women Need to Say “No” More.