The Unintended Costs of an Armed Society
(Note: This post is NOT part of our current Democracy Symposium. If you want to follow the Symposium – and you should! – you can fid it here.)
When I was twenty-one and still working my way through school, I took a job as a DJ in a popular but tacky meat-market bar that catered to the early twenties set. It was packed and crazy most weekends, but the worst by far was during the Portland Rose Festival. During the festival, Navy vessels from both Canada and the United States travel up to Columbia River and dock right outside of downtown, and the sailors are given leave for up to a week.
One night during a break, our bouncer Tony asked me to man the velvet rope so he could use the facilities. I did this most nights for him, actually. It was a nice changeup from the booth I had to stand in next to the dance floor, where electronics and the heat of the bodies pressing together boogying would often combine to force the temperature up to 90 degrees. It was cool by the door, and girls wanting to be let in before other customers left first would flirt aggressively with me to try and get me to lift the rope. As I was sitting there on this particular evening, two US sailors stumbled into line. This was before the days of MADD, and people got a lot more inebriated in bars than bars will allow them to these days. Still, even for the time these two were really ploughed.
As they stood waiting, they tried to “flirt” with a few girls farther up in line by loudly explaining in great detail that their penises were unusually large. One of the girls responded with some quick witticism that turned the sailors’ words around and reduced the theoretical size of their moneymakers by a factor of many, and everyone in line laughed. The sailors did not appreciate this act of disrespect, and one of them told the girl he had half a mind to “beat the shit” out of her when they got inside.
Not seeing a way letting the sailors into the bar would end well, I told them it looked like they’d had enough for the night and explained we wouldn’t be letting them in this at this point – perhaps they would like to return the next evening and allow the house to buy them a round for their trouble? This led to them of explaining to me how many ways they knew how to kill a man with one hand, unlike those p**sies from Canada, which led to a group of Canadian sailors in line – who were OK with American sailors threatening to beat up a woman, but understandably had to draw the line at the claim Canadians might not know as many ways to kill a man with one hand – got in their face. While I was trying to tell one of the Canadians to get back in line or we wouldn’t be able to let them in either, one of the American sailors cold cocked me from behind – hard. (Why he chose to sneak up on my, I have no idea. He was about a foot taller than I was, and about 80 pounds heavier – all muscle. He could have had both hands tied behind his back and he still would have cleaned the floor with me.) I was out cold for a couple of minutes. Shortly after my head rebooted the US Sailors left when the doorman came out and announced the police were on their way. We never saw them again.
This isn’t a very interesting story; it’s certainly not very unusual. My guess is most people reading this have a similar story to mine: some scuffle at a party or a bar they either witnessed or were involved with, where some drunk assholes looking to show the world how tough they were got into people faces, hoping someone would give them enough of an excuse to take the first swing. In fact, I bet you have already thought of such a story from your own life, and I bet it’s a lot more interesting than mine. And that’s OK, I’m comfortable with your story being better than mine.
You know what I am not so comfortable with?
The idea that it would be awesome if all of those people, from my story and yours, were encouraged to carry firearms in public at all times.
One of the predictable talking points from the Right coming on the heels of the tragic Aurora shooting is the argument that the rampage itself is a call for a more universally armed society than we have today. (On the radio since I have been back, I have heard this view espoused to one degree or another by Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity and Larson.) Even here at the League, Wardsmith suggests that an armed society would be preferable, as he (correctly) notes that the police just can’t protect you from psychos like James Holmes.
The argument, as I understand it, goes something like this: Were the majority of American carrying fire arms while out in public, the potential victims of horrors like Aurora’s shootings would have been able to defend themselves. If most of the theatre goers on that night were armed and willing to use deadly force, it stands to reason that the number of victims would be drastically reduced, if not eliminated outright. This same argument was made with both Arizona’s Jared Loughner and Virginia Tech’s Seung-Hui Cho.
I have to say there is no question in my mind that this argument is absolutely, completely, 100% true. I know that there are some that dispute this, but I confess I find these arguments wanting. Were everyone fully armed at Virginia Tech, for example, the thought that not one person would have shot Seung-Hui Cho and kept the ultimate body count lower strikes me as politically driven credulity. Hell, I’m one of the least violent guys I know, and I would have emptied a clip into the guy under those circumstances. And yet despite my belief in all of the above, I find the idea of encouraging as many Americans as possible to fully arm themselves for their day-to-day lives astoundingly irresponsible.
The reason for this apparent contradiction has everything to do with my risk management background. One of the things the study of risk management tells us is that, despite politicians’ platitudes, you cannot escape risk no matter how hard you try. Decreasing one risk invariably increases another, and this is especially true with deadly firearms. The problem with calling for public policy that publicly arms the populace after these tragedies is that it replaces a risk with one that is substantially larger, statistically speaking. I suspect that we’re actually increasing many risks, but for the moment allow me to focus on just one: accidental shootings.
In 2007, the most recent year I have been able to find statistics, there were over 600 accidental shooting deaths, and over 15,000 people injured with non-fatal accidental gunshot wounds. Let’s just take a moment to reflect on these statistics, none of which involve malice or violent intent. These statistics reflect accidents, and accidents adhere to the Law of Large Numbers. And the Law of Large Numbers tells us that if we increase both the number of people carrying firearms, and the average amount of time per day that people have those firearms on their person, the number of accidents will increase as well. What, then, would be the results if we were able to use public policy to encourage a substantial number of adults to be armed while in public, to the extent that any public threat of massacre might be addressed? I’ll be the first to confess that so much of the data you’d need for such a calculation would need to be a guess, and the number of variables you’d need to consider would be legion. But for the sake of this post, let’s make some WAGs just to get a flavor of the results of such a change in our public attitude toward guns:
I have no idea how many Americans actually carry open or concealed firearms while in public on any given day, and have not been able to find statistics on such a thing. So allow me to choose an overly conservative number that I suspect is far too high: three million, or one in every 100 Americans. Now assume that our new “An Armed Society is a Polite Society” policies are tremendously successful, and we are able to increase that number to 60 million, or one out of every five Americans. Also, let’s say that in addition to having armed the populace in their day-to-day lives, publicly funded gun-safety education is wildly successful and cuts the accidental shooting rates rate in half. What do we have then?
What we have, then, is a 12,000% increase in accidents: almost 7,000 additional accidental shooting deaths and almost 200,000 additional accidental shooting injuries on an annual basis. To put that number in perspective, the past three tragedies that have caused the Right to call for arming the populace (Virginia Tech, Arizona and Aurora) average out to 16 deaths and 29 injuries per massacre.
In addition to the accidental shootings, I have to say that I suspect there would be additional unintended consequences. Part of the logic behind the “arm the public” philosophy is the assumption that everyone with a firearm will act rationally and make well reasoned choices: A crazed lunatic about to go out in a personal-suicide blaze of glory will rethink the wisdom of this knowing he might be shot by someone other than himself; a drunk, mean-spirited, hormonally charged 21 year-old sailor in a bar will always decide to say “please and thank you” rather than trying to prove how tough he is; an abusive husband that’s screaming at his wife for some imagined infraction will apologize and be a better person once his hand feels the gun on his hip. For Ward and others, the obvious fact that it is more logical to be polite and kind to one another when everyone is armed is proof that the above scenarios will be the case. But my experience in risk management has taught me that people are not nearly as logical or reasonable when it comes to their own safety as one might expect – especially when they are drunk, emotional or young and male. Many – far too many – are actually pretty self-destructive; giving these people guns and asking them to have them on their person when they’re out drinking, dating, driving, arguing, fighting, and having fun seems tremendously unwise, and asking for trouble.
One of the differences between my thinking and those on the Right calling for an armed society, I think, is that those on the Right seem to view the deadliness of firearms from a purely “criminal vs. victim” point of view. This is, of course, a very legitimate point of view; one of the primary reasons people purchase handguns is self-defense. But while this angle is legitimate, it’s only one of many. The truth of the matter is the world just isn’t neatly divided into “the good guys” and “perps,” to take two phrases that seem to be used without irony by many of those calling for armed citizenry. And even in those cases where criminal threats exist, it isn’t always so black and white. I have two teenage boys, and because of this I would rather risk living in a neighborhood where one of the neighbor’s kids was a thief that might take my TV than in a neighborhood with this guy:
I’ve never been a big fan of gun control laws. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is that I am a gun owner and have enjoyed shooting for years. Past that, however, I’ve never seen a gun control law that does much. Part of this is due to faulty legislation, and part is due to faulty thinking. Besides, I can’t think of any draconian gun-controlling actions that wouldn’t favor the people I most want guns kept away from: criminals, the overly irresponsible, Glenn Beck listeners that are buying gold because they think (and are hoping) that the government is about to collapse, and the mentally ill. Those people will just say “Fish it” to the laws, and will do what they were going to do anyway. There are just too many firearms out there already, and because of this I firmly believe that sweeping laws that would crack down on gun ownership would work really well with the Mike Dwyers of the world, but not the James Holmses. So there is no doubt in my mind that guns are with us to stay, and in truth I’m OK with that – but that does not mean that arming as many people as possible isn’t a terrible idea.
Look, I understand the desire, after the huge act of violence we just witnessed in Aurora, to gear our entire firearms public policy around making sure that this could never happen again – I really do. It’s a very natural reaction, both human and compassionate. But making public policy based upon random acts of the completely insane is a bad idea in the end. For one thing, you can’t actually stop crazy evil people from doing crazy evil things. A guy that came up with a plan to kill a bunch of people under scenario A will just find another way to kill a bunch of people if you force him to plan against your new scenario B. Is there a solution to these massacres? I’m not sure that there is, really. But I am sure that arming our society to the teeth isn’t it.