Guns and the illusion of security

Concealed weapons don't make us safer; communities do.
August 31, 2016

Lately I’ve been noticing bumper stickers designed in the shape of the state of Connecticut, with a gun silhouette, the letters CCDL (Connecticut Citizens Defense League, Inc.), and the statement, “Carry On!” I assume that the sticker is in support of the concealed and open carry laws and that its presence on a bumper means that the driver probably has a gun.

Thank you, bumper sticker, I say to myself, for warning me that this driver has a gun in the car. It’s a clever move to keep people away. A bully move that works. I realize that I’m avoiding eye contact with the driver at the stoplight. After all, who wants to piss off the guy with a gun in his car?

As it turns out, a lot of people have guns in their cars or guns in their briefcase or handbag or tucked in their coat—all “safely” concealed. Thirteen million people.

Our friends advise us, “Don’t dial drunk.” Don’t pick up a phone and call your ex, for example, when you’re in an emotionally altered state derived from alcohol. Yet now all 50 states have concealed carry permits, enabling us to carry guns through all the emotional highs and lows that any day brings. Thirteen million people are carrying concealed weapons, including people in line at Dunkin’ Donuts, people lounging at the city pool, and people playing at the miniature golf course—some of whom will lose their tempers when another golfing group jumps ahead of them on the course. People have guns in their cars during moments of road rage and even at the DMV, where tempers flare after waiting in line for an hour just to update a license. The 13 million people with a license for concealed carry represent more than 12 times the number of police in the United States.

When I pastored a church, I learned how emotionally volatile we humans are. Most of us can’t always keep ourselves together. This is not a diagnosis of some particular mental health issue but rather an expression of a human reality. There is some “snap” that happens in a day or a week or over the year, some break in our sense of knowing how we fit in this world that causes us to act in ways that are against our well-being. Mostly we numb the pain with one of the many forms of distraction easily available to us, but there is often anger just beneath the surface, and some of us are more prone than others to expressing our anger outwardly. Now having a gun with us at all times is as easy as having a bottle of wine in the fridge. Easy access to a fatal weapon seems inadvisable to me, a move made because we think we are different than we really are. Add to that the fact that we are living in intensely uncertain times.

In an interview on the public radio program Fresh Air, reporter Evan Osnos described the fear expressed by people who carry concealed weapons. They “talk about this immense sense of insecurity, both physical insecurity from the idea of a mass shooting but also more broadly . . . an economic insecurity, the idea that the professions and businesses that they used to have have fallen away. . . . And also political insecurity—they feel as if their voice is no longer represented by mainstream politicians.”

The rise of concealed carry is about safety, self-protection, and security. It’s an expression of an instinct that drives a person who feels, as Osnos says, “as if I am losing power, and . . . as if one of the ways in which I can fortify myself is by buying a gun.” Even if we don’t own a gun, we are represented by state legislatures that agree that carrying a gun provides the safety and security we seek.

Here’s the thing, though: we aren’t safe. We aren’t secure. We don’t act in accordance with the rules of reason all the time. We flip out. We dial drunk. When we are not as we wish we were, or things are not going as we wish they would, we do things that are not in our best interest or in the interest of our neighbors. Carrying a gun or bringing one into our homes actually creates more insecurity: “The simple fact is, by bringing it into your life, by bringing it into your home, you significantly raise the risk of suicide, of homicide, of accidental gun death. The chances of a homicide of some kind doubles,” says Osnos.

Some may argue that the “Who wants to piss off a guy with a gun?” line of thinking justifies having a gun. I argue that the effect of this kind of thinking is not safety but the opposite—increased systematic isolation and anxiety.

Scholar and author Jennifer Michael Hecht writes on suicide in her book Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies against It. She speaks against suicide by alerting us to our essential need for each other. “We are indebted to one another and the debt is a kind of faith—a beautiful, difficult, strange faith. We believe each other into being.”

We are so in need of one another that our isolation from one another, our being or feeling alone, kills us. It makes us kill ourselves. It causes us to kill others.

We aspire to feel safe and secure in our lives, but the feeling and fact of safety is always only temporary because it exists within a context that we share: we are here now but one day we will die. In that wide view, the most fundamental form of safety we can offer one another is one another. Laws, policies, community, family, and personal practices that help us to connect with one another in the midst of the nagging uncertainties of our lives are the best avenue toward a resilient security.

Concealed carry, which has put more guns into more hands, purses, and cars, is a fallacy of safety. Guns add tension. They introduce more walls between us. If the gun doesn’t kill us, the walls that are going up between us will.


A version of this article appears in the September 14 print edition under the title “More guns, more fear.”


Although ideology and massive

Although ideology and massive misinformation, along with anger and fear, have led many commenters here to the opposite conclusion, having a gun in your home, or car, or purse, or pocket does NOT make you and your loved ones safe. Quite the opposite: it makes you and your loved ones many times more likely to kill or be killed.

Those are not only the facts according to numerous exhaustive studies, but they are commonsense conclusions. Suicidal or homicidal thoughts are generally just that: thoughts. But when a gun is available the thought leads to impulsive, and irreversible, action -- you cannot recall the bullet.

I have seen gun-related tragedies time and again in my own community. Just a couple examples:

A father (white, middle class, midwestern) killed his son in a late-night argument. If his gun had not been handy, he would perhaps have punched his son, or thrown him out of the house, but both would have lived to forgive and make up.

A teenage son in the midst of teenage angst saw his mother's service revolver (she's a policewoman and was about to put it on and go to work) and went down to the basement and killed himself. One year later the boy's father also killed himself because he couldn't bear the loss of his youngest son. Had guns not been present in the home, father and son would have somehow managed to work through their pain and despair, but that opportunity is now gone forever, thanks to guns in the home.

These are just two recent examples of the sort of things that happen all the time -- not just anecdotally, but statistically. Instead of the homicidal or suicidal thought passing, or the impulsive action resulting in a broken plate, the impulsive action is the permanent erasing of a human life. All those who own guns are at great risk of erasing a human life. Your gun may feel like a security blanket, but it's not.

Letter from Lou Ann Petersen-Noltner

Please, please keep the gun issue before your readers. For half the year my husband and I live in what feels like a northern Wisconsin paradise. However, not long ago, a neighbor, a woman with mental health issues, found her father’s gun and tried to shoot her mother. 

Just south of us a middle-school-age boy who has ADD and trouble with impulse control is readying to go hunting with his father. It terrifies me to think of this young man in the woods with a gun. I don’t come from a hunting culture, but I’m guessing it would take courage for these parents to find another orbit for their son.

Lou Ann Petersen-Noltner
Madison, Wis.

Letter from James Greer

Lindsey Peterson is right—many people carry guns because they are afraid. But many of the 13 million holders of carry permits don’t fully appreciate that the principal point in carrying a handgun for self-defense is to kill another human being—one who is threatening you.

I’m a lifelong shooter who has a permit to carry a pistol and a Massachusetts unrestricted nonresident gun license. I can legally own and carry a handgun in public. But I decided not to do so.

Owning a gun for self-defense is a very complicated exercise. You don’t own the gun—it owns you. It dictates what you can say, where you can go, what you have to wear to keep it concealed, and what happens if you display it, much less use it. The last thing you want to do is get into a gunfight. It might save your life, but it can easily get you into a lot of trouble or even killed.

I’m an NRA member for educational reasons but deplore the NRA’s pitch that one needs a gun for self-defense. Having a gun in one’s home presents serious issues.

James Greer
New Haven, Conn.