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Let's Not Use Real Guns to Fight Imaginary Crimes

The Atlantic

Several gun rights advocates decided to make their case not based on facts, but on hypothetical crimes, during Wednesday's gun control hearing the Senate. I understand the appeal: I'm an almost-crime fighter myself. 

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Two weeks ago, in Miami, two friends and I were cruising down an empty street, listening to a $2 CD with a UFO on it, when my friend yelled, "What the f---! Did you see that?!" At a bus stop, a man was dragging a woman by her hair while a handful of people just stood there, watching. We had to stop it. We did a U-turn. We pulled out our phones, ready to call the cops. We put on our menacing faces. As we slowly cruised by a second time, the hair-dragger, the woman, and the camera crew stared at us. Oh. "It's a film shoot… turn the techno back on." This is the perfect experience of stopping a crime. We got the satisfaction of doing the right thing, by passing some sort of character test when confronted with what we thought was a stranger was in need, but because the crime was not technically real, without the chance of screwing it up by accidentally hurting an innocent person, accidentally helping the bad guy, or getting ourselves killed.

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Just like our Miami trio, several political people revealed in Wednesday's gun control hearing that they, too, have been the heroes in imaginary crimes. Fighting hypothetical crimes with guns has an obvious appeal, because when real people use real weapons, they screw up. A lot. In the 1990s, an Emory researcher found that a gun kept in the home was 43 times more likely to injure a member of the household than an intruder. Baltimore County police chief James Johnson testified there's a 500 percent increase in the chance a woman's a victim of gun violence if there's a gun at home. Mark Kelly, husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, testified about a good samaritan who almost shot an innocent person when trying top stop the Tuscon shooting in which Giffords was shot in the head. In July, a New York police officer shot and killed his son at a motel after thinking he was an intruder. In September, a Connecticut teacher shot and killed a masked teen outside a neighbor's home, and discovered it was his son. In October, a retired Chicago cop shot and killed his own son after mistakenly thinking he was a robber. 

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The standard reply to these lists of how guns contribute to mundane mayhem is that whoever is making the list is cherry-picking facts. That may be true. But at least they are facts. All too often, the entries on the other side of the ledger is as neat and tidy as they are imaginary. Here are some just from today:

  • "The peace of mind a woman has with three, four, five violent intruders in her home -- with her children screaming in the background -- the peace of mind that comes with a scary-looking gun gives her more courage when she's fighting hardened, violent criminals," the Independent Women's Forum's Gayle Trotter testified about the AR-15's contribution to women's rights.
  • "You are a large man. Tall--tall man! You are not a young mother who has a young child with her," Trotter told Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. "You are not a mother stuck in her house... on the phone with 911... and she cannot get the police there fast enough to protect her child. And she's never been in a firefight."
  • "There could be a situation where a mother runs out of bullets because of something we do here," South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said during the hearing.
  • "You could find yourself in this country in a lawless environment from a natural disaster or a riot," Graham said. He needs his AR-15 "if there was a law and order breakdown in my community, people roaming around my neighborhood."
  • "Six bullets in the hands of a mother protecting her twin 9-year-olds may not be enough," Graham tweeted.
  • "I also question limitations on magazine capacity," Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley said. “Those can be circumvented by carrying multiple guns, as many killers have done. We hear that no one needs to carry larger magazines than those that hunters use to shoot deer. But an attacking criminal, unlike a deer, shoots back."
  • Walter Kirn explained the importance of an almost-crime in his feelings about guns in a well-timed essay for The New Republic Wednesday. When Kirn was 14, his father was away on a business trip, and there was a state prison break, and the fugitive was reportedly in the Kirn family's county. Kirn loaded his dad's .410 shotgun, and made his family go in a bedroom upstairs. The teen Kirn stood vigil at the top of the staircase. He writes:

...I imagined the violent scene that might unfold. I wouldn't shout a warning; I'd shoot on sight. The load wasn't powerful enough to kill a man, but if it struck him in the head he'd drop, allowing me time to ready another shell. Given the distance, there wasn't much chance I'd miss. I pictured blood. I pictured a person staggering. How realistic these pictures were I didn't know, since the movies in those days weren't graphic about such matters, at least not the movies that teenagers could see.

The night dragged on and on and nothing happened. The next day, the convict was captured by the police. I slid the shotgun underneath my bed where I felt it belonged, now that it was mine.

While stories about being an almost crime-fighter is a good way to entertain friends and loved ones, they are not a good guide for crafting public policy.

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