Guns and the personal security dilemma

Really, really good post from Bill Ayers.  Hard to get the gist without extensive excerpting, so, here’s the long excerpt (or just click the link and read the whole thing):

Given all that I’ve written about guns and self-defense, this story (sadly, one of far too many) jumped out at me:

Ohio man fatally shoots teen son he mistook for an intruder

I’ve written before, in more theoretical terms, about the security dilemma, the nature of guns as an offense-dominant technology, and the impact that has on civilian self-defense situations. In short, what we have known for decades as political scientists tells us that relying on guns for self-defense in interpersonal situations is likely to lead to all sorts of tragedies of unnecessary escalation, just as tends to happen internationally…  [all emphases mine]

In order for this story to be true – and we have no reason to believe it is not – a few things must also be true:

– The father had the gun in his hand, with his finger on the trigger, when his son appeared.
– The barrel of the gun would likely have been brought to bear, i.e. pointing forward towards a potential target, prior to his opening the door.
– At the level of muscular response and control, the father almost certainly meant to pull the trigger. Modern guns do not “accidentally” go off on their own; they fire only when the trigger is pulled, an action which takes a small but non-trivial amount of force applied in a particular way.

It seems certain that the muscular response of pulling the trigger on a weapon already brought to bear on a potential target occurred before the father had a chance to ascertain whether the human figure who suddenly appeared before him was his son or a stranger. This, of course, is the crux of the “accident” – that the father, through muscle reflex or miscalculation, fired the weapon before determining the nature of the target. The mistake was in adopting a posture in which the decision to fire would be taken before he had time to determine what the target was…

So this is what an “offense-dominant security dilemma” looks like in real life. A father, fearing for himself and his home, adopts a hair-trigger posture and fires at the first sign of possible danger, without taking the second or two needed to ascertain the nature of the threat. He appears not to have made any attempt to establish verbal contact with the possible intruder, or to warn any potential intruders that he was armed. Doing so could have saved the son’s life and averted tragedy, but would probably have seemed at the time to the father as putting him at unnecessary risk.

This is exactly why, in security dilemmas, there is no “better safe than sorry”. All choices have the potential for disaster. My long-running problem with the most ardent advocates of guns as the “ultimate” in self-defense is that they ignore this reality completely and treat guns as a magic talisman that can ward off all evils.

If you keep a gun for self-defense, by all means train yourself. This has nothing to do with going to a firing range – in this example, the father was apparently quite an effective shot. This means training yourself in scenario thinking under pressure, the mental discipline of being able to maintain control of your options and apply force judiciously – includingnot applying force when it’s not necessary. No CCW course in the land will teach you this, but you absolutely need to learn it anyway. Lives depend on it.

Great stuff.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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