The unofficial slogan of the NRA is, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” I beg to differ. I perform DNA analysis on murder cases throughout the country, but recently I learned firsthand what a gun might do
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I was helping a friend whose father’s house had burned down in California. After an exhausting weekend spent between the hospital and the burned-out structure, we returned to the house to pick up some family treasures. It was boarded up and nearly pitch black inside. Rain was coming in through the damaged roof, and I followed closely behind as my friend walked over debris, holding just a cell phone for light. Suddenly she stopped, and I looked up to see two men in their late twenties, wearing dark knit hats—just inches from her face. We all stared at each other for a second, and then the thugs pushed past us and ran into the backyard. Surging with adrenaline, I could do nothing but race after them. Angry and cursing, I wanted to stop them before they fled with who knows what in their bags.
I am not proud of my response. I should know better, but I chased them through the yard, almost catching up as they broke down a gate, fleeing before my barrage of invective. I picked up some rocks and threw them at those bastards as hard as I could, shouting to neighbors as I ran, “Call 911—they broke into the house!” All of this was in clear violation of what I teach: never risk your life for property. But that lesson was completely diluted in a seemingly endless supply of adrenalin; it was fight and flight.
In work boots, I chased two men half my age a mile through the neighborhood, shouting, swearing and seething. In the end they got away, and I realized that I had not memorized their faces. My friend and I agreed that the man I chased was white. She thought the other was African American, while I thought he looked more like a tanned Armenian (my own heritage). By the time the fingerprint technician arrived at the house, I had calmed down, borrowed a tape measure from a neighbor, and preserved the shoeprints from the rain. “Next time,” the uniformed officer gently instructed, “probably best not to chase them down the road.” I realize that my actions were foolish, but in the wake of all this gun discussion, I also realize that if any of us had had a gun, tragedy would have been a near certainty. Guns don’t kill people—if guns are not there.
I live in Idaho where it seems that most people own guns, and we also have a low murder rate, so I am careful not to conflate those two statistics. But I learned firsthand how circumstances can overwhelm reason, and how the presence of a loaded gun in such circumstance might not be protective. I don’t pretend to know what happened the night Trayvon Martin was killed, but it’s clear that if he and George Zimmerman had met without a weapon, no one would have died. There may have been a violent struggle between two strangers in the dark, but neither of them had a history of serious violence, and it is unlikely that either man would have beaten the other to death with his fists. Of course anyone locked in a struggle with a stranger, where a loaded gun is within the reach, has to consider using it. Not because we are all killers, but because we cannot think clearly under the influence of adrenaline, and we have no way to estimate our opponent’s capacity to kill. The loaded gun puts us in a position that we should all fear: having to decide if a total stranger is about to shoot us.
Encouraging more armed citizens to walk the streets or patrol elementary schools may seem sensible, until you consider that fights between men in America are so common as to be considered rights of passage. I would guess that most men have been hit by strangers, or near strangers, at some point in their lives. The difference between my experience and the tragedy in Florida is that I have never had to consider using a gun in a struggle. I have had my eyes blackened, my face bloodied and the wind punched out of me (as they say, you should have seen the other guy). But no gun was ever fired. The difference between the typical male aggression that I have been subjected to and a forced-choice about killing someone, is simply the presence of a loaded gun.
I recently addressed Idaho’s police chiefs, and during the break they echoed what police officers always say about their guns: don’t draw it unless you intend to use it. When a gun is drawn, it is reasonable for everyone around it to fear for their lives, and that changes everything. People don’t shoot people; people with guns shoot people. Fortunately, police officers are trained not to panic and draw. They don’t provoke careless escalation, and they are ever mindful of their gun’s proximity to others. A peace officer knows that a handgun has a one very effective use: it is designed to kill a human being. A single shot, the twitch of a finger, is infinitely more destructive than a punch or a kick. Drawing a weapon is an option to be avoided; it is a last resort, and our laws should reflect that reasonable caution. Rather than “Stand Your Ground,” how about “Avoid if Possible”? When Mr. Zimmerman first called 911, the professional operator was clear. He told him not to give pursuit. It is advice that we should all follow. Unfortunately, both Zimmerman and I ignored it. The difference is, I wasn’t armed. If I had been, this might be a very different essay. Perhaps I would be writing about how I killed two men because they might have killed me.
Our domestic tranquility is not assured by an untrained, unorganized militia patrolling the streets or schools with loaded weapons. I grew up not far from Newton, Connecticut, and I realize that there are good arguments on both sides of the gun control debate, but lawmakers proposing gun legislation should consider the thousands of confrontations that civilians like me have in every state each year, and enact laws that require background checks, training and caution. I am grateful that my misadventure did not include the complex calculus of death that is forced by the presence of a loaded gun. I threw rocks, and they missed. Sticks and stones may break bones, but guns do kill people.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.