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

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.

Dusting for prints.

Greg Hampikian
Dusting for prints.

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.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs.

  • Drew Och

    Great commentary Gregg. As you said you ran these guys down unarmed. That said had he been unarmed would George Zimmerman have even left his car and ran after Treyvon Martin….? In this case maybe there are no clear answers or any winners here either….. Glad your safe after that event….

    • Greg Hampikian

      Good point about the confidence that comes with a weapon. I got beat-up once by a stranger because my buddy felt too confident. We were with a really strong friend, so my smaller buddy sassed-back to a guy who harassed me outside a bar–WHOOP!

  • M Nanette Chastine

    ery good article. Gave me a different perspective to think about, too. I was raised around guns, have taken gun safety classes, and as a popular slogan states, you can take them from me when I’m dead. But I do think that caution needs to play a huge part in carrying a gun, it is a HUGE responsibility, and like many things, not everyone is equipped for that responsibility. Luckily, I, like you, have never been in the situation where I had to make the decision to draw (and use) a gun for personal protection against humans, although I have carried one for protection (usually against 4-legged predators when out horse-back riding in the Montana mountains). And luckily, your two thugs were unarmed as well, or that could have turned out very different for you as well. But in the Zimmerman/Martin case, while I wasn’t there and definitely don’t know all the details, one person was walking down the street and the other confronted him. Who truly confronted whom? I don’t know, but I do know that it appears as if Zimmerman was looking for trouble since he was armed and combing the streets of a gaited community, as neighborhood watch coordinator. Coordinator, not hired security guard with training. And Martin was a temporary resident there. Up to no good? Who’s to say….he was a teenager. Was it self-defense? Again, I don’t know all the facts. But I think that if you are going to take on the responsibility that Zimmerman took on, then you need to get the training BEFORE a possible confrontation so that you don’t panic and use the gun as a means of defense, when just listening to the operator and over-riding the adrenaline response would have been the rational, logical response that a trained person could have achieved. Much different outcome in that scenario, I am sure.

    • Greg Hampikian

      Nanette

      I had only a trusty BB gun as a boy (and we would actually shoot at friends occasionally). Your experience growing up with more powerful (“real”) firearms is quite different from mine. Many of my friends who grew up around guns seem to appreciate them more like common–but dangerous–tools to be handled with respect.

  • Pocahontas

    It is one thing if neither party is armed with a gun and the altercation ends peacefully, but what if in the heat of the moment the aggressor picks up a large concrete brick and starts to pummel you over the head with it?….Then imagine fearing for your life while you are being repeatedly battered and thinking, “Well, good thing neither one of us had a gun! This could have ended very badly!” Yes, please sense the sarcasm in that scenario. But in all reality – just because someone doesn’t have a gun doesn’t mean someone couldn’t have died. The argument that “sticks and stones may break your bones, but guns do kill people” is irrelevant – because stones can and do kill people too – just ask the women who have been raped and then stoned to death in the middle east….It makes me wonder – would this author have felt the same about his lack of gun presence if one of those men had attacked him and threatened his life with his bare hands, or a knife, or some other object…and if he didn’t live to tell about it, then I guess we’d never know…..

    • Greg Hampikian

      Thanks for giving another point of view. There are obviously many sides to this issue, and while I love to debate with fervor, that can only be done when there are skilled challengers. I appreciate that your point that there are cases where I might hope for a loaded gun. –Greg H.

    • DLRJ

      Pocahontas, I understand where you are coming from. It’s the reason that so many people want to carry guns. They are thinking, “What if I am in a situation in which a gun would help me protect myself?” I can see why it would make you feel more secure. The author’s point isn’t that there are no situations in which a gun could help you protect yourself. His point is that there are many more situations in which having a gun would make an otherwise non-lethal situation lethal. Take the Zimmerman case. Would GZ have followed TM if he didn’t have the added sense of security provided by having a gun? Possibly, but I suspect it’s less likely. As the author points out, adrenaline can make us do stupid things, though. So lets say he did still follow him. Assuming you completely believe GZ’s story, given his injuries (a broken nose and some relatively minor lacerations on the back of his head), do you really believe it is likely that TM would have killed GZ? Yes it is POSSIBLE to kill someone by banging their head on a sidewalk repeatedly, but it seems extraordinarily far fetched to think it is LIKELY that TM would have beaten GZ to death. It is not a coincidence that there are far more gun deaths than sidewalk-pounding deaths despite the fact that many people (including a relative pacifist like myself) have been involved in skirmishes that involved wrestling on the sidewalk. Although unpleasant, and likely to end with, say, a concussion, the survival rate of such fights is pretty darned high. I have been beaten up, and I am genuinely glad that I didn’t have the option in the moment to reach for a gun and kill the aggressor.

    • Sandy Howell

      This sort of touches a hot spot for me as well. Both my mother, and in a separate incident my half brother, were beaten with whatever was at hand. Mom was hospitalized for a day, and took weeks to heal cuts and bruises from stones and a copper pipe. My half brother wasn’t so lucky, he was beaten nearly to death, suffered massive brain hemorrhage and barely lived. He never fully recovered from his brain injuries and died years later from the long term effects. This was in Spokane some years ago, but I wish both of them owned a gun at the time and understood how to use it. I believe proper certified training and a concealed weapon permit is a good thing, non-threatening to the public, and there are times just the availability in a critical situation could save lives. Professionally trained handling has an effect on how a person thinks of their gun, and enforces self control. I don’t believe anyone should carry who has not been through certified training, and regularly practices at in a public range with the gun they carry. I am not against carrying with a permit, anywhere in Idaho.

  • Daniel Hampikian

    I have been convinced by Pocahontas’ comments that we should arm every citizen with large bricks so that they can protect themselves against other people that might potentially have large bricks and intend to kill us. And in order to get the drop on those brick toting criminals, we should attack them before they draw their bricks or even before they go get their bricks. And if someone brings a knife, club, or handgun to a brick fight? Well arm yourself with an automatic weapon just in case… It’s no stretch of the imagination to guess where this kind of arms race logic goes – more deaths all around but at least the gun industry profits. This of course misses the point of Dr. Hampikian’s article, which is that it takes more effort and deliberation to kill someone when you are unarmed, or even armed with something less than a weapon that kills with only a small movement of the finger. Because it takes less effort and deliberation, and there is less time to change one’s mind ‘in the heat of the moment,’ it is likely that when an altercation occurs it will not result in death or serious injury as long as a) neither has a gun, or b) if one or both have a gun they have received proper training and have been screened by common sense regulations before purchasing that gun (and hopefully don’t carry it around everywhere they go, looking suspiciously at every shadow and ally way for a brick carrying assailant).

  • Berne Poliakoff

    Thank you so much for your clear headed and concise examination of this issue! You bravely share a personal action, that you now regret, in order to demonstrate how a normally rational person can act quite irrationally when under the influence of adrenaline. Thank goodness that you didn’t have a gun! How horribly tragic that George Zimmerman did!

  • grstahl

    Well put, Greg. I caught myself saying similar things about a month ago when a guy broke into my house at 3 a.m., and I was the only person there aside from him. When he said from the shadows of my own home, “hold it or I’ll shoot,” I can only guess that I might have shot him, or shot at him, if I had a gun under the bed. I’m happy to report that I did not (and he did not), and that some simple male aggression got him backed down the stairs, through the house and out the front door. He went to jail that night (and hopefully to some ensuing substance abuse counseling), but there was definitely no need for him to be dead.

    • Your disappointed mother

      You are a raging fool.

      He came INTO YOUR HOME and threatened to MURDER YOU. Of course he needs to be dead.

      But rather than do your duty as a responsible member of the public, you kicked the problem down the road. He’ll be back out in the street within a few weeks, if he’s not on the loose already, and he will go right back to victimizing innocent people in their homes.

      You are a moral and physical coward. The blood of his future victims is on your weak and useless hands.

  • Fred Bauer

    No offense, but I don’t believe a word of this. You’re saying you literally ran a mile on an adrenaline fueled rage despite knowing that chasing criminals is a very unsafe action. It seems odd that three people’s running skills were so well matched that it took a mile to either converge or diverge.

    If you had caught up to these men and attacked them you could have been charged with assault (even if they had a rap sheet!) If you had shot them or even brandished a gun at them you would have been guilty of serious felonies. “Stand Your Ground” does not permit anything like “hunt down and attack.” I really think you need to learn some basics about self defense laws before you get yourself in SERIOUS legal trouble or HURT OR KILLED. Knifes and fists are still legal and if you had caught them and attacked them and they killed you they would have been able to legally claim self defense. Criminals also have the right to self defense and even without SYG they would have had the right to kill you because they did not stand their ground. They fled and you chased.

    Finally, the problem with academics is that they prefer anecdote over statistics for decision making. I understand academia’s aversion to statistics on the basis that 93.7% of them are made up but they’re still a better guide than random anecdotes. The thesis of this blog entry is that more guns in more places will result in more escalation into shootings but the numbers show the opposite. Gun ownership is increasing. Gun laws are becoming more permissive. The shootings are down.

  • staghounds

    I wonder if your friend was so happy she was unarmed?

    Of course, the woman was “armed” with a protector. If she had been alone and not otherwise armed, it would have been entirely and completely up to the looters’ desires what happened next.

    I suspect that “If I had been alone, I’m glad I didn’t have a gun, otherwise I might have murdered them” wasn’t her main thought.

  • alanstorm

    I pity your students.

    Your opening paragraph ends with “…recently I learned firsthand what a gun might do”

    Nowhere in this paper is this described.

    “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.”

    I’m sure the loosening of gun restrictions along with falling violent crime rates around the nation is simply a coincidence as well.

    Your work with the Innocence Project is laudable; your passive-aggressive opposition to firearms is misguided at best.

  • Will Cor

    i think you may be a little off. seriously, if the only difference , for you, between a fight and a murder is the presence of a firearm, then you a re a danger to yourself and others and should be locked up. to even suggest that a grown-ass man can’t stop himself from killing when near a firearm is ridiculous in the extreme. Worse, it is misleading. You make many assumptions of what is possible or likely under stress and present them as iron-clad fact, it hurts your argument and betrays your bias. tighten up and bring a better class of argument hmm?

  • robscottw

    Or, if you had a gun you could have stopped them in the house and held them for police.

    A situation that happens LOTS of times every week in the US. But of course you never hear about those do you?

    And, if the 2 men, who were 1/2 your age, had decided to, they probably could have killed or seriously injured you and you FEMALE friend (who is at even more of a disadvantage unless she is a female Rocky) even if they didn’t have guns (which you don’t indicate they did).

    ps: here is some more pretty snarky respsonse to your obtuseness –

    http://booksbikesboomsticks.blogspot.com/2014/03/bad-faith-discussion.html

  • robscottw

    Also, it is not at all clear that he Zimmerman had not been armed “no one would have died”.

    Martin could easily have beaten Zimmerman to death.

    On that note you should know that FBI statistics show that more people are killed with ‘hands and feet’ (ie, beaten to death) than with long-arms (rifles and shotguns, including those evil ‘assault weapons’).

    The depth of your illiteracy on this subject is breath-taking especially considering your other academic qualifications.

    That brings up the question of how can someone become a PhD with such poor reasoning skills?

    • Sebago Pizza

      Easily said that if Zimmerman didn’t have a gun, he would have stayed in the vehicle as instructed. Both lives would have been saved. ( Zimmerman, with a gun, killed Martin. )
      I wonder if Martin had a gun, whether Zimmerman would have been justifiably shot.

      • robscottw

        He wan’t instructed to “stay in the car”. The police told him that they didn’t need him to “follow” Martin.

        The author makes the bold claim that if Zimmerman had not been armed then “no one would have died”. Not supportable at all. Indeed, as FBI statistics show, a great many people are “beaten” to death each year – precisely as Martin was doing to Zimmerman.

        A gun is certainly not necesary to kill someone with. It does however make it much easier to defend yourself against someone who is beating you, possibly, to death. And of course, Zimmerman had no way of knowing whether Martin might to just that.

        All the evidence from the trial suggests that Martin was “safe”, that he made the choice to “go back and challenge the cracker” (“girlfriends” testimony).

        And, remember, Zimmerman had every right to be doing just exactly what he was doing that night – keeping an eye on his neighborhood (with or without permission of the homeowners assoc). And he has the right to be armed. And, he can even profile – racially if he wants to. And to defend himself if violently attacked.

        Sure Martin would be alive today, if Zimmerman hadn’t been keeping an eye out, and hadn’t gotten out of his car, etc etc.

        Martin would also be alive today if he hadn’t jumped on Zimmerman and started pounding Zimmermans head into the ground.

        There is a lesson here. Unfortunately, its a lesson that has to be learned BEFORE you make the mistake. Martin learned the lesson the hard way.

        I’m not glad about that. But that is life. And as bad as Zimmermans life is screwed up by it all, he is still alive. And there is no evidence that he was the quilty party.

        Would that we spent as much time on all the black-on-black kilings in Chicago as we did on Martin and Zimmerman. But there is no racial or gun control or “stand your ground” narative with them is there?

  • robscottw

    OMG!

    The “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”.

    WTF! Do you not read the headlines?

    Here is a video of a Seattle cop shooting a man in the back. But you are right – he didn’t panic – he mudered the man in cold blood – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UA0v1TF4Q34.

    Unfortunately this isn’t the only like incident. How about the CA boy who was killed recently while carrying a ‘fake’ gun (an AirSoft)? Reports are that he was killed within seconds of being encountered.

    You are deluded to think that the police (or the “Only Ones” – google that) are somehow superior to the average gun-owner in their ability to act/react in stressful situations.

    Between the 2 I’ll take the average gun-owner. Cops know that if they kill someone while on duty they get a pass – just like the Seattle cop did.

    We gun-owners don’t have that luxury.

  • Fred Bauer

    It looks like a computer glitch zapped my comment so I’m going to repost it in case anyone else is thinking about going all vigilante and chasing down (suspected!) criminals like Greg Hampikian.

    No offense, but I don’t believe a word of this. You’re saying you literally ran a mile on an adrenaline fueled rage despite knowing that chasing criminals is a very unsafe action. It seems odd that three people’s running skills were so well matched that it took a mile to either converge or diverge.

    If you had caught up to these men and attacked them you could have been charged with assault (even if they had a rap sheet!) If you had shot them or even brandished a gun at them you would have been guilty of serious felonies. “Stand Your Ground” does not permit anything like “hunt down and attack.” I really think you need to learn some basics about self defense laws before you get yourself in SERIOUS legal trouble or HURT OR KILLED. Knifes and fists are still legal and if you had caught them and attacked them and they killed you they would have been able to legally claim self defense. Criminals also have the right to self defense and even without SYG they would have had the right to kill you because they did not stand their ground. They fled and you chased.

    Finally, the problem with academics is that they prefer anecdote over statistics for decision making. I understand academia’s aversion to statistics on the basis that 93.7% of them are made up but they’re still a better guide than random anecdotes. The thesis of this blog entry is that more guns in more places will result in more escalation into shootings but the numbers show the opposite. Gun ownership is increasing. Gun laws are becoming more permissive. The shootings are down.

    • Colossus

      “If you had caught up to these men and attacked them you could have been charged with assault.”
      Or killed with a knife, killed with kicks to the head, strangled to death…….

  • Colossus

    ” 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.” You do not know that, sir.