Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Tragedy of Too Much Force

I've written before about the role that guns play in our cultural understanding of self-defense (or, as one very eloquent Australian practitioner and lawyer describes it, "civilian defense"). Today comes a tragic story that only underscores the point:
Connecticut man shoots burglar dead, turns out to be own son
This story, brief and devoid of detail as it is, is a tough read for anybody who is a parent. As I've argued before: right, wrong, legal, or illegal, this man's life is now ruined. He will have to live with this day for the rest of his life, and that pain will never leave him - not to mention its impact on the rest of the family.

I know that gun-as-self-defense supporters will cite other cases in which guns were the right response. And certainly there are cases - precious few, but they do exist - in which someone armed with a gun (along with practice in its appropriate and skillful use) succeeded in defending him/herself, or a family, or someone else. There is always another story to tell.

But that does not take away from the fundamental point: guns are a terrible, awful means of self-defense. They are too deadly, too quickly and too easily. The damage they do is frequently irreversible - the consequences of their use drastically overwhelm the split second it takes to fire one.

We think of guns as a "good" method of self-defense because we want to find short cuts - the proverbial (and in this case ironic) "magic bullet". In so doing, we make two enormous mistakes:

1) We misunderstand the point of civilian self-defense. The point is to protect yourself by whatever means necessary. The point is not to disable/disarm/neutralize your attacker - because that often isn't necessary. Escaping from the situation is successful self defense. So is diffusing the conflict with a few words or a simple action. Only in Hollywood B-grade movies do we conflate "self defense" with "defeating your opponent". I don't have to beat an attacker to succeed; I just have to avoid getting beaten myself. Any encounter you walk away from uninjured is a victory.

2) We fall into the trap of thinking that if we prepare for the "worst-case scenario", that will cover all other scenarios. It doesn't. There is no "trump card" for serious civilian defense - every situation is different. For the vast majority of potentially threatening situations, guns are a very poor response. They pose enormous danger to people on both sides of the weapon.

People who know me, and who have followed my blog, know that my own preferred answer is sustained training in some kind of civilian defense system. My personal preference is for Asian martial arts, which have a wealth of benefits beyond self defense. Can my art, or any other, protect me from any situation? Of course not. There is no 100% foolproof defense against everything. But you can strongly improve your odds, if you are willing to not only learn new skills but commit to practicing them over time.

The ongoing danger of continuing to think of guns as a self defense shortcut is not only that more people will be tragically (and avoidably) killed. It is that we will drive ourselves deeper into our collective error, replacing reasonable self defense with a hair-trigger "I must beat the other guy" attitude. This is a terrible mistake, not only for its immediate consequences but for our ability to learn to live in genuine peace with one another.

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