Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Our Hollywood Ideas About Guns and Violence

There's been a lot of conversation lately about arming teachers as a means of dealing with gun violence in schools. News reports have suggested that teachers are "flocking" to gun training programs. The NRA has certainly gotten behind this idea, with Wayne LaPierre's latest contribution to the public conversation - "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

I've blogged before about the role that ideas play in how guns get used in our society. Behavior flows from thought - how we think about things determines what we do, and ultimately shapes the outcomes we get as a society. Most of the time, we don't examine our thinking. The NRA certainly hasn't.

It's fitting that the term "Red Dawn fantasy" has started to surface as part of the public discussion. As much as Mr. LaPierre wants to point the finger at Hollywood, I would guess that a great many of his most ardent fans are also fans of the Red Dawn franchise (now extended, for reasons unclear to me, to two movies. Did we need a remake?) Red Dawn represents the classic American violence fantasy: the plucky underdog Americans use guns against the (clearly demarcated, obviously wrong) bad guys. Shooting the bad guys saves the day.

Anyone who knows me knows I'm not a pacifist, and I am quite willing to acknowledge that guns can be used in self defense. But there's another truth about guns, encapsulated in a pithy restatement by another blogger: Guns don't kill people, they just make it real easy. And because of that ease, arming everybody under the sun is a recipe for disaster.

Consider that police - the people who are primarily entrusted with the job of being the "good guys with guns" - undergo extensive training in everything from the use of firearms to communications skills, crowd management, the law, use of force & defensive tactics, and many, many more topics. A typical police academy curriculum involves over 600 hours of training, and that's just to become a rookie cop. Most states require additional training or continuing education on the job, to stay sharp and up to date. And even with all of this training police make mistakes, either by accident or through errors in judgment.

Why all of this training? Because the sudden intrusion of violence into a place it's not expected - a school, a movie theater, a political rally - is a tremendously chaotic event. Just as people are victimized by random acts of violence they didn't see coming, our ordinary instincts are not to think about what we would do if a person with a gun burst into the room, and we don't react well when it happens. To deal with sudden, unexpected violence effectively you need a lot of practice in telling friend from foe and understanding the range of appropriate options and how to choose the right one - inside of a few seconds, with life-or-death consequences riding on getting it right.

Given all of this, why do we think that the answer is to give teachers a few hours' training and a gun? Even experienced shooters who go to gun ranges a lot aren't necessarily prepared. Firing rounds at a stationary range target is about as effective in preparing you for self-defense as hitting a heavy bag is to prepare me for winning street fights. It hones one particular skill, but without the ability to apply that skill in context it's worthless - or, in the case of guns, potentially catastrophic. If I punch the wrong person in the wrong situation, I hurt them; if I shoot them, they're dead and my life is ruined.

As we continue our national conversation about guns, violence, and self-defense, let's leave the Hollywood fantasies behind and give violence the respect that it deserves. There are no simple, "magic bullet" solutions, just as there is no "secret move" someone can teach that will "always" win a street fight. We're dealing with a complex and deadly topic. Let's treat it as such, instead of thinking that an idea that fits on a bumper sticker will solve our problems.

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