Thursday, January 14, 2016

Guns and the Very Real Tragedy of the Security Dilemma

This is a sad way to start a blogging year, but so be it. I've got a longer piece rattling around in my head, which I hope to find time to write down sometime soon.

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.

The story referenced above, just down the road from where I live, shows exactly how this works in real life. The important things to understand here are the details that are not discussed in the story, but which can be easily inferred.

We know that the father in the story went down to his basement upon hearing a noise. He went down expecting to encounter an intruder, or at least with the thought that this was a real possibility. That speaks to both the man's mindset and, possibly, to the neighborhood he lives in. Given the importance of mental preparedness in self-defense, this in and of itself is not a mistake.

We are then told that the father opened a door, the son appeared suddenly, and the father shot him. The shooting is referred to as "accidental", which is one sense it was - the father clearly did not intend to shoot his son. It's the nature of that "accident", however, that needs to be examined.

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.

It is possible that being startled by the sudden appearance of a person, especially at close range, could have contributed to the firing. By itself, I find this a less-than-satisfying explanation - the instinctive human reaction to being startled is to open the hand, not to squeeze it tighter. This is why startled people tend to drop things. It's certainly true that such a reflex could be overridden with practice - but that would involve deliberate effort on the father's part to change his reflexes so as to fire faster in a startle situation, which suggests a form of culpability as well.

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 - including not 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.

My personal alternative, of course, is to both engage in such training and to rely on less offense-dominated self-defense strategies. These are widely available and can be very effective - and they have the added benefit that you don't need to worry about whether your family will end up victims of your own weapon in your own home.

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