Last month, Sam Harris wrote a controversial essay arguing for private gun ownership:
It is true that my work as a writer has added to my security concerns somewhat, but my involvement with guns goes back decades. I have always wanted to be able to protect myself and my family, and I have never had any illusions about how quickly the police can respond when called. I have expressed my views on self-defense elsewhere. Suffice it to say, if a person enters your home for the purpose of harming you, you cannot reasonably expect the police to arrive in time to stop him. This is not the fault of the police — it is a problem of physics.
Although the piece goes on at length, this is his central and overriding argument: that carrying a gun is the most reasonable way for individuals to defend themselves from crime. I strongly disagree with this. I don’t own a gun, nor do I ever plan to, and I think less gun ownership, not more, is a more rational goal for society to advocate. Here’s my case for why Harris’ logic is faulty.
Harris argues that in the event of someone breaking into your house determined to do you harm, owning a gun is the only way you have to defend yourself. He may well be right about that. But a home invasion, as most people would recognize, is a highly improbable crime – as Bruce Schneier would put it, a “movie-plot threat“. Holders of high office and other public figures have legitimate reason to worry about assassination or kidnapping (which is why they have armed and trained security), but the vast majority of us don’t. Even most burglars try to strike when no one is home, for obvious reasons.
To balance against that rare risk, there’s the undeniable fact that keeping a gun in your home makes it a more dangerous place every single day. What if I mistake a friend or a family member for a home invader and shoot them? What if the gun accidentally goes off and hits me or someone else? What if a person in my home uses my gun to commit suicide? What if someone steals my gun and uses it in a crime? A responsible gun owner can take steps to reduce each of these risks, but they’re all much more likely than the implausible scenario of a home invasion by a criminal who specifically wants to harm me. Harris, for someone who professes rationality, ought to recognize that he’s committing the fallacy of misleading vividness by worrying more about a rare but spectacular crime than a commonplace danger.
The same logic applies to another common justification for gun ownership which Harris didn’t cite: the macho fantasy of an armed citizen happening across and foiling a slaughter in progress. It’s extraordinarily unlikely that an ordinary passerby carrying a gun would ever be in a situation to stop a mass shooting (in fact, this has never happened). But what is likely is that widespread gun ownership would increase the rate of everyday violence, turning an altercation that might otherwise end in yelling, or at worst a fistfight, into a lethal duel.
I’m not saying there’s no reason whatsoever to own a gun. I think there are some legitimate recreational uses for them – hunting, for example, especially if it’s to control the population of invasive species like wild pigs or pest species like deer whose natural predators we’ve wiped out. And current or former members of the police or the military, people who have specialized training, probably have better justification for carrying a gun than most.
But much gun ownership, I fear, stems from a different motivation: the NRA-stoked fear that owning a gun is necessary to “defend your rights” against a tyrannical government. The idea that individual armed citizens could plausibly resist the U.S. military, or that such a step is ever likely to be necessary in a democracy marked by decades of peaceful transitions of power, is a paranoid and absurd delusion. In fact, I’d argue that mass gun ownership undermines the legitimacy of democracy, by weakening the perception that compromise and power-sharing are necessary and feeding the violent fantasy that people can and should rise up in rebellion whenever the government isn’t to their liking. (See: the Republican party for the last several years.)
The fact is that in private hands, guns are essentially just expensive toys, like consumer electronics, only much more dangerous. We live in a society that, by historical standards, is remarkably peaceful. And because I’m confident in my own sense of self, I don’t buy into the messaging of the gun manufacturers who try to make their customers feel insecure about their masculinity and then promise that buying a gun will calm that fear – no different than any other company that invents a problem in order to sell the cure.
Image: An AR-15 assault rifle, via Shutterstock