Guns an equalizer?

Not me.

A question occurred to me as I proofread my last post about how my father’s violence and gun ownership gave him unnatural power in the household:

Why didn’t guns make me feel safer?

After all, I was a pretty good shot. I knew how to load, unload and clean the guns properly. I knew where they were kept. My father had even instructed me on how to defend myself: Never point a gun at someone if you aren’t going to use it, he’d said, because that gave them the opportunity to get it away from you. Aim for the abdomen and shoot to kill, he’d said, unless you knew you could reliably hit the person in the leg. Even then, he’d warned, you never knew if your attacker had a gun, so crippling him might backfire.

It wasn’t like I’d never heard of kids shooting their parents, either. When I was in my middle school years, a homeschooled kid accidentally shot his mother in the face while playing with a loaded gun. The tragedy rocked my homeschool group for months. In another case, a teenager deliberately shot his girlfriend’s parents and ran away with her. My church loved to spin these stories as examples of the hardening of people’s hearts at the end of days.

So why didn’t it occur to me that my father’s guns could protect me from my father? After all, the NRA propaganda that saturated my youth said that handguns were equalizing forces in society. It didn’t matter if you were a tiny, skinny person or even a child – if you had a gun, you could defend yourself.

I don’t think that’s true anymore.

When someone initiates violence, you usually don’t get to prepare. Especially not the kinds of violence I would have faced as a young woman.

If my father had decided to attack me, I can imagine two possible scenarios: in the first, he would have premeditated the attack and come after me with a gun. In that case, I wouldn’t have time to grab one myself before he appeared and shot me. Game over. In the second scenario, he would fly into a rage and attack me with his bare hands. In that case, I’d have had to already load the gun and have it ready at my side – which he would have noticed, since he knew where the guns and ammo were kept. Keeping a loaded gun on hand in case he planned to attack me would be more likely to tip him off and incite a rage episode than protect me from one. Besides, if he discovered that I was keeping a loaded gun by my side, he could use that as evidence to discredit my own mental health.

The other most common types of violence I could expect to face as a young woman are intimate partner violence and date rape. Guns wouldn’t really protect me in either of those cases. In the case of intimate partner violence, the same disadvantages apply as they did with my father: if I had a gun on me, my partner would know about it and be able to use it against me. Guns are quick weapons; they’re inherently bad for self-defense because they favor the person who incites violence, not the victim. If two people living in a house together have guns, the person who is most likely to turn on the other has the advantage. As for date rape – well, if you’re drugged, a gun isn’t going to do much for you. It’s more likely to get taken away from you and used against you.

I can’t even imagine a gun being terribly useful in a random street attack. Even though I frequently deal with street harassment, pulling a gun on a guy who says something obscene to me doesn’t make sense. And if there is a real threat of violence (which I have experienced, and escaped by calling the police and ducking into restaurants), how does one determine when the tipping point occurs? If the guy is still far away to shoot without opening the possibility that he’ll be able to grab my gun and shoot me, is there enough of a threat yet to justify shooting him? If I do shoot him, will a court understand my feeling of danger or will I be judged a murderer? If I don’t shoot him, will he get the gun away from me and use it? If I start to pull a gun, what if he already has one and is a better shot?

In the abstract, sure, having a gun could make me safer. Being able to shoot does even out whatever physical disadvantage I could have against an attacker. But in the real world, it doesn’t work that way. In the real world, guns don’t equalize power; they give more power to those who already have it. In the real world, there are variables. There’s a lot of guesswork to defending yourself. And frequently, those who are most in danger of violence are the least able to use guns to their advantage,  because their attackers are already close to them, already familiar, already more likely to instigate gun violence and better able to rationalize using it.

Based on everything I was taught, my father’s guns should have been a source of self-defense and safety to me, even against his own violence. Instead, they were instruments of terror, reminders that he held my life in his hands. It didn’t occur to me that I could have used them to defend myself against him then; now, looking back, I still don’t think I could have. They didn’t equalize anything. Guns don’t defend the weak; they empower the powerful.

I still think the best thing I could have done for self-defense is what I eventually did: get the hell out of there.


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