Possessing, carrying, and using firearms inherently create threats to public safety. The extent of that threat depends on the weapon, the person who owns/carries it, and the place it’s located. I propose to first show the truth of these two assertions in as straightforward manner as I can in the hope that people on all sides of the present debate about the place and use of firearms in our society will find little to object to. I will then argue that consideration of these issues should inform the debate about what limitations we do and don’t want on the presence of firearms in public spaces.
Carrying any weapon in public, even a knife, creates a possible threat to public safety in that the use of the weapon puts members of the nearby public in danger of injury or death. This is true no matter why or how a weapon is used: whether for personal or official reasons, whether intentionally (e.g., to stop a crime), impulsively (e.g., in a road rage incident) or accidentally (e.g., a gun found and fired by a toddler). This risk may be quite small but it is always non-zero. Given the innumerable examples of people harmed or killed by the use of weapons in public spaces, I can’t see any basis for argument with this statement. On the other hand, the degree of risk, whether or not the public should be subject to such risks, how to weight the rights of the public versus those of the individual, and many other similar issues, are legitimate issues of discussion.
Several characteristics of firearms make them of particular concern. First, and foremost, is their ability to kill at a distance. The range of a particular firearm creates a circle of threat/danger around the carrier. Anyone within range faces an increased risk of injury or death due to the intentional or accidental discharge of the weapon. This obvious fact is the primary basis for community concern. It is also important to recognize that the number of people exposed to the possible effects of using a weapon increase with the square of the range of the weapon. If one weapon has 3 times the range of another, the number of people exposed is 9 times greater (assuming an even population distribution over the range.) Thus, the population extent and density of a particular area fundamentally determines the risks that result from firearm usage in that area.
Second, the firing rate of differing kinds of firearms translates directly into different risks to public safety. The risk poses by a muzzle loading musket or bolt-action rifle differs immensely from that posed by an automatic (or even semi-automatic) weapon. A skilled muzzleloader can fire two rounds a minute; even an unskilled user of a semiautomatic can fire two aimed rounds a second.
Third, the level of skill and strength need to use a firearm differs significantly from other weapons. Infants and toddlers regularly kill people with firearms, primarily handguns. Not so much with knives. The primary public health risk of this element is that individuals other than the owner can therefore easily use a firearm to deadly effect if they steal it or wrest it away from the owner.
Further, the ease of use of a firearm also makes them more likely to be misused in emotional situations. This is especially true of handguns, which are both easily used and often readily available. Firearms make it extremely easy to turn angry or fearful impulses into violent action.
Fourth, the kinetic energy generated by a firearm greatly exceeds that produced by other commonly available weapons. This increases the risk of death and/or significant injury to targeted individuals as well as bystanders. For example a 100 mile and hour fastball has energy of 140 Joules. This is about as much energy as a single person, unassisted, can generate. A single bullet from an AR-15 has energy of 1,854 Joules, 13 times as much as a single fastball. Kinetic energy translates fairly directly into tissue penetration, tissue damage, risk of death, and range.
Fifth, the small size of handguns in particular makes them easy to carry and conceal. This is both the basis of their appeal and their threat to public safety. Because we cannot easily see whether a person is carrying a handgun or not, it is impossible to accurately assess the threat the person poses in a possible confrontation. If you see someone carrying a rifle, on the other hand, you can take action and avoid his or her presence if you choose. But a person has no way of counteracting the threat of a pistol in public that they cannot see. Interactions between individuals in public are conducted assuming relatively equal power. Possessing or displaying a weapon inherently changes the balance of power, vastly complicating the relationship and the risks of interaction.
Hopefully, your reaction to all the above is something on the order of “No duh!” Indeed, I’ve tried to present these facts in a non-controversial manner as possible in the hopes that they provide a basis for discussion. On the other hand, the contribution to threat posed by the person will likely be more controversial.
A loaded firearm possesses enough chemical potential energy to be lethal in itself. But short of some unlikely event (e.g., it somehow gets hot enough to “cook off” a round), its real threat to public safety lays in its potential use by a person. Let us next examine what is it about people, in general and in particular, that makes them more or less of a threat to others when carrying a firearm. I suggest there are at least three areas of concern.
People are highly emotional. Innumerable circumstances generate powerful emotions in people. Emotions compel action. It is nearly impossible to experience extreme fear, say, or rage without acting on that feeling in some way. When people feel something, they tend to act on that feeling. This is true even if they cannot articulate their feelings. It is also true even if a person denies his or her own feelings.
Emotions, the product of the brain’s limbic system, have direct access to action. The classic example is how it takes 50 milliseconds for a person to react to a stick perceived as a snake while it takes and additional 250 milliseconds for a more complete judgment originating in the cortex to properly classify the “snake” as a stick. In the grip of intense fear or rage, we often act first and think later. Of course, people differ substantially on this dimension but everyone is vulnerable to emotional reactivity at some level of stimulation. Thus, given the variety of interpersonal and environmental situations we may encounter that may provoke strong feelings, any person carrying a firearm in public is always at some risk of possibly using it inappropriately as a result of stimulated emotions.
People make rational decisions regarding the benefits versus the rewards regarding various actions, including the use of a firearm. There are certainly situations in which the use of a firearm is a rational act. Defending one’s home and family against armed intruders is an example. It is also true the gun use in some extreme situations may be rational although it appears otherwise. In essentially lawless areas where punishment is highly unlikely and survival depends on connections and reputation, a firearm may be the most rational of the choices available. However, even though a particular use of a firearm may be rational, that does not mean that person has also rationally considered the many social and interpersonal consequences of that usage. Such considerations may be missing from their assessment of the situation. Recognition of that fact is why we try to establish policies, procedures, and laws regarding important events in order to makes sure all considerations are properly weighed.
Although people are capable of rationality, they are at least equally capable of irrationality. Indeed, there is virtually no idea so unlikely that someone can’t be found to believe it. In particular, they are subject to irrational beliefs about many things that make them more/less likely to use a firearm. Examples include: Someone (or everyone) bares intense malice towards us, intends to hurt or kill us and there is no way to stop him/her/them short of killing; an individual (or group) has done us such a grievous injury that revenge is called for and even killing is justified; we are faced with an enemy or enemies of such implacable evil he/she/they must be eliminated; an insult to our God must be avenged; our wife/husband has so dishonored us they merit killing. These and many other common, but also at least sometimes questionable beliefs lead people to commit violent acts. Knowing this, it is not unwise to consider every stranger as at least a potential threat. If they are also armed, the risk of harm as a result of their actions increases exponentially. That is, they represent a threat to public safety.
The examples of beliefs I gave above illustrate that rationality/irrationality is not an objective matter. All of us have opinions regarding when a particular example listed above could well be rational, as well as when we would regard it as obviously irrational. However, there are certain instances of these acts that we have, as a society, decided upon. If a person suffers from a mental disorder as a result of a malfunctioning brain (e.g., schizophrenia) we would hold their belief about most or all of these as irrational. On the other hand, these same beliefs will be held in other circumstances to be rational, e.g., at war, or in various cultures, including ours, at various times and places.
My intention in mentioning these concerns about people is to normalize them. That is, these concerns are realistic, legitimate concerns we have about each other and that we bring these concerns to any situation in which the use of guns is a possibility. Dealing with them in any negotiations regarding use and control of firearms is, therefore, a necessity.
The Place: the Social and Physical Environment
The threat posed to others by a person carrying a weapon in a public space varies considerably depending on the characteristics of that space. Characteristics I consider relevant and discuss here are population density, law enforcement, and political stability. There may be others that people think are equally important.
The extent of risk is directly proportional to the population density within the range of a weapon. Carrying a weapon in a city puts many people at risk while in unpopulated places of the West there may be places where even carrying a high powered rifle puts no one at risk. At the same time, in more populated areas, the likelihood of interactions with strangers that might go astray also increases.
I believe that most people would agree that the decision to carry a firearm in public would legitimately depend on the degree to which the rule of law prevailed in the area one is in. The social situation in the mid 1800’s “Wild West” differs greatly from that of present day prosperous small town in the Mid West. In these examples we can see many factors that determine lawfulness vs. lawlessness of different spaces. These include the presence of law enforcement, the sufficiency of the force, and the lawfulness vs. lawlessness of the law enforcement force. Also important is the social cohesion of a population and its “buy in” of a social contract that expects law-abiding behavior and just application of state sanctioned force. Obviously this can vary greatly over even relatively small distances, such as even neighborhoods.
Finally, the political situation in a country is a factor in the decision to carry firearms in public. Does one only need to protect oneself from lawless citizens or also from ruthless and/or corrupt government agents?
Limitations on Access and Use
Given all the considerations described above, does it not seem reasonable that these considerations be taken into account in any attempt to regulate access to and use of firearms? Only someone who believes the have a “right” to any weapon, anytime, anywhere, would not acknowledge the legitimacy at least one of these as their concern. Given that, it also makes sense that gun laws should differ across places and/or communities. That is, there is every reason to suppose that reasonable gun laws in Montana would differ greatly from those in New York City. The populations of these two areas can be assumed to have significantly different views on each of the issues listed above.
However, at the same time, it is also true that we are a highly mobile population and citizens are always moving to or visiting other areas. This suggests there could be certain standards that we (as US citizens) would want to apply everywhere in the US. So I am obviously suggesting a national-state-local approach to gun laws where the Federal laws set certain baseline rights and responsibilities while state and local governments are able to adapt them to particular circumstances.
I believe, however, that there is another, far more meaningful way of hearing all the considerations I’ve listed above. I believe that, carefully considered, what they suggest is that what we are really talking about is considering the impact of owning/carrying/using a firearm on our neighbors. Thinking about it this way re-defines the debate about gun laws. If I am at all open to considering the potential impact of my owning/carrying/using a firearm on the people I know who live near me, then the discussion is between them and me-that is, within my local community. Is this not the definition of responsible ownership: that I take responsibility for the impact of my firearm on the people around me who it might affect? Isn’t the refusal to consider any such issues the very definition of irresponsible ownership?
Given the vast differences in the social and political situation of various communities across the US, there are legitimate differences in the perceptions of members of various communities about the role and intentions of the State and National Government regarding gun laws and usage. For example, given the historic policies of enforced segregation, the war on drugs, civil forfeiture, stop and frisk, and funding local government through ticketing minor offences that have been differentially applied to communities of color, it is perfectly reasonable for such communities to hold vastly different views of the issues than ranchers in Wyoming. Both communities should be in control of major aspects of how firearms are and are not used in their respective communities.
My hope is that this framework may help change the discussion about guns from an adversarial assertion of rights, from “them” versus “us,” from individuals versus the Government, to one between fellow citizens, each of who has neighbors and is a neighbor, each of whom is dedicated to taking care of him/herself while also recognizing his/her membership in some community of fellows. All of whom are interdependent and share the hope of a better world.