Thursday, June 16, 2016

Please don't respond to Orlando by buying more guns

Posted By on Thu, Jun 16, 2016 at 4:01 PM

click to enlarge MOURNING: Vigils for the Orlando victims have occurred around the nation, including this one in Minneapolis. - FIBONACCI BLUE, CCA
  • Fibonacci Blue, CCA
  • MOURNING: Vigils for the Orlando victims have occurred around the nation, including this one in Minneapolis.

At Vox
, a gay woman living in Little Rock writes of her decision to buy a handgun in the wake of Sunday's mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Fla., which was partly motivated by the shooter's hatred towards the LGBT community. The killer, Omar Mateen, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State before carrying out the attack, but evidence indicates he had no contact with the jihadist group itself and targeted the Pulse nightclub largely due to his violent animus specifically towards gay people (Mateen himself may have been gay).

Bree Schmidt, an Oklahoma City native now residing in Arkansas, had already considered buying a weapon out of a desire to revive an old interest in sharpshooting. Orlando pushed her to follow through, she says:

I’ve been staring at the gun lying on my desk for more than an hour now. It’s not loaded. In fact, I own no bullets for it. But I've decided I need it — just in case.

As a gay woman living in the American South, "just in case" for me means that I expect one day to be followed into a women’s restroom by some "concerned citizen" because I’m not feminine-presenting, hardly at all, and don’t adhere to traditional gender standards. "Just in case" means the next time an old man decides to spit at me again while I’m simply walking down the sidewalk. "Just in case" means the next time a random frat boy leans out of his buddy’s lifted truck window and yells "DYKE!" as they hastily pull away from the stoplight next to me. "Just in case" means I expect things to escalate, because, for me, they always have.
Schmidt blames Mateen's propensity for violence less on radical Islam than on "toxic masculinity." She dissects Mateen's motivations: "It occurred to me before any reports of the shooter possibly being gay were released, that he might have been repressing his sexuality as well. Because I recognized that deep, ever-present rage one would have to have to commit such a terrible crime. And on that level, I understand him." 

But if Schmidt reaches vastly different conclusions than social conservatives about the nature of shooters like Matteen, she nonetheless has decided that concealed carry of a firearm will be part of her "fight for the rights and protections of our own."
If someone were to attack me, I might brandish it in their general direction in a mildly threatening manner, but that’s about it. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think shooting another to save just my life is worth it. But were I in a position to do something that would prevent an occurrence like the Orlando massacre with my tiny gun, I think I would take one life if it meant saving many more. I don’t quite know how to make the decision to kill another human being, but I hope I could in the moment.
Schmidt's piece is powerful and thought-provoking (especially on its treatment of Mateen). In my opinion, it's also dangerously misguided in what it assumes: That concealed carry really does make you, and the people around you, safer from harm.

Let me say — perhaps futilely, given the lack of room for nuance in this debate — that like Schmidt, I was raised in a household where guns were the norm and I have ambivalent feelings about how best to pragmatically regulate them. I understand why people feel the desire for personal protection — especially a gay person at this particular, tragic moment. But, I strongly question whether carrying a gun really provides that protection.

First, in a mass shooting scenario like the one in Orlando, there's a good chance a "tiny gun" like Schmidt's (she bought a Glock 42) won't be effective. As the owner of one gun engineering company recently said in the New York Times, the reason military-style rifles like the AR-15 are so popular is that “if you bring a handgun to a fight where there’s an AR-15 you’re going to lose. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a 240-pound man like me or a 90-pound girl.” That's true even if one is trained to use a weapon (in Orlando, Mateen traded shots with an off-duty cop working security at the club), but a small caliber pistol in the hands of an unskilled civilian — even a good marksman — will likely be even less effective. (There are, nonetheless, examples of armed civilians successfully intervening in active shooter scenarios.)

I know what concealed carry advocates will say: If you were trapped in a building with an active shooter, would you rather have a Glock or be unarmed? No doubt, I'd take the Glock. But the chances of me being in such a scenario are astronomically low, which leads to the second and more important point: In the prosaic course of everyday life, guns are simply very dangerous things to have around. As Vox's own German Lopez puts it, "High gun ownership rates do not reduce gun deaths, but rather tend to coincide with increases in gun deaths."

Consider the hateful anecdotes Schmidt references: Being challenged at a public restroom, being spat upon, being harassed by a passing vehicle. It's atrocious that anyone should have to endure such treatment, and the fact that such disgusting things do happen in Arkansas (and across the U.S.) underscores the need for legal protections for LGBT citizens. But none of those ugly scenarios call for pulling a gun, even if it isn't fired. Schmidt mentions her experiences with bigotry fueling her expectations that "things will escalate," but that's exactly the point: Greater escalation in such an emotional situation can be deadly dangerous and should be minimized. (Also, one should never employ a gun by brandishing it towards an assailant "in a mildly threatening matter" as Schmidt puts it. A gun drawn in a moment of acrimonious dispute isn't a prop; it's a weapon for killing, and will be read as such by others, including the police.)

There's another reason why guns may make people less safe: self-harm. Schmidt writes that she began avoiding guns at age 20, when she entered a period of "crippling depression," worried that "my years of experience with them would make me comfortable enough to perhaps use one on myself." Now 29, she's recuperated, largely because she's come to terms with her sexuality. I don't question Schmidt's assertion that she's in good mental health these days, but she should at least consider the possibility that she won't always be in such a state. The fact is that the majority of gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides: Over 21,000 in 2013, according to the CDC. The New York Times explains why:
[W]hile some people feeling suicidal impulses will choose another method if a gun is not at hand, public health researchers cite two reasons guns are particularly dangerous: 1) Guns are more lethal than most other methods people try, so someone who attempts suicide another way is more likely to survive; 2) Studies suggest that suicide attempts often occur shortly after people decide to kill themselves, so people with deadly means at hand when the impulse strikes are more likely to use them than those who have to wait or plan.

That means that strategies that make suicide more inconvenient or difficult can save lives. Guns, when they are in the home, can make self-harm both easy and deadly.
Schmidt's gun probably won't be put to ill use; the firearms owned by the majority of Americans are not. But anyone whose reaction to Orlando is to buy a gun should ask whether the sense of security it imparts is worth the easy havoc it's capable of inflicting. Meanwhile, the perverse cycle Schmidt's story illustrates — gun violence fueling greater fear, fear fueling more gun purchases — is nothing but music to the ears of the NRA.

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