Gunslingers

William S. Hart in "The Gun Fighter," 1916 or 1917. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

William S. Hart in “The Gun Fighter,” 1916 or 1917. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I am from Oregon. Close relatives on both sides of my family still live in communities throughout Oregon. My father was born in Roseburg. I could not help but reflect on the mass shooting of October 1 that killed eight students and a teacher (and wounded nine others) at Umpqua Community College.

Roseburg is a gun-friendly community in a gun-friendly state. A lot of people are armed, including some near the scene of the Roseburg shooting. In nearby Josephine County, voters have refused for years to fund the now decimated Sheriff’s department. People in Josephine County, I was told by a cousin living in next-door Jackson County, are arming themselves in the absence of police protection. The Sheriff and his one deputy will not respond to calls for assistance except in a life-and-death situation, which motivated a frustrated caller to drive off homeless squatters by firing his shotgun into the ceiling of the barn where they had holed up. At least that is the story I heard from a relative who lived near the barn in question.

We have all listened to the seemingly endless debate over whether gun ownership makes us more or less safe. Often the argument is advanced with statistics aimed to prove one side of the argument over the other. I am persuaded that the statistics used to support the case against widespread gun ownership are more reliable than those the NRA uses to defend gun ownership. I believe that one’s chances of being harmed or doing harm increase significantly with ownership of a firearm.

Joshua Holland reports, for example, that FBI statistics show “for every justifiable homicide in the United States—for every lethal shooting in defense of life or property—guns are used to commit 34 murders and 78 suicides, and are the cause of two accidental deaths.” Approximately half of gun owners buy their weapon for personal protection. But a University of California at San Francisco review of empirical studies correlates a person’s ownership of a firearm with a decrease in safety: gun owners are twice as likely to be a victim of homicide and three times as likely to commit suicide.

The statistics, though, are abstractions. They do not penetrate to the emotional side of the argument. Many of us—whether or not we worry about a disarmed citizenry being vulnerable to government coercion—would wish to be able to defend ourselves, our loved ones, and other innocent people if and when threatened by a bad guy with a gun.

The mythic image conjured up in this scenario, as Holland recounts, is “the heroic gunslinger,” the Wyatt Earp fantasy, the Die Hard cinematic illusion. But this “fantasy world of gunplay” does not happen in real life.

Holland calls on the testimony of combat veterans to help us understand the emotional dimension of gunplay. Stephen Benson, a former SEAL with extensive combat experience and a trainer of elite military forces, reports that it is hard to maintain discipline in shooting situations unless you receive constant training. What happens when the guns go off?

You’re immediately hit with a massive thump of adrenaline. Your mouth begins to taste like copper. You can hear the blood moving in your system. You can even experience a kind of time-warp. And the problem with that kind of state is that conscious thought shuts down because you’ve been taken over by your nervous system, and your nervous system is saying, “holy shit, things just got really bad.”

Retired Army Sergeant Rafael Noboa y Rivera, leader of a combat team in the Iraq war, adds that even trained soldiers begin to function effectively only after they have been engaged in combat several times. He believes that most untrained civilians would panic in a stressful situation. They would either “freeze up, or just whip out their gun and start firing.” It takes extensive training and experience to learn how to handle firearms when under duress so as not to do more harm than good to those you are trying to protect and to innocent bystanders.

SWAT teams train and retrain for potential deadly encounters multiple times each year. That is not the case for everyday gun owners. Judgmental shooting is impossible when adrenaline shuts down the conscious mind and the nervous system dictates a state of panic.

RLI

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