At his wonderful blog, The Weekly Sift, the mathematician Doug Mudar posted an insightful piece recently about the psychology of gun owners titled: “Guns are security blankets, not insurance policies.” He begins with a quote from the sci-fi author William Gibson: “People who feel safer with a gun than with guaranteed medical insurance don’t yet have a fully adult concept of scary.” This, Mudar notes, explains a lot about the gun-control debate in America today.
Mudar points out that proponents of gun control tend to cite statistics about how many more homicides and suicides we have in America compared to other countries with fewer guns, or how much more likely you are to kill yourself or a household member than an intruder, and so on. While pro-gun advocates tend to tell what-if fantasy stories to defend their position. “What if home invaders came to kill you, kidnap your baby, or rape your teenage daughter? What if you were a hostage in a bank robbery? What if you were at a restaurant or grocery store when terrorists broke in and started killing people? Wouldn’t you wish you had a gun then?”
Mudar says that these camps have “two very different ways to think about risk and security. One is the mature, rational way. What are the most likely risks and how can we mitigate them. So while people in America tend to worry about things like terrorist attacks and plane crashes, which pose virtually no risk to them, they forget about mundane risks like car accidents, heart disease, and cancer which pose far, far greater risk. If you really want to be safe do things like wear your seat belt, eat well, exercise and don’t smoke.
The other way to think about risk is the childish, irrational way. In this mode, you worry about monsters in your closet or ghosts in your room. Now frightened children aren’t always assured when you tell them that the chances of being eaten by a monster or haunted by a ghost are very, very low. Sometimes it is better to give the child “a security blanket or a teddy bear” to serve as a talisman to create an aura of security. And that’s what guns do for most gun owners. As Mudar concludes:
The point isn’t that home invasion is a major risk in your life, that you are well-trained enough to win a middle-of-the-night shoot-out if home invaders show up, or even that you have a practical way to get the gun out of its safe-storage location in time to use it at all; it’s that when the home-invasion fantasy plagues you, you can tell yourself, “It’s OK. I have a gun.”
(Of course, some people have real security problems whose solution may involve guns. For example, four Presidents of the United States, about 1 in 10, have been assassinated, others have been the target of assassinations, and all receive numerous threats. US Presidents have special security risks. But most of us aren’t presidents, congressional representatives, drug dealers or the kinds of people for whom being shot is likely.)
In my next post I’ll briefly discuss the origins of irrational fears.