The Pamela White Gun Challenge
by Ari Armstrong, December 13, 2002
Pamela White is one of my favorite local journalists. It therefore pained me to read her frankly ignorant perspective on gun ownership and the right of self-defense ("The night I would have killed," August 22). She completely misunderstands the nature of self-defense and the appropriate use of a gun.
Obviously White understands the importance of overcoming ignorance and prejudice with education and an open mind. Thus, I have taken the liberty of arranging a learning experience for her. My father Linn helps organize the best introductory handgun class I've ever seen. The class, offered on weekends or during the evenings in Grand Junction, provides information about firearms and the law and offers practice on the range, with an emphasis on defensive scenarios.
White can think of the class as a cultural exchange. She can leave the borders of the "Peoples' Republic of Boulder" -- if only for short while -- and spend some time in a town where even many Democrats profess their loyalty to the Second Amendment. (Plus, the vineyards, the orchards, and the Monument are lovely.) My dad has offered to put up White and cover the cost of her class. In addition to gaining a new perspective, White could write a fascinating article for the Weekly about her experiences.
One of the first things White will learn is that sentiments like, "I wanted to kill," have no place in a defensive situation. The story White relates is a terrifying one, to be sure. Two men broke into her apartment armed with knives and threatened her and her 9-month-old baby. White fears she would have been raped or murdered had the police not intervened. But the purpose of using a gun for self-defense is not to vent anger, seek retaliation, or kill somebody. The sole purpose is to stop the threat.
White will also come to realize the folly of her statement, "If I'd had a gun, I'd have shot them both in the face." The attempt would have been awfully stupid. First, if you're close enough to stick your gun in the criminal's face, you're too close for your own safety. The class actually runs a drill to demonstrate how fast an attacker with a knife can overcome the victim. Second, in a high-stress defensive situation, the defender should generally aim at center of mass, again for the purpose of stopping the threat.
White was very lucky that the police showed up in time to save her and her child. Many are not that lucky. At a trial earlier this year, a Denver police officer admitted the police usually show up only after the crime has been committed. There's even a book out titled "Dial 911 and Die" that indicates the police are too late 95% of the time. If the intruders had cut White's phone lines first, she almost certainly would have become a victim. (The class also reviews ways to keep one's home more secure against break-ins.)
White claims if she'd had a gun the night of the attack "at least one man -- perhaps two -- would have died." But that's unlikely. In his book More Guns Less Crime, John Lott suggests a defensive gun use usually involves merely the brandishment of the firearm, not the firing of it. In other words, when criminals see a gun, they almost always flee. And in Armed, Gary Kleck points out a person with a gunshot wound dies less that 15% of the time. Again, the purpose of using a gun for self-defense is to stop a threat, not to kill.
White notes the tension between her own aversion to using a gun and her reliance on armed police officers. Some might "say that makes me a hypocrite," she writes. But White doesn't get to the core problem. She argues using a gun is immoral. "[I]t would have cost you your soul" to use a gun in self-defense, one of White's friends counseled her. She urges us to look to the "spiritual consequences" of defending our lives. "When we meet darkness with darkness, some of that darkness enters and stays inside."
I don't think White has fully thought through this notion that police officers -- agents of the state -- should be in the unique position of acting immorally, of letting "darkness enter and stay inside them." The suggestion that police should sell their souls and do our dirty work for us is disturbing in its implications.
A free society demands the opposite philosophy: the powers and responsibilities of the police should not extend far beyond those of the ordinary citizen. If it is immoral for the citizen to defend him or herself with potentially lethal force, then it is also immoral for the police to do so -- and the police should be immediately disarmed.
It is the moral issue, therefore, that must be addressed at the deepest level. The right of self-defense is a necessary and immediate corollary of the right to life. There is nothing dark, evil, or sinister about not wanting to be raped or murdered and wanting to keep one's family safe. White's comment, "in dying, we risk nothing," almost serves as a reductio ad absurdum for her position. If life is not important, then nothing is. Ultimately, prudent self-defense is a celebration of life and a recognition of the ultimate value of life.
Before she began thinking of the issue in terms of ethics, White relates, she declined to purchase a gun because she feared her children would "find the gun and become statistics." White would have done better to make sure her children never rode in cars or played near five-gallon buckets. In 1998, firearms accounted for about 2% of all unintentional injuries for children ages 1-14, far behind injury due to cars (50%), drowning (16%), and fires (13%). Certainly all gun owners should be careful to keep their guns (and other potentially dangerous items) out of the hands of irresponsible persons. The overwhelming majority of gun owners, though, do maintain a safe household -- a household also safer from violent attacks.