Is the best argument for unfettered gun ownership fear?

Fear is the mind killer. Frank Herbert wrote that in his novel Dune.

I don’t think he had America’s obsession with deadly firearms in mind when he wrote it, but the observation is apt. Gun rights advocates have countless arguments for keeping military-style assault weapons in the hands of civilians in this country. One that I hear most often is fear. We’d all feel safer if we were all heavily armed. Give guns to teachers and DPW workers, marathon runners and cashiers. It’s the only way we can be safe, the National Rifle Association argues.

My blog about the tasteless tweet by Arkansas politician Nate Bell has drawn some interesting counterarguments from readers. As a reminder, Bell tweeted the following while Boston was under lockdown during the search for one of the Boston Marathon bombers.

I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a hi-capacity magazine?

One commenter raised a common Republican talking point – that President Obama’s decision to push for gun control after Newtown was equivalent and just as ill-timed. I shot down that false logic in a subsequent post. Another commenter wants to argue that the heart of Bell’s tweet is right: people would feel safer if they had an AR-15 to hold during the 24 hours we were trapped in our homes. Commenter Abner Clark writes:

Nate Bell made a good point. Owning a gun in that situation would have calmed at least some folks’ fears and could have made them safer. It feels like the author is trying to call foul just because he disagrees on gun policy. Someone isn’t wrong simply because they are offensive. The blogger hasn’t claimed this but has also not offered any other reason why Bell is wrong.

So we should allow unfettered access to military weapons in order to allow certain people to feel safer, the reader argues.  I would argue that sucking one’s thumb also makes some people feel more secure, but it doesn’t do them much good.  If the main argument for owning a military-style assault rifle truly is to gain some measure of feeling safe, I worry about where where that logic could take us. I suppose some people would like to mount a .50 caliber machine gun on the roof of their house to feel secure. That doesn’t mean we should let them.

The NRA would have us all armed. This logic pushes us toward a permanent cycle of escalation that has no end. The only real winners would be the gun manufacturers who bankroll the NRA. We don’t need to be heavily armed and a great many of us don’t want to be.  I would feel a lot safer if it were more difficult to own weapons capable of inflicting mass casualties.

In the 24 hours that I was stuck in my house last week, I was not dreaming of owning an AR-15. In my mind, that’s an adolescent fantasy indulged by people who enjoyed Arnold Schwarzenegger movies too much in the 1980s. Its a fantasy that might make you feel safe right up until the moment that you need to point that gun at someone. And then you’ll know fear again. Patrick Blanchfield figured that out in 2008 when he tried to point a shotgun at a would-be burglar in 2008. In the dark he fumbled to load the weapon. Only the sound of him pumping the gun scared away the burglar. In the New York Daily News he wrote:

But on that night in 2008, I learned something else. I learned how guns relate to fear, and not just the fear my gun inspired in the would-be-burglar. Owning guns had given me a sense of security, but all that was a fantasy that imploded in a few terrifying seconds.

Sure, I had frightened away an intruder, defended my castle. But I could have just as easily been killed by him or accidentally shot myself or my partner. Hundreds of hours of range time didn’t mean anything in the confusion of the moment.

Blanchfield gave up his shotguns, handguns and AR-15 after that night because he realized that the fantasy of defending one’s home from a bad guy with deadly weapons is dangerous and largely unrealistic.  Too many people in this country cling to that fantasy and arm themselves accordingly. But they don’t have the training to make themselves safe. Taking lessons at a firing range doesn’t do it. Gun safety training doesn’t do it. We are not cowboys on the frontier. We are citizens of one of the most powerful, advanced democracies in the world. Crime is dropping. Terrorism is rare. We are relatively safe. We need to stop giving into fear. Fear is not a good enough reason to keep assault weapons in our homes.