Anecdotal evidence is just that: anecdotal. One situation doesn’t prove anything one way or another, and in fact can be misleading in the larger context. The one person that dies from The New [Almost] Perfect Drug does not accurately represent the ten thousand that were saved.
Anecdotal evidence can, however, make you think. If your friend or relative died from that drug, you can bet you are going to closely examine what happened to see if something should be changed. Those ten thousand radiantly healthy people lack that kind of grieving motivation.
So to say that anecdotal evidence is meaningless is also inaccurate. By inspiring action, conversation, and investigation, simple situations are shown to be more complex.
The prod to action swelling in the wake of the many recent mass shootings, particularly the children of Sandy Hook, has proposed renovations to gun policy and procedures swirling through the public consciousness.
I’m not going to talk about Sandy Hook here, nor the specifics of policy. In terms of gun control, I don’t have any Verifiable Credentials as a gun and violence researcher, nor any other reason why my opinion should matter to, well, anyone.
But, like everyone else, I have my own accrued experience with people and with guns. While by no means an accurate sampling, these stories contribute to why I hold the opinions I currently do.
In 1988, a friend of mine called and said, “We’re going to be late. A friend of mine got shot,” and then hung up the phone, a dramatically short conversation.
No one had died. No one was seriously injured, as it turned out. This isn’t a gruesome tale.
The story was this: the day before, in the wee hours of the morning, some overly-festive teenagers had climbed over a neighbor’s fence to splash around in his pool. The irate neighbor, awakened by the noise, called the cops. When he heard them arrive, he went downstairs to open his gate, taking along his loaded (and as it came out in the press later, unregistered) handgun.
The pool-hoppers also heard the cops arriving, and were busily scattering as fast as they could, disappearing kitchen roaches in the flash of sudden light. A few people got away. I have no idea if it is true or not, but I heard that one kid had been skinny-dipping, so he ran naked through the sleeping neighborhood until he could get to a payphone to call a friend to pick him up. When his friend drove up to the meeting place, he sneaked out from behind some bushes to suffer the first bout of his friend’s relentless teasing about fig leaves.
At the pool, one swimmer chose the wrong direction of escape, and ended up facing the homeowner as he exited the house.
That young man ended up with a gunshot wound to his hand.
Stories vary in the newspaper accounts. The homeowner said he lunged toward him and so he shot him to protect himself and block access to his home; the swimmer, meanwhile, said he was just standing there. There is confusion as to whether the homeowner was firing a warning shot or shooting at the swimmer’s leg, but in any case, he hit the swimmer’s hand.
The swimmer was arrested for trespassing, as was the one other person, a young woman, who had failed to make a sufficiently hasty getaway. Those charges were later dismissed when they agreed to a community service deal. Obviously, they had been trespassing though.
My question is this: given that the soggy, chlorinated teenager dripping in his underwear was clearly not armed and the cops, according to both sides of the story, were already on the scene, just at the wrong gate, did the presence of a gun make this situation better or worse?
The teenager got shot and arrested. The homeowner with the unregistered gun garnered charges of hypocrisy in the press, in part because among other aspects of an impressive career, he was a vocal advocate of gun control. His charges, of possessing an unregistered handgun, led to a trial. For both then, I’d say worse.
For gun rights people, perhaps they think the teenager could have injured the homeowner or his family. Maybe. Maybe he was high on some violent or unpredictable drug which is why swimming in a pool on a hot June night seemed like such a good idea.
I only met that particular teenager once, the day after he got shot. I remember him sitting on my parents’ couch with his hand bandaged up, mellow on painkillers. As a result of that biasing encounter, it is particularly hard for me to view a skinny kid made monosyllabic by pharmaceuticals as a danger.
Isn’t it that public speaking trick? To imagine the audience in their underwear, so they won’t seem threatening?
But at 2am in the dark, woken from a deep sleep, trespassing on his property, he was to that homeowner.
And if I back up a few minutes and think about the view he likely saw groggily looking out his bedroom window — half-dressed strangers in his yard and splashing in his pool in the middle of the night — I can connect to his fear and anger. I’d call the cops too.
If the homeowner didn’t have a gun, I imagine (but I don’t know) that he would have waited for the cops to access the pool area while he stayed safely locked up in his house. But he had the gun and so he did leave the house and confronted that teenager.
If he didn’t have that gun, police, trained in the appropriate use of firearms and high stress situations would have, as they did in real life after the shooting, collected the damp, irresponsible teens and processed them for breaking a minor offense.
Scared or pissed off, when the fight part of fight-or-flight activates, guns provide a substantially more lethal potential than a wildly-thrown punch.
As a teenager, a friend of mine discovered that her mother kept a gun in her bedside table. She did not think about that gun until, in the middle of the night some time later, she awoke to the sound of the front door opening and closing.
My friend sneaked out of her room into her mother’s room, and froze there for a moment, thinking about the gun in the nightstand drawer and her mother still sleeping. Motionless, she listened to footsteps coming down the hall and her mother’s even breathing.
And then she heard a voice whispering her name in the hallway, a voice she knew. The intruder was her mother’s friend, in late from the airport, using the key that had been left out for her by my friend’s mother.
An old boyfriend of mine told the story of how he, literally, shot himself in the foot. At nine or ten years old, he was playing with his father’s gun, cops and robbers as kids do, even though, of course, he had been told not to play with the gun (left lying unlocked around the house). To play uninterrupted, he was hiding with the gun in a closet.
When he mistakenly pulled that trigger, the shot ricocheted around the closet until it cut through his ankle. The wound was about as luckily placed as it could have been, and in fact he was able to limp around for a few hours hiding it before his horrified parents caught on. My friend kept the bullet, as reminder of how much luck plays into all exchanges.
Everyone preaches responsible gun ownership, but what the means when it comes to what they do, that’s often different. Other people should keep guns in a locked cabinet away from children and thieves, kleptomaniac neighbors, and unstable house sitters. But in my utterly unscientific sample of gun owners that I’ve met personally, the norm is to keep handguns in bedroom nightstands and shotguns propped up somewhere near the front door.
I know two people, neither in any branch of law enforcement or military, who at stressful times in their lives, slept with their guns under their pillows, overwhelmed by paranoid fears in, respectively, a high-rise apartment building and suburban house in a middle-class neighborhood.
A different ex-boyfriend did have a locked gun cabinet, but did so in part because he had a collection of a dozen or so guns, so he had to store them someplace. But he kept that cabinet locked, and the key with him, and I applaud that.
I couldn’t think of any reason why a mid-career urban office professional needed quite so many guns, but I was trying hard to understand, and so I asked to see each one and hold it in my hands and hear its story. I tried to plug into the idea of manly protector and defender. Guns weren’t and aren’t my thing, but they have a long history and mythology attached to them, particularly for men since they have historically carried the greater burden of war. I asked questions on each gun, and heard about their options. The scientific side of me tried to appreciate good engineering.
And then he handed me a WWII Czechoslovakian rifle with attachable bayonet. I am cursed with an overly active imagination, but if objects can retain any element of emotion, this one had clearly had months of fear, deprivation, and blood clinging to it. It exuded the terror of previous owners trying not to die in chaotic violence.
I handed the gun, suddenly heavier, back to him, and didn’t feel as nearly as comforted by the locked cabinet.
Many gun owners I know, when showing off their guns, still do the point-in-play, bang bang! you’re- dead, cowboy thing. This make-believe behavior is not just teenagers – people in their 40s, 50s, 60s have demonstrated this to me, all in the name of trying to convince me that guns are not scary. It does not ease my fears.
I remember someone explaining to me in intricate detail in the middle of a rather raucous party (in my early 20s – my life is less festive these days) how to disassemble and reassemble a Colt .45. There was also a rather complicated lover’s triangle going on at the party, and in fact, that ended with a screaming match and a slammed door. That nasty argument didn’t occur at a time when that gun was being passed around the room, and I remain happy about that.
Maybe you’re thinking, holy moly, you know irresponsible people. And while in some cases that’s true, mostly the answer the answer is, in general, no. Some of these gun owners are people that have made millions in business or held high-level government jobs. There are stable marriages and paid taxes. They are not people that would set off any alarms on background checks.
But people are still often, with guns, idiots. They think, oh, well, other people are irresponsible, but I’m not. I know what I’m doing.
Except they don’t. They get frightened by sounds in the dark, or angry beyond all reason, and go into overdrive.
Gun violence is nothing new. The first convicted murderer in the American colonies, in 1630, used a gun, and for that murder, he was sentenced to hang.
The only people folks are universally interested in disarming are the “bad” people.
Of course, who decides who is bad and how he makes that determination can bring in even thornier issues of racism, sexism and class privilege.
In the case of the pool-hopping teenager and the unregistered handgun shooter, many suggested that calls of hypocrisy were quite so loud in part because an African American man shot a white teen. Had a white homeowner shot a black teenager, many thought some opinions would have been very different. The story wouldn’t have been a nice middle-class white boy just having a good-spirited good time (which, I uncomfortably note, is essentially the position I adopted). The story could instead have been spun, with a coating of class and racial discrimination, that drugged-up gang members invaded his yard, and so the homeowner defended himself and protected his family.
The pool-hoppers were white, and armed with sufficient family resources to have lawyers. They never went to trial for their crimes.
The African American homeowner, for his unregistered gun, however, did, with his case ending in a mistrial.
In a previous housing situation, I lived on 108 acres in the southwest in the heart of rattlesnake country. I had a shotgun and a .45 that came with the house.
On the day that I ran into the rattlesnake curled up under an outside water spigot, which I only noticed after I’d turned on the water and he irritably started to rattle, I successfully persuaded that snake to move on by hosing him down.
It didn’t occur to me to shoot him. I’d never shot a gun.
But when another snake decided to surprise me in the dark by lounging (and rattling) on my back porch, decidedly too close to being indoors, I did think about that shotgun. Through circumstance, I had access to a new snake-control option.
I handled the cold metal, and then thought about my lack of skill and questionable aim, and the destructive force of bullets, and how fast a motivated snake could move if I missed. I put the shotgun back down. When I peeked out the door the next day, the snake had moved on to a different part of the desert.
I learned that in my neighborhood, some neighbors shot any rattlesnakes they saw, while others preferred to relocate them. The owner of the property told me about loading one very large snake into a garbage can and rolling him far away into the brush to release him there.
I realized later that his fondness for snakes meant he must have the guns for people.
When women think about home invasions, they seldom worry about some thief lifting expensive stereos.
I’ve lived alone most of my adult life, often in first-floor apartments or in remote locations far from scream-hearing help. Once, my apartment was robbed on a night when neither I nor my roommate was home, leaving a brick, a broken window and two very alarmed house cats. I did think about what if I had been home by myself and been there as someone crawled through my bedroom window. What then?
Recently I met a woman who is in law enforcement. She was in conversation with another woman who worked at a university who was grumbling at the limitations of her conceal-and-carry permit, as she could not take her gun on campus or to the mall. The law enforcement professional noted that she took her gun out with her when she went jogging, and was happy to have it at gas stations and other stops.
I’ve been hassled by hostile strangers. I’ve been pushed around by people I knew. And I am well aware these minor events pale in comparison to stories I’ve heard from other women, stories that include choking and broken glass, stories with ripped clothing and hospital emergency rooms.
And yet, I also know I don’t want to spend my entire life in a state of constant fear and vigilance, waiting for some awful moment to arrive.
For me, strapping on a gun every day would mean giving up moments free from fear.
To those gun-owning women, comfortable with their weapons and puzzled by my discomfort, I am foolhardy. It’s worth noting I also sometimes walk unescorted at night. I like moonlight and stars, and that may someday come with a price. Or it might not.
That a trip to the gas station or the mall or a jog by the river can be the beginning of a vicious crime is true. Most often, however, those trips are entirely mundane. Maybe having those trips feel ordinary is a luxury afforded me only because I’ve been lucky so far.
I know women who have suffered through horrible incidents. All except one knew her attacker.
Would they have known in time at whom to point guns had they had them in their hands?
The FDA regulates prescription drugs in this country. And it angers many people — for failing to keep the public safe by letting drugs with serious side effects into the pipeline and for failing to keep the public safe by delaying treatment to needy people. Regulating guns contains similar complications: how do we balance safety and freedom, and what does that look like?
I know my gun stories will not influencing policy in any way of substance, and I suspect the NRA is pleased to have my and other’s calls for gun control met with bland silence or loud outrage. Someday a diehard NRA member may scoff at me and shake his head when I am pummeled to death in my own home saying, if only she had had a gun.
I also know that I do not want to own any type of gun. I hope that I am graced with a life of minimal violence and fear despite my unarmed state. Of that, I know there is no guarantee.
I hope the multitude of stray bullets firing across the nation manage to miss me and my loved ones and even my enemies. As individuals and as a society, we choose from a varied menu of risks and side effects.