The reason I don’t carry a gun has nothing to do with my political views, the NRA, or the second amendment of the Constitution. It has nothing to do with the fact that my professional life has involved caring for hundreds of victims of gun violence. I’ve operated on a lot more people that have been assaulted by McDonald’s fries and bacon cheeseburgers than guns. There are three reasons that I don’t own a gun. These reasons are fact, are unassailable arguments against my owning a gun, and almost never come up in discussions of gun ownership. The three reasons that I don’t own a gun are:
i. Guns only work when you pull the trigger.
ii. Guns only do one thing.
Very early in my surgical training, I was standing next to one of my fellow residents in the OR locker room as we changed out of our scrubs at the end of the day, both getting ready to head home. We were working at an inner city hospital in the late eighties, the place and time of a significant peak in gun violence. During summer on-call nights, I remember sitting on the loading ramp of the ER hanging out with the cops and paramedics, shooting the breeze and listening to the steady pop of handgun fire from across the city, the occasional tat-a-tat of an Uzi; some of it sounding like just a block or two away. It was Mogadishu, but with more snow and great Coney Island hotdogs. Anyways, I remember being in my first year as a resident and standing next to this second year as we got ready to leave, putting my keys back in my pocket as I noticed the other guy take a small handgun from his locker shelf and tuck it into his pants. I was shocked. I don’t think I had ever seen a “regular” person with a gun before. “You carry a gun?” I asked him.
“Yeah,” he said, slamming the locker. “You don’t?” I shook my head. “Well, good luck with that,” he said. As he left, I considered the fact that we were working in a very dangerous area, that my apartment a ten minute drive away was in an equally dangerous neighborhood, that one of our surgical attendings had his Camaro stolen twice in the past six months from the hospital parking garage. Just that day, there had been another newspaper article on the rising frequency of carjackings on the expressway I took home to visit my parents. Actually, I thought, he might have a point. The night before, I had been forced to circle my apartment building for twenty minutes, because when I pulled into the parking lot three dudes with Uzi’s slung on their shoulders were standing in my parking spot conducting a business transaction. One of the guys had politely suggested that I come back a little later, and I had taken his advice. Maybe having a gun wasn’t such a bad idea.
I briefly thought about the concept of owning a gun. It certainly wasn’t difficult as a physician to get a concealed carry permit. But after further consideration, I realized that for me, a gun would be a mistake. At that time, I came to my conclusion based upon Reason Number One: Guns only work when you pull the trigger. If you are carrying a gun, you have to be willing to use it. And by use it, I don’t mean pulling out your piece and waving it about at a possible assailant, saying “Back off, asshole, I’ve got a gun here.” That doesn’t work. That will get you killed. Carrying an unloaded gun doesn’t work. That will get you killed. No, if you decide to carry a gun, you have to be prepared (ie., trained and practiced) and willing to shoot a person. If you are not prepared and willing to shoot a person, you are worse than foolish to carry such a device, because the other guy must assume that you are carrying your gun because you are prepared and willing to shoot him with it. He will act accordingly. Which, by the way, also applies to any interactions with cops that you might have while carrying. If you carry a gun and you are pulled over for a traffic violation (see my previous blog post Trunk Full of Human Tissue), you must maintain both hands on the top of your steering wheel, window down, and greet the friendly officer with the statement “Good evening, officer. I have a loaded handgun under my seat for which I have a license. I will not move my hands from this steering wheel until you tell me to do so.” And say it all with a smile, or else you may be shot dead for speeding. I know this, because a driver was killed in my city during my residency under just this circumstance. Carrying a gun is a responsibility that must be carefully considered.
When I considered the implications of Rule Number One, I realized that it was stupid for me to have a gun, because I wasn’t willing to use it. Oh, I know what we all think, that you’ll find yourself in a situation where a Bad Person is spraying bullets at a busload of nuns and you’ll pull that gun out and blow him away, saving the day for all. But I knew better, and I still know better. Malice of intent is not an obvious condition. If you have a gun for protection, you have to be willing to shoot first. It is not a straight forward equation. Consider the following more likely scenario: You are walking to your car in an empty parking garage after a long day at work, your family waiting for your return home. As you approach, you see a man standing next to your car. You are carrying your gun. You yell, “Hey! Get away from my car.” The guy just looks at you with a defiant and threatening expression. Do you: 1. Say to yourself, “Screw it, I’m going back inside and getting security,” or 2. Pull out your loaded weapon and aim it at the individual. Perhaps you choose option number 2, hoping that your show of force will convince the guy to leave peacefully, preferably by raising his hands in the air and muttering something apologetic. But what if that doesn’t happen? It’s pretty dark, maybe the guy doesn’t see your gun. Maybe he didn’t understand your warning because your voice has become a falsetto, or he’s not an English speaker, or he’s hard of hearing. What if the dude instead bends down? Is he reaching for the twenty dollar bill he saw on the ground and that’s why he’s next to your car in the first place, or is he now removing a loaded gun from his sock? How long are you going to wait to find out before your shoot? At what point do you feel sufficiently threatened to pull the trigger? Because if you say that you will wait until the other individual has decided to persist in his threatening actions despite being warned with your raised gun, that you will wait until he straightens up and points his own gun at you, that you would wait until he starts to approach you in a threatening manner despite your repeated warnings, then you should not be carrying a gun. You will die. If you have a loaded gun, you must be prepared to use it at some point before you are fatally threatened, or you are just making the situation more dangerous for yourself. I realized with great certainty that I would never be able to shoot somebody just because I felt threatened. Which meant that a gun in my hands was worse than useless–it was dangerous. Bad idea. If you are carrying a gun, you will have to decide to pull the trigger. You also will have to spend the rest of your life living with your decision, right or wrong.
The second fact is that guns are designed to do only one thing: Kill the person they are aimed at. These machines are very effective. Trust me, as I am an expert in this regard. I have seen the effects in great detail and on many occasions. Do not believe, when you decide to pull the trigger of your gun, that the result will be anything other than a loud noise and the other person being suddenly dead. If you don’t believe me, please ask any police officer, federal agent, or soldier. Even the most skilled and practiced professional does not claim to be able to disarm, incapacitate, or neutralize the threat of another individual by shooting to wound. And you are not a professional: If you shoot at someone, you’re going to kill him. You will spend the rest of your life living with the knowledge that you killed a person. Not comfortable with this fact, buy a Taser or carry pepper spray instead.
Finally, it is a fact that I have children. If you have children, your child will find your gun. It is inevitable. At some point, your child will know you have a gun, will know where the gun is kept, will know where the ammunition for said gun is kept, will know where the key to the trigger lock or gun cabinet is kept. Do not kid yourself into thinking that your weapon will be a secret or completely secure unless it never enters your home or car. You may realize this fact and choose to address this challenge head-on, teaching your children gun safety, that it is strictly forbidden for them to touch the weapon without your permission. Admirable, but not always sufficient, I’m afraid (see “Children and Guns: The Hidden Toll,” New York Times Sept 28, 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/29/us/children-and-guns-the-hidden-toll.html) . Children, particularly children of the male type, will feel a strong urge to disregard your rules. If you were once a male child or are the parent of a male child, you realize this fact. Not only will your child be aware of your gun and capable of obtaining it, loading it, and discharging it in your absence despite any and all of your efforts to the contrary, your child may at some point have the desire to do so. Of course, you say, I would never have a gun in the house if my child were in any way mentally or emotionally unstable. This, sadly, is a fallacious argument. Your three year old son is capable of discharging your gun but is not mature enough to consider the consequences. Your teenager is emotionally unstable by definition. If your child were to develop a mental illness, you may not be aware of this fact until it is too late. The first warning sign of your child’s depression may be the sound of a gunshot from their bedroom. You may not be aware of your child’s mental instability until you hear his name on the local news. If you have children, a gun in the house is dangerous. Period. You may choose to reduce that risk by taking all appropriate measures, but you will never eliminate it. Of course, the same thing applies to that bottle of prescription pain killers that you have on your bathroom shelf.
So that is why I don’t carry a gun. You are encouraged to come to your own decision, no problem. Just don’t ask me to let my kid have a sleep over at your house.