01 March 2009

On overreacting

Crime is on the rise in Bathsheba Monk's Allentown, PA, neighborhood. So, as she recounts in the New York Times Magazine, she got herself a gun.
Then finally I picked out a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, “the gun I started with,” the clerk said. I handed him my driver’s license and filled out the paperwork. He left us to run my license number through a criminal-records system called QuickCheck. Two minutes later I was qualified and, between gun and ammo, $762 poorer.

Photo by xtylerclub.
The brief story arc is sadly conventional. Rumors, then first-hand accounts of burglary spark rising fear in the household; Monk conquers her (very minimal) reservations with a trip to the firing range and finally makes the purchase. But it's remarkable for what it leaves out: any consideration of efficacy.

How does owning a gun prevent a burglary? It doesn't. Potential burglars cannot smell a gun secreted in the bedside table, and bypass the house because of it. At best, a gun can only make a burglary unpleasant for the burglar once he's in the house - and then only if the homeowner is (1) at home, (2) lucky enough to catch the burglar off guard, (3) a good shot. Against this incremental gain in "security" - the ability to retaliate violently in the event of a home invasion - are the increased risk to children in a gun-owning household, and the chance that the gun itself could be stolen. Which - though they may be minuscule - are not mentioned, much less weighed.

So Monk's piece is a snapshot of a sadly American line of reasoning, or rather lack thereof: a Pavlovian resort to arms in the face of fear. Monk hasn't bought herself security so much as a deadly security blanket.

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