Monday, February 19, 2018

It's not about Guns, it's about Fear

Let’s not kid ourselves. Gun laws are not about saving lives. If we wanted to pass laws to save lives we would be banning swimming pools, cigarettes, furniture with sharp corners. But we are not afraid of the swimming pool or the sofa table. We should be afraid of the cigarette, but we aren’t afraid of that either. But a large group of people are afraid of guns. We need to ask why.

Humans are terrible about applying real probabilities to what is dangerous. Our brains see a lightning strike and our defenses are triggered. We all know that the chances of getting hit by lightning are really remote. But we still jump when we hear thunder. Shark attacks are so rare that you are more likely to win the lottery while being struck by lightning than get attacked by a shark. But people still rank this as something they are afraid of. So what do sharks and guns have in common?

If we imagine that someone walks into a school carrying a swimming pool and begins to beat people with it, the image makes us laugh. Even if we imagine someone walking into a school and blowing second-hand smoke at everyone to harm them, the image makes us chuckle. But imagine someone walking in with a gun and we are registering fear and defensiveness. Sometimes that defensiveness is aggressive, sometimes it is running away.

People that are afraid of guns and want to ban or regulate them are not doing so out of an examination of the actual threat. They are doing so out of an emotion of fear. Fear for themselves and empathetic fear for others. Empathy is good, but we need to look at data before we start telling people what they can and can’t do.

Our first question needs to be, “What do we actually want to happen?”  If our goal is to save lives, we need to open a discussion about swimming pool regulations. If our goal is to ease people’s fear, then we should admit this and talk about how to do this.

What reduces fear? When I was just a kid, I was afraid of lots of things. Children are commonly afraid of the dark, of loud noises like thunder, of trying new foods, and being lost.  Most of us begin to overcome our fear of the dark when we learn to understand that what is there in the dark is the same as what is there in the light. Most of us stop being afraid of trying new foods after we learn that there are some great new foods and we should try them before making a preference. And most of us stop being afraid of lightning when we learn how rarely it hurts anyone.

What do these things have in common? Knowledge conquers fear. Familiarity and experience conquer fear. We didn’t outlaw darkness and impose regulations on lightning. We do have some laws about how big your Coke can be, but those places are generally mocked for doing so.

How do we apply this to guns and sharks?  We should have everyone learn about the habits and nature of sharks. Doing so, people will stop fearing them. And we should have everyone learn about firearm safety and function. We need to do both of these things the same way we approach sex-education. And probably at about the same age.

Do we still need laws about guns? Sure, we have laws. Most of them are rational.

Do we need to do something about school violence? Sure, I think we should ban gun free zones and encourage teachers that are interested to receive training and firearms to carry at school. Or carry all the time. I think we need to have active shooter drills like we do fire drills. And I think we should have armed security at a school just like we do at banks and court houses.

I bet that if we did propose legislation to train and arm teachers, that the NRA and gun owners would support it. They might even help develop the training and raise money for it. I’m not sure who would oppose raising money for school security, but if we earmarked the money only for that purpose, I don’t think we would see much opposition.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Right now we are reacting out of fear. We are not looking at the facts. Sympathetic parents who have lost children are being trotted out on talk shows to make us cry. None of them are talking about the statistics of gun and shark violence. They are all talking about their tragedy. But let us be wise, and not act in fear.

Yoda said it best, "Fear is the path to the dark side…fear leads to anger…anger leads to hate…hate leads to suffering."

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