Unintended Consequences – Chapter Two: Safety Last

Every handgun is inherently deadly. None can ever be considered safe. Therefore, safety issues begin to multiply from the moment a person accepts the industry’s arguments and brings home a handgun for self-defense.h

Even if the handgun is never called to use for self-defense, the owner must recognize and deal properly with a host of questions. Does he know how to load, unload, clean, and carry the handgun safely? Where and how will the gun be stored? What other persons will have access to the handgun, authorized or not, and at what risk to themselves or others? Are there special factors at home that increase the risk of inappropriate usage? 

The handgun industry and the gun lobby often gloss over these questions by rhapsodizing about “responsible” handgun owners. But handgun self-defense experts shudder when they write about what they see in real life. Starting from the initial decision to buy a handgun, through general safety knowledge, to home storage and the effects of carrying a gun on one’s personality, the real world in which the experts teach and train differs dramatically from the idyllic glossy centerfolds of the handgun business and the NRA’s ideologues. 

Who Should Own and Carry a Handgun?

Who ought we allow to own and carry a handgun? Expert Ayoob takes a surprisingly cautious view that emphasizes “privilege” over “right,” stating that: 

…the license to carry concealed, deadly weapons in public is not a right but a privilege. To be worthy of this privilege, one must be both discreet and competent with the weapon. The gun-carrying man who lacks either attribute is a walking time bomb.41

Hotheads and Racists? As will be seen throughout this study, useful insight can be drawn from the training and experience of law enforcement officers, most of whom carry handguns daily. One handgun expert aptly compared the even temperament that we justifiably demand of police officers with that of civilians who carry handguns: 

Clearly, a police officer who flies off the handle easily will generate, rather than solve, problems, and the same is true for other citizens. A hothead should not carry a gun.42 [emphasis in original] 

Ayoob opines similarly that “there is no place for racist paranoids with guns on an integrated American street.”43 This is no mere theoretical observation, given the number of recent handgun murders in public places allegedly inspired by racist motives.i

These common sense observations are fine advice. But they raise a profound question: How do we detect the “hothead,” the racist paranoid, or other inherently dangerous persons who “should not carry a gun?” Unfortunately, the answer is that in America we try only weakly—and ineffectively at that. Like the emperor’s absent clothes, this problem is studiously ignored by many, even by gun control advocates who should know better. 

Candidates for the police force are now often screened by psychological testing and observation during training—before they are set loose on the street with a handgun. “It used to be that people became cops because they wanted to hit somebody upside the head,” said Dr. Ellen Kirschman, a psychologist and author on police families. “We screen them out now.”44

But we find out about civilian hotheads and other loose cannons only after they shoot one or (increasingly) more of us in moments of jealousy, rage, hatred, or mental imbalance. Although the Brady Law and a few state licensing laws screen out certain classes of persons presumed by law to be too dangerous to possess firearms, such as convicted felons and persons already adjudicated as mentally ill, neither they nor any screening procedure imaginable can detect the kind of dangerous hotheads who are “walking time bombs” if allowed to own a concealable, portable handgun.j

The “Make My Day” Effect. The problem is compounded by the potential changes in one’s personality when carrying a handgun, described by expert Chris Bird: 

[B]e aware that when you start carrying a gun, your personality may change. You may become more confident but also more aggressive. You may go to places that you would not have gone before simply because you are armed. You may think you are invincible, but you’re not.45

This might be called the “Make My Day” effect. As Bird says, “most police officers and probably civilians who carry guns fantasize at some time or other about winning a gunfight.”46 Ayoob also warns, “Civilians who buy guns for street defense tend to think that their very possession will alleviate the dangers,” and may thus unwisely stroll into situations where it may later appear “he was looking for trouble.” If the gun owner does end up shooting someone, a prosecutor may ask, “But what were you doing there at that ungodly hour? Were you looking for a legal excuse to shoot somebody?”47

High on Cocaine, Drinking Champagne? The problem gets worse if one is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. “People tend to do stupid things after a few drinks, so if you know you are going to a party or function where you are going to drink, leave your gun at home,” advises expert Bird.48

In a training video, expert Ayoob addressed the same point in what appears to be a jaded or highly skeptical manner. At the very moment Ayoob says, “The next time you all are at a party and really juiced…with your guns safely locked up at home, of course,” he rolls his eyes in an exaggerated way and looks up at the ceiling.49 His remarkable facial gesture appears to acknowledge, if not condone, an open secret, which is that most people who feel the need to carry a handgun are not likely to leave it locked up at home if they are going out to party—and perhaps planning on getting “really juiced.”k

The use of drugs, illegal and legal alike, has become commonplace in our society. It is silly to think otherwise. Bird tackles the interaction of handguns and drugs in this casual way: 

Some people are permanently on drugs for medicinal purposes. There is no reason they can’t enjoy shooting. Just don’t shoot or handle firearms when you are impaired.50

The Cumulative Effect on Public Safety. It is sobering to think about the cumulative effect of just the four factors these experts warn about: a “hothead” or “racist paranoid,” whose personality has become “more aggressive” because he is carrying a gun, decides to have “a few drinks” or is “permanently on drugs.” Society’s only defense against this deadly mix is that person’s self-restraint, which by definition is already impaired. Motor vehicle codes prohibit driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. But there is no such offense as “armed while an impaired-aggressive-racist hothead.” And, if there were, how would we enforce it? 

In the end, we trust a self-selected class of barely screened handgun owners not to take their guns to town when they are angry, aggressive, drunk, drug impaired, or all four. 

What Basic Skills?

A person who buys a handgun in America today is on his own when it comes to learning how to safely use it. 

Safe Handling? Gun manufacturers include only cursory cautionary information about basic safe-handling procedures in their product packaging. If the gun is bought from a licensed dealer, the dealer’s interest is to make the sale. Few, if any, dealers are likely to limit their gun sales to persons who demonstrate gun-handling skills.l No federal law, and very few state or local laws, require that a handgun owner show any competence in how to safely handle, store, or use the gun. The result is predictable. “Unfortunately, many new shooters are unaware of basic firearms safety, and many trained shooters become complacent in their application,” according to Dave Lauck of Tactical Shooter magazine.51

That Lauck’s observation is of real-life concern is confirmed by the litany of “unintentional shootings” among handgun owners regularly reported in the news media. A brief survey of examples from the endless annual toll include shootings that occurred while unloading the handgun,52 while moving a pile of laundry in which a handgun was concealed,53 while cleaning the handgun,54 while showing off the “unloaded” handgun,55 while explaining gun safety,56and “a combination of horseplay and unfamiliarity” with a .357 Magnum revolver.57

Effects of Stress on Gun Safety. If gun owners don’t know, or choose not to follow, basic safe handling rules in the best of times—when they are simply cleaning or “showing off” their handguns—how can they be expected to follow rules for the safe use of guns in highly stressful self-defense situations? 

Let us examine, for example, a prime rule frequently stressed by handgun safety experts: keeping one’s finger off of the trigger until ready to fire. Here is the ideal, as explained by expert Bill Clede: 

…let’s suppose….Your assailant’s movements require you to move around. What’s the safest way to do that? First, remember that your adrenaline is already flowing. What if a family member suddenly comes on the scene and startles you? Keep the gun pointed in a safe direction—usually downward at a 45 degree angle—and keep your finger off the trigger.58

Later chapters discuss in detail the problems of moving assailants, random family members and other innocent bystanders, and the effects of adrenaline. Here the question is simply whether frightened people are likely to act in this ideal way. Expert Duane Thomas clearly thinks not. He writes: 

…in the real world, people with less-than-expert skill levels often do wind up carrying and using handguns, and to base your attitude toward firearms safety on the way you think the world should be, instead of the way the world is, strikes me as more than a little stupid…. 

And, yes, it is true that keeping your finger outside the trigger guard unless you’re actually firing or about to fire the piece is a mandatory habit for the well-trained shooter. However, again, in the real world, the majority of people carrying and using guns are not well-trained (although it would be surely nice if they were). When most people feel threatened by a criminal, so much so they wind up pointing a gun at their potential robber, mugger, rapist, or murderer, trigger fingers do have a tendency to gravitate toward triggers.59

In fact, even highly trained police officers sometimes, to their later regret, forget that rule, as in the case of a Salt Lake City officer who was found to have broken it when he unintentionally shot an unarmed man in a traffic stop. “That’s the most commonly taught rule, but it’s also the most commonly violated,” an assistant chief said of the incident.60

Conflicting Priorities—Storing the “Self-Defense” Handgun in the Home

The new handgun owner gets safely home with his “self-defense” gun. Now what? Well, if he has kids, he immediately faces a dilemma: 

If you intend to keep a gun or guns ready for self defense and you have children in your house, you have a problem. You have two conflicting priorities. You don’t want your children or their friends to hurt themselves or anyone else with your guns. But a gun kept for self defense must be kept easily accessible and ready to shoot at a moment’s notice.61

The Training “Cop Out.” Suppose our new handgun owner has taken a basic firearms course. Is he or she likely to have gotten good advice on this issue from the instructor? Not according to expert Jim Cirillo: 

Another important aspect of safety concerns the student’s weapon and the immediate family. This is a facet of weapons safety that is rarely mentioned or only touched upon. There are many serious implications if the wrong information is given, so many firearms instructors cop out and simply tell students that they must safeguard their weapons from family members and leave it at that. This minimal advice could lead to a tragedy.62

It is no wonder that firearms instructors “cop out” on the question of how to safely store a self-defense handgun, because there is no way to both safely store a handgun and yet keep it ready for instant use to defend oneself. “There is no such thing as a childproof firearm,” warns Ayoob, while also observing that “the achingly long fumbling for the locked up gun and cartridges can be a nightmarish experience when the invader’s footsteps are rapidly ascending the stairs.”63

Children: Little Gun-Finding Machines. Expert Bird proffers this platitudinous and curiously contradictory advice about home gun security: 

The best way to keep your self-defense handgun out of the hands of children and others is to wear it. If you are not wearing it and it isn’t under your direct control, it must be made secure. Putting the gun on a high shelf will keep it out of reach of a toddler but not from a teen. Hiding it is also not a good approach. Remember when you were a kid? Was there anywhere in your house that you hadn’t explored? As a kid, I remember finding a .32 semi-automatic and ammunition in a drawer in my father’s dressing room.64

Ayoob puts the problem of the child’s curiosity more bluntly and candidly. He states: 

Do not believe for a moment that you can keep a gun in an accessible place without his knowledge. There are few items in your house that your children have not found and curiously examined, with or without your knowledge.65

Gun Week, published by the Second Amendment Foundation, recently reported the case of a five-year-old child who got his mother’s handgun, pointed it at playmates and then fired it into the ground. Police declined to prosecute the mother because the gun was “properly stored,” i.e., unloaded and on a high shelf. But the boy nonetheless found the gun and ammunition. He told police that he had learned how to load and fire the gun from watching television.66

If keeping the handgun away from one’s own teens and toddlers is hard, what about burglars and the neighbor‘s kids? 

When burglars break into a house, the first place they look for a gun is in the bedside stand. If you have children, they will quickly learn that’s where you keep your gun. Think about it. Is the bedside stand a good place to keep a gun? Of course not…. 

Even if you have no children, can you guarantee that none will ever come into your house? Probably not.67

So, strapping on your shooting iron is impractical (not to mention embarrassingly foolish) for most people. Sticking the self-defense handgun in the nightstand is an invitation to theft. And “hiding it is not a good approach” to keep it away from children, as hundreds of unintentional shootings of children every year testify to. But even all this is not the end of the new handgun owner’s worries. 

Other Problems

Mental or Medical Problems in the Home. Children and burglars are obvious problems. A more subtle problem is that of gauging and dealing with the states of mind of other adults in the household, a ticklish third-party variant of the “hothead” problem discussed above: 

If someone in your family is under medical care, is taking medication or drugs, or has some psychological problem, the weapon must be safeguarded. There is no way to predict how someone’s mind is working when, for example, they know they have a dreaded terminal disease.68

If there is “no way to predict” how another’s mind will work, how can the self-defense handgun be “safeguarded?” 

Ammunition Selection. Given the general level of ignorance about firearms that is apparently prevalent among handgun owners, it is safe to infer that most have no idea that their choice of ammunition will have a direct effect on the safety of their families, neighbors, and innocent bystanders. 

Two factors are at work here: the physical shape of the bullet, and the power with which it is propelled (usually a function of the amount of powder, or propellant, in the round). Simply put, bullets with hard round noses (known as “ball”) tend to go through objects, as opposed to expanding (hollow-point) bullets, which tend to break up or stop within the object. Similarly, higher powered rounds tend to go through whatever they hit. In a practical sense, this means that hard, high-powered bullets may have a tendency to go through walls and human beings alike, and hit whatever is on the other side. 

Writer Jim Williamson discussed the power issue recently in the Second Amendment Foundation’s Gun Week, warning his readers that the powerful .44 Magnum handgun was best used with “moderate loads.” He states, “Full-power rounds slam though humans, wasting much of their great power beyond the target, possibly wounding or killing innocent bystanders.”69

Expert Ayoob recently discussed the merits of hollow-point over ball ammunition in Shooting Industry. He described several incidents in which law enforcement officers were killed by ball rounds fired by another officer that hit but went through the target and struck the unfortunate partner: 

It happens with civilians, too. In the Midwest, a citizen shot an armed robber with a non-expanding .357 Magnum slug. It went through the perpetrator, who lived. It continued into a bystander, who died. The man who fired was charged with murder in the death of the bystander.70

Ayoob constructs this harrowing potential scenario in which the wrong ammunition choice could have deadly consequences for the family: 

If the customer doesn’t think bullet type and penetration matter…. Remind them that they might be down on their back, about to be stabbed by the attacker who is straddling them….Their oldest son runs up behind the attacker to pull him off the parent, but can’t be seen. The parent fires the gun into the chest of the attacker with the boy directly in line with him. Ask them if they really want that bullet to be a 9mm or .45 ball that can pierce more than two feet of solid muscle!71

Expert Bird, however, demonstrates that the question of ammunition selection can turn out to be a Hobson’s choice, with no ultimately good option: 

Firing a hollow-point bullet through sheetrock increases its penetration because the sheetrock will fill the hollow point and make it act like a round-nosed bullet. In other words, it will penetrate rather than expand. This is something to remember if you have to shoot someone in an apartment with neighbors just the other side of a sheetrock wall.72

These expert warnings are not merely hypothetical. A Boston police officer shot and killed her only son when a round she unintentionally fired during a violent argument with a former boyfriend pierced a wall and struck the 15-year-old in the temple.73 In Palmdale, California, a man shot his wife while he was cleaning a 45-caliber pistol. The bullet “went through the kitchen wall into the family room and struck his wife in the back,” according to police.74 A Minneapolis police officer shot his neighbor when his service pistol went off unintentionally and the round went through a wall separating their apartments.75 The New York City Police Department found in a study of unintentional police shootings in 1995 and 1996 that 19 officers were hit by ball rounds that passed through people (17) or objects (two). Only four officers were hit by hollow-points, and of these only one passed through another person.76

Dangerous Misconceptions About Armed Confrontations in the Home. In spite of all these safety problems that mere ownership of a handgun involves, and the clinical evidence that bringing a handgun into the home dramatically increases the risk of suicide or homicide within the family, some people still believe they are safer owning a handgun for self-defense than living without. In fact, some pro-gun advocates argue that the more guns a society has, the safer it is. Here, however, is how gun-defense expert Massad Ayoob assesses the reality of the preparation of most home-defense gun owners: 

Everyone who keeps guns has considered, however briefly, the possibility of an armed confrontation in the home. And herein lies the problem: the only thought most people have given to the use of a defense gun has been cursory at best…. 

The average American has more misconceptions about lethal force in the home than in any other self-defense situation. He not only has little understanding of his legal position under these circumstances; he has no idea of how to conduct himself if, by infinitesimal chance, the day comes when his home actually is turned into a battleground he must defend against armed criminals.77

Should that “infinitesimal” event occur, here is what Ayoob opines awaits most gun owners: 

[There] are few situations where you will be on even an equal footing with an armed intruder….In almost any intrusion situation, be it in the depths of night or during waking hours, the intruder will have surprise in his favor, and this is an almost insurmountable advantage to him…. 

You, the head of the family, are awakened out of a sound slumber. It will be at least a few minutes, if you’re the average man, before your reflexes and the acuteness of your sensory perception reach full capacity…. 

Altogether, you are not in ideal shape to be fighting for your or your family’s lives…. 

He is better prepared than you are.78

Nothing in this scenario addresses the powerful effects of mortal fear (discussed in detail in Chapter Four) on the defender’s abilities, which are likely to be rudimentary at best. The experts agree that these effects will enormously complicate the gun owner’s ability to respond to whatever has alarmed him. Yet the owner’s problem has just begun. What if the noise that woke him from his sound slumber is innocent? Ayoob writes: 

It is entirely possible that someone has gone downstairs for a midnight snack, or maybe your teenage son, whom you didn’t wait up for, brought home an intoxicated buddy to sleep it off on the living room sofa. Some hideous tragedies have occurred this way; not as many as implied by [those] who advocate disarming the public, but enough to teach a lesson of caution.79

h) Safety issues actually begin even before the new owner takes possession. Buyers and sellers alike have unintentionally shot each other. See, e.g., “Man kills himself after accidentally shooting friend in gun store,” Associated Press, 6 November 1999. A 1994 article in the industry magazine SHOT Business, for example, described several incidents that resulted in dealers being held liable to customers, including the case of a retailer “30 years in the business” who “shot the customer without realizing there was a round in the chamber.” Tim Goral, “A Lesson on Liability,” SHOT Business, July/August 1994, 22.

i) For one example, on August 10, 1999, self-proclaimed white supremacist Buford O. Furrow, Jr., shot up the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, California, and shortly thereafter killed postal employee Joseph Santos Ileto. Furrow reportedly confessed that he killed Ileto, a Filipino-American, as a “target of opportunity.” “Alejandro Mayorkas Holds Briefing With Others on the Furrow Case,” FDCH Political Transcripts, August 12, 1999.

j) In any case, the Brady Law suffers several other serious defects: It covers only sales by licensed gun dealers. It does not cover the 40 percent of gun transfers made in the so-called secondary market between private individuals, at gun shows, though newspaper ads, and across backyard fences. And it misses most records of serious mental illness. Fox Butterfield, “Hole in Gun Control Law Lets Mentally Ill Through,” The New York Times, 11 April 2000, p. A1.

k) It must also be noted in fairness that Ayoob advises in one of his books that one should: “Never touch a firearm while under the influence of alcohol, or display one at an occasion when liquor is flowing, (never take a gun into a bar or cocktail party).” Massad F. Ayoob, In the Gravest Extreme: The Role of the Firearm in Personal Protection (Massad F. and Dorothy A. Ayoob, 1980), p. 121.

l) In over 20 years of frequently hanging around gun stores and buying and selling firearms of all types through licensed dealers, the author never witnessed a single instance of a dealer questioning his or any other potential buyer’s skill level.

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