Welcome to "How Scared Should I Be?" the column that quantifies the scariness of everything under the sun, and teaches you how to allocate that most precious of natural resources: your fear.
When I was a little kid in the crack-addled-gang-members-are-coming-to-kill you late 80s, I wasn't allowed to play with toy guns, the idea being that I might be less apt to become a violent person if I weren't shaped by make-believe shoot-'em-up games. And while the theory broke right apart in practice—my mom says I started chewing all my sandwiches into a gun shape and "shooting" her with them—I did become a peace-loving adult who fears violence in all its forms.
But, for the first time in my life, I kinda want to buy a gun, because I'm surrounded by a media culture that says the apocalypse is coming. Apparently I'm not alone. Several news stories in the past couple of months have told me that liberals and scared minorities are now flocking to gun stores and arming themselves. Don't get me wrong: I don't want to be anything like the people in the dorky group photos of the "Liberal Gun Club," but I also don't want to be missing the single most useful tool in the coming war against—I guess—hordes of Nazi zombies.
But when I recently tried holding a gun that my friend owns—a Sig Sauer P938—I was absolutely scared shitless of it. Don't get me wrong: I liked it. It felt like a well-made metal object, the way sturdy old cameras feel, but I couldn't stop thinking about angling it in the direction that would have directed the bullets farthest away from me if it went off. If I'd had a protractor on me, I would have calculated the exact number of degrees.
As the archetypical deadly weapon, guns are as scary as it gets, assuming you're standing on the business end. But gun ownership is scary too, right? Statistics on accidental death are spotty, but there were 2,191 accidental shootings (including events with no injuries) reported in 2016, according to the Gun Violence Archive, and the kids of American gun owners die at a rate of one every other day.
In total, there were about 58,000 incidents of gun violence in the US last year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, and while we don't know how many incidents affected America's 55 million gun owners, it's likely a large number, since, as common sense tells us, gun owners are more likely to be hurt or killed by their own guns than they are to hurt a bad guy with one, right?
Not so much, Wake Forest University sociologist and gun blogger David Yamane told me. Yamane pointed out that I'm probably citing a paper called "Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor for Homicide in the Home," also known in gun culture circles as the "Kellermann Study," or the "bullshit Kellermann study for asshole libtards."
In 1993, epidemiologist Arthur Kellerman looked at the data and concluded that "keeping a gun in the home was strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide (adjusted odds ratio, 2.7; 95 percent confidence interval, 1.6 to 4.4)." What that influential study actually doesn't say is the thing people often think it does: that you're more likely to have your own gun used against you than to use it against someone else. Instead, "it speaks more to whether [gun owners] should be more afraid of other people's guns," Yamane told me.
Yamane is a gun owner. "Because I have a gun, I feel comforted by that," he said. "I can sleep better at night." But as a sociologist, he knows this isn't the case for everyone. There are gun owners for whom a gun doesn't signal comfort. Instead, he told me, "it signals to them that they always have to be uncomfortable—that they always have to be living in condition yellow all the time—to use the gun code for 'danger.'" In other words, he said, "you're maybe buying the safety, but getting a good dose of anxiety with it."
Perhaps as a consequence, people carrying guns are also 4.46 times more likely to be shot as part of an assault than the gunless. According to Yamane, there's a reason for numbers like these: "If you do something stupid because you have a gun that you wouldn't otherwise have done if you didn't have a gun, then indirectly, your gun becomes a problem for you."
These "indirect" problems for gun owners can be deadly—though they may not involve stupidity per se. Last week in North Carolina, a guy got into a fender-bender, got super angry, and then got out and brandished a gun. It turns out the driver he was mad at was an undercover cop who also had a gun, and the cop killed the angry guy. Back in 2010, a man was acting erratically inside a Costco in Las Vegas, and someone called the cops because he had a holstered gun. After leaving, the cop on the scene shot him to death in what amounted to a very controversial use of deadly force.
It would be facile to dismiss these as cases of people getting what they deserved. After all, having a gun can present a wide range of problems that wouldn't require me to do anything wrong at all. In a 2015 incident that reeks of racism, a black man got tackled by a vigilante in a Walmart for carrying a gun he had a permit for. Last year, a woman in Chicago fired a gun in the air several times to scare off whoever had just murdered her boyfriend, and then got arrested and charged with a crime for pulling the trigger.
These incidents are all examples of what Yamane calls the murky "social reality" of gun ownership in the US. "Despite wanting to draw a bright line between the good guys with guns and the bad guys with guns," he told me, "there are these moments of grayness that come along."
But violence involving other people isn't the only thing that worries me. Guns also make suicide significantly easier, and about 21,000—or 0.4 percent of America's 55 million gun owners—die from an intentional self-inflicted gunshot in any given year. And perhaps only 11 percent of gun crimes are carried out with legally purchased weapons, which means if I own a gun, it could be one of hundreds of thousands per year that are stolen from their owners and used in crimes. I don't especially want that on my conscience.
Also, a horrifying 4.5 million women say an abusive partner has used a gun as a prop to bully them at some point.
But moreover, given my level of anxiety, if I owned a gun, I probably would not take it out and use it very often. Yamane writes about gun owners like me: extreme examples of what he calls "gun culture 2.0." People like me aren't interested in outdoorsmanship or target practice. Instead, we exclusively want to own guns so we can cap Nazis if—or when—society collapses.
In short, it's probably a bad idea to own a deadly weapon if I have no enthusiasm for learning how to use it properly, Yamane told me. "There comes a moment when you have to use it, but it's just been sitting there on the nightstand or in a safe," he said. "I don't know of any cases really in which this has happened, but I think about things that could potentially go wrong."
So anyway, I feel tempted to buy a gun right now, but I have no business doing that, and I don't think you should buy one either.