Saturday, December 22, 2012

Should I get a gun: when disaster strikes

This is another post in (what is now officially) a series of posts exploring various arguments for gun ownership. Note that's 'gun ownership' not the 'right to own a gun.' In other words, I'm assessing the quality of some common arguments for actually choosing to own a gun, not disputing the right to bear arms itself.

In my first post, I examined three arguments around private citizens owning guns as a means of opposing tyranny and found two of them to be poor and one to be plausible but of questionable applicability in modern America. In the interest of balance, I'd like to address what I think is hands down the best argument for getting a gun and, I would add, the only one that has ever made me seriously think about getting one personally.

Having a gun could be useful (and maybe even necessary) in a post-disaster scenario

I articulated a version of this argument in a Facebook post the other day:
Remember after Hurricane Katrina? The period of crime (including theft, rape and murder) going on when the government essentially ceased to function due to the disaster? Raises the possibility of you being essentially in the Wild West for a period of time with no functioning police protection and some dude and 40 of his closest friends coming by your door suggesting that they would please like your TV, or your car or your daughter...
The disaster in question does not have to be a natural one, of course: it could be the result of, e.g., terrorism, assault by a foreign power or armed revolution overthrowing the legitimate government. It also doesn't have to be reasonably short in time (as was the case post-Katrina), the conditions could persist for weeks, months or longer in the case of the latter scenarios.

I actually think this is a pretty good argument, and also an intriguing one, for a few reasons:

  • It appropriately recognizes the emergency nature of a scenario in which you might need a gun. The breakdown of civil authority following a disaster represents an unusual and unexpected dangerous situation in which the normal police and military protection provided by the government might break down. For reasons I have argued briefly elsewhere and probably will again later at greater length, the government providing this kind of protection (as opposed to armed citizens providing it) under normal circumstances is a really, really, good thing. When they're not available -- as could be the case post-disaster and is in fact the case if, e.g., you live somewhere where police protection is unavailable like rural Alaska -- then conscientious, responsible armed citizens defending themselves could be a very good thing. I'm happy to stipulate that as long as we recognize that armed citizens having to defend themselves is less good than the police doing it under normal circumstances.
  • It references a condition that has actually happened in the United States of America in recent history and could happen again at any time, as opposed to, say, overthrowing a tyrant. The link right there is also interesting because it brings up the fact that in a situation like this, a moral, peace-loving citizen might actually have to defend himself from criminals, armed vigilantes and even corrupt police officers.
  • It is a plausible scenario in which a private citizen might actually need a high-powered semi-automatic rifle with a high-capacity clip. The effective range/lethality (as compared to a hand gun) and ability to fire many rounds without reloading could mean the difference between life and death for a good person defending their home and property against a mob bent on doing harm. As one commenter on a Facebook thread I was on commented, that's why Marines use semi-automatic rifles when clearing houses in Afghanistan instead of hand guns.
Evaluating whether being prepared for the post-disaster scenario is a good reason to own a gun in your particular case is complex, but fundamentally follows the same method I used when evaluating the second version of the overthrowing tyranny argument I analyzed in the earlier post. On one side of the equation, you have to evaluate the combined likelihood of a disaster happening and there being a breakdown (complete or partial) of civil authority in the event that it does and of a gun being useful in dealing with the circumstances.

The fact that that is a compound probability is important: natural disasters, for example, happen with some frequency, but being accompanied by a breakdown of civil authority in which a gun might actually be useful (e.g. looting, civil unrest, etc.) is much less frequent. It happened in Katrina, but my family just came through Hurricane Sandy. The major roads here were impassable and most of the town was without power for over a week. There were rumors of break ins of unoccupied homes (where a gun wouldn't be useful because, of course, no one's home and might even fall into the hands of a criminal if not properly secured), but the police were active and the township authorities were in daily communication with us.

On the other side of the equation, all of that must be weighed against the risks of having the gun in your home. Both sides of the equation need to be localized to your particular situation as best you can, but general statistics and data can be a guide. I'll consider the general statistics on the risks of having a firearm in your home in a later post (I think in the one I plan to do on having a gun for personal protection), but those general statistics clearly support that, on average, having a gun in your home makes you less safe, not more.

So again, you are weighing the combined possibility of

  1. A disaster happening (disasters happening by their very nature being rare);
  2. It being the kind of disaster where there is a disruption in civil authority and/or a significant departure from your baseline (non-gun requiring) level of safety (a subset of disasters);
  3. You finding yourself in the kind of situation where having a gun would be a useful and appropriate tool in defending significant values of yours where the ability to wield deadly force would come into play (i.e. you don't get to just shoot anyone, even people behaving unlawfully towards you, unless they present an actual risk to your life. Police, for example, are not allowed to use deadly force ever when trying to apprehend someone for a misdemeanor, even if they flee or resist)
against the reduction in safety caused by having the gun around in  non-disaster time.

Let's say you weigh the evidence and conclude that, for you, the benefits outweigh the risks and you decide to get a gun for this purpose. Given that, I want to talk about a framework for actually enacting that decision. The actual details of what I'm about to describe aren't as important as the approach I want to articulate, which represents the kind of deep, serious consideration that should be undertaken if you (responsibly) decide that you want to take a purposefully-designed killing device into your home.
  • Research various types of firearms to understand which would be appropriate to your actual needs in this scenario. I lack any sort of expert knowledge on this, but, for example, I'm more dubious of the need for semi-automatic rifle (which is designed to be effective over a range of hundreds of yards) if you live in a New York City apartment than if you live in a suburban house. Even given a small risk of your weapon ever falling into the hands of a person who would use it irresponsibly,  I think it is incumbent on you to select the safest, least dangerous weapon possible that would be adequate to your realistic needs.
  • Familiarize yourself with any requirements and restrictions on the use and ownership of firearms that would apply to you in the area where you live and comply with them.
  • Become proficient in the use and maintenance of the weapon you intend to purchase before buying one and bringing it home, for example by learning how to use it under the supervision of a responsible professional instructor/dealer. If you intend on getting a rifle (because you conclude you might need to defend yourself at a distance), training and qualification in marksmanship might, for example, be appropriate. Only after achieving a certain level of proficiency should you purchase the weapon and bring it into your home.
  • Adopt the strongest safety procedures realistically possible in storing the weapon. Again, I don't know what those are, but the principle here is important: you're getting the gun so you can have it for use in a rare, unlikely scenario. Therefore, a high level of security -- even if it entails a certain degree of inconvenience -- seems appropriate. Leaving it loaded under your pillow at night (which not many gun owners would do, I'm sure) is not appropriate to this usage (if it ever is). Knowing nothing about gun security but knowing a bit about electronic security, the principle of multi-factor authentication -- the idea of having multiple security mechanisms of different types (like both a combination you have to know and key you have to posses) -- is a good baseline. I see evidence of gun safes that do exactly that (it would be better if the key was replaced with an electronic key fob mechanism with a rotating code that changed over time that could be revoked or changed if lost, which is a feature I can get on my GMail account, but whatever).
  • Maintain both the gun and your training/skill in using it safely. When you're not actively engaged in one of those activities, keep the gun secured in your highly secure way at all times.
  • Familiarize yourself with deadly force doctrines as employed by law enforcement officers in addition to those that apply to private citizens. Remember, in this scenario you're acting as the police authority in the absence of the real one, and I think you owe it to yourself and the people who could potentially be on the other end of your gun to understand the principles and procedures that guide law enforcement officers in making split second, life and death decisions regarding the use of deadly force.
Now, let's say the disaster strikes. What do you do? When might it be appropriate to use your gun?
  • Consider removing the gun from its secure location only if there is evidence of the breakdown of civil authority and/or (preferably and) elevated levels of criminal activity or risk thereof. The disaster alone is not sufficient. Objective evidence might include not seeing routine police patrols, news reports, evidence of widespread rioting or looting, etc. 
  • If those conditions are present, I think it would also be incumbent to make proactive attempts to contact the civil authorities. Call the local police. Ask if they're still around. If you can't get them (either because communications are down or they're not answering), that's a bad sign...
  • Take strong steps to minimize the need to actually use the gun and inform others of your intentions. Obviously just taking pot shots at anyone who crosses your property line is no good. Putting a sign at the property line for the duration of the emergency that effectively states 'Civil emergency in effect. Trespassers will be shot' (if that worse-case-scenario approach is justified by the circumstances) would be an example. Even if someone does cross the line, firing a warning shot to let them know you're actually armed and serious and giving them an opportunity to retreat is probably morally required before actually using deadly force.
  • Similarly, take proactive steps to determine when the emergency situation is over. Once it is and civil authority is restored, return your gun to its safe place.
I go through this somewhat pedantic and detailed run down not claiming that the specifics are right (they're there mostly for example). I do it because I think the principles are correct and address the minimum set of considerations that would be morally required of someone choosing to own (or if it came down to it use) a gun in a scenario like this.

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