Recent debates revealed the vast gulf of outlook separating gun owners and gun regulators. One National Rifle Association idea rejected by people on my side (the regulator side) is that putting more guns in people's hands — in schools, in theaters, bars and restaurants — will make us safer. I don't believe this for a second.
Recently I had an unsettling encounter in a department-store parking lot. While I was loading a new bike for my daughter into my car, my driver's-side door touched a pickup truck parked alongside. This was an older, visibly weather-beaten truck, riddled with scratches and rust, but I checked to make sure my door hadn't marked it. It hadn't.
A moment later, after I'd gotten into my car, the truck's owner appeared. Suddenly he was in my face. "Hey," he said, "you banged my f---ing truck! You scratched the sh-- out of it!"
Not true, I said.
"Bull---t! My buddy saw the whole thing." Apparently, there was a passenger in the truck. "See this? You did this!" The guy pointed to a random mark amid dozens. "Get out of the car, you f---ing liar!" he shouted.
Twenty years ago I probably would have come back at him about the piece of junk he was driving, and Lord knows what would have ensued. But I'm over 50, and given the option of fight or flight, I'll take the latter. Revving my engine, I backed out, the guy shrieking profanities at me and banging on my hood.
I was pretty rattled. What leads a person to carry a portable rage around with him, looking to unload it? The implicit violence of the encounter alarmed me. It felt profoundly unsafe.
Now — thought experiment — let's modify the encounter by adding firearms. This yields three scenarios: 1) he (or his buddy) has a gun and I don't; 2) we both have guns; 3) I have a gun and he doesn't. How do these alternatives stack up against what happened?
The first is clearly worse: he either extorts money at gunpoint in "payment" for the "damage" I allegedly caused, or shoots me out of pure, senseless rage. The second scenario, with everyone armed, has the potential to devolve into a shootout. Even the third scenario is dangerous. What happens when I pull my weapon out? Perhaps he cowers and slinks off. But maybe he leaps forward and manages to disarm me. What if he shoots me? What if I shoot him?
All in all, adding firearms to this encounter yields one good outcome and a whole bunch of bad ones. It makes me — and anyone nearby — less safe, not more.
America suffers 30,000 gun-related deaths annually, beginning with suicides (two-thirds of the total) and proceeding to armed robberies, domestic-violence and acquaintance shootings, and accidents. Some of these categories are resistant to reduction via gun control. But some are not. The New York Times recently chronicled two families whose lives were forever changed when the 19-year-old son of one family shot and killed his girlfriend during a lovers' quarrel. His father had a shotgun — improperly stored — and the kid took it and impulsively killed the girl.
This stuff happens a lot — situations when the presence of a firearm works like an opportunistic virus, seizing a passing vulnerability. If we bolstered regulations, from acquisition through training, certification and storage — and enforced them — is there any doubt we could reduce our annual carnage? You're probably not going to keep guns away from hardened criminals. But hardened criminals are responsible for relatively few of those 30,000 deaths.
Encounters like the one I had are common. Adding guns to them amplifies their danger immensely. The NRA insists that guns don't kill people, people kill people. Well, yes — people with guns kill people. People who otherwise would just swear and pound each other's car hoods.
This is surely one reason why states where a gun culture predominates — and regulations are lax — have significantly elevated gun-death rates. There is an apt metaphor for the rage I encountered: a hair trigger.
Human nature is what it is; the variable is environment. My parking-lot antagonist will be the same belligerent, reckless person in Montana that he is in Connecticut. He'll have the same lethal thoughts. But there he's much more likely to have the means, too.
Rand Richards Cooper of Hartford reviews restaurants for the New York Times.Copyright © 2015, CT Now