My CNN column looks at what guns really do: escalate ordinary quarrels between neighbors into violent battles.
The National Rifle Association's Friday press event has received almost uniformly negative reviews. Yet the speech by NRA chief Wayne LaPierre had this merit: It pulled into daylight for all to see the foundational assumption of modern American gun culture.
LaPierre argued that our society is stalked by unknown numbers of monsters, potential mass murders like Adam Lanza. Then he said this: Even if we could somehow identify future Adam Lanzas, "that wouldn't even begin to address the much larger and more lethal criminal class: Killers, robbers, rapists and drug gang members who have spread like cancer in every community in this country."
The "criminal class" sentence is key. In LaPierre's mind, the world is divided between law-abiding citizens and dangerous criminals. Citizens and criminals form two separate and discrete categories. The criminals pose a threat; if the citizens do not go armed against the threat, they will be victimized by the threat.
I know people who carry handguns with them wherever they go, and for just the reason described by LaPierre.
Now let's take a look at the real world of American gun ownership. The following incident occurred in August:
"A man was shot in the face 9 p.m. Friday in an altercation with a neighbor over barking dogs on Atlas Street," Troy Police said.
"Police arrested David George Keats, 73, of Troy [Michigan] and charged him with attempted murder in the incident," according to a media release from the Troy Police Department.
"According to police, witnesses stated that the altercation began when Keats let his three dogs outside and the dogs began to bark. According to the media release, Keats' 52-year-old next door neighbor yelled at the dogs to be quiet and kicked the fence. Keats then ran up to the victim, yelled, 'Don't tell my dogs to shut up,' and began shooting at the victim.
"One bullet hit the man in the face, piercing both cheeks, and four more shots were fired at the victim as he was running away," according to the report.
The encounter between Keats and his neighbor ended nonlethally only by good luck. A shot in the face is a shot to kill.
Nor was this encounter aberrational. There's solid research to show that most so-called defensive gun uses are not really defensive at all.
In the late 1990s, teams of researchers at the Harvard school of public health interviewed dozens of people who had wielded a gun for self-defense. (In many cases, the guns were not fired, but were simply brandished.) The researchers pressed for the fullest description of exactly what happened. They then presented the descriptions to five criminal court judges from three states.