What Guns Do, and What they Don't

Guns make conflict more dangerous. But they don't make it more likely.

A guy I worked with, long ago, beat a man to death with a pipe. He didn't mean to; a friend of his had gotten into a drunken shouting match that escalated into a fight. Everyone's friends jumped in. My coworker, call him "John", grabbed the nearest weapon to hand. I don't know what the pipe was doing there; maybe they were near a construction site. Anyway, he hit a guy with the pipe, and the guy died. He felt terrible, especially because it was his friend who had clearly been the instigator of the fight. "My friend was acting like an asshole," he said regretfully. "None of it should have happened."

John was facing manslaughter charges in another state when we briefly worked together. "If your friend was acting like an asshole," I asked him, "then why did you hit the guy he was fighting with with a pipe?"

He looked suprised, as if it had never occurred to him before that this was even a question. "He was kicking the shit out of my friend," he said. "You have to stand by your friends."

Could that particular conflict have gone worse with a gun? It's hard to see how. It might have gone better; if one person had waved a gun, the fighting might have stopped.

Nonetheless, I think it's generally true that when guns are involved, potentially murderous conflicts are likely to turn murderous more often. When you are looking to kill someone, a gun is a great help, which is why we send armies into battle armed with great big rifles and not pieces of pipe. If there were no guns in the United States, I believe that the murder rate would probably be lower.

But while I believe that the completed homicide rate would fall, I don’t think that the attempted homicide rate would be lower. I thought of John and his pipe when I read this by Ta-Nehisi Coates:

But the other day I was biking home at a relatively late hour. I was coming up Massachusetts Avenue, in Cambridge. I was a couple of blocks from my crib, when a car full of young black boys pulled up slowly next to me. They were laughing among themselves, and one of them mumbled loud enough for me to hear, “Wait, I thought that was my bike. I got my bike stolen last week,” and then they drove off.

When you grow up as I did, you take these sorts of encounters as a threat. When I was a kid and we were looking to jump someone, it was pretty standard for them to “invent” a reason. I’m not saying that other people don’t do the same (I suspect they do). But I am speaking from what I know. The (aborted) threat didn’t scare me as much as my immediate response. I was very angry, and what I wanted, more than anything, in that moment, was for the car to stop, and for one of them to approach me. Then I would bash that kids head in with my bike lock.

That was a really stupid idea.

The man in me knows how macho imaginings usually outstrip reality. He also knows that this may not have even been a threat. He further knows that kids, in general, do dumb shit. But that wasn’t the man in me talking. It wasn’t the father who knows he needs to be around for his child. It wasn’t the husband, who knows his wife is back in New York depending on him. It wasn’t the writer who hopes that his best words are still in front of him. It was some little boy who got jumped repeatedly more than two decades ago, back in West Baltimore, and has spent the rest of his days just “wishing a n***r would,” as my people say.

That boy is a damn fool. And part of any adults maturation must be keeping the idiot in them under wraps. But I can't kill the boy. Nor should I. It's that same boy who tells me not to punk out when I'm doing my miles, not to be a chump and take a day off from writing. The boy reinforces the man. But he needs guardrails.

I suspect that a good way to remove the guardrails is to put a gun in my hand. I didn’t say anything when those kids rolled up on me. I knew I was outnumbered. But give me a gat, give me that same anger, and that thirst for revenge, and it takes nothing for me to see myself yelling at those kids, “N***r, what?” and hoping, praying, they stopped the car and got out.

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It’s a legitimate fear, and a common one. When various states debated “shall issue” concealed carry laws—essentially, rules making it legal for anyone who could pass a rudimentary background check to carry a concealed handgun—there were horrified predictions of the chaos that would ensue. Modern life gives us so many opportunities for frustration and rage, from bumper-to-bumper traffic to endless queues. Adding a handgun to this volatile mix was simply inviting mass disaster. And of course, anyone who meditates for a moment on their own dark heart can understand this fear. I’m pretty physically passive, and so squeamish that I find even very mild movie violence unbearable, but I too have fantasized about having a tank so that I could go after that testosterone-addled teenage jerk who just cut me off in traffic. God knows what’s going through the brain of the testosteroe-addled teenage jerk when it happens to him. It’s so easy to imagine how putting a gun in peoples’ hands could lead to a body in the road.

But our imaginations, it turns out, are not a good guide to reality. None of this happened. Homicides did not rise after we legalized concealed carry, or ended the “assault weapons” ban. To date, holders of concealed carry licenses have not been involved in any more crimes than you’d expect from a group of people law-abiding enough to pass a background check. As Mark Kleiman wrote a few years ago, “There’s simply no evidence that keeping guns out of the hands of those currently eligible to own them under Federal law (adults with no felony convictions, no domestic-violence misdemeanors or restraining orders, and no history of involuntary commitment for mental illness) reduces the level of criminal violence. Nor is there evidence that allowing anyone who can pass a background check and a gun-safety course to carry a concealed weapon increases the level of criminal violence.”

If John hadn’t found that pipe, he probably wouldn’t have killed that guy. But the pipe didn’t make him get into that fight. He got into a fight because he was a kid on the cusp of manhood, wandering around with a lot of other kids who were looking to show the world who really runs this place. When they met up with another group of manlings with the same idea, disaster ensued. The pipe made things even more disastrous. But it wasn’t sufficient to make disaster happen, and quite possibly, it wasn’t even necessary; plenty of people have died from getting kicked in the head, or slammed against the pavement, or stabbed with a broken bottle.

Those boys are indeed damn fools. But it turns out that most adults keep the idiot in them under wraps, not because they lack an adequate weapon, but because they have changed in too many ways: their brains have changed, they have more sad experience with where those confrontations lead, they have a better conception of the future (and better reasons to stay out of jail), and they have other measures of success which make it less necessary to prove that they’re the tougest guy on the block. Putting a gun in the adult’s hand doesn’t make it any easier or harder to control that idiot; indeed, you could say that adulthood is the point at which you can look at a gun in your hand and immediately think of all the reasons you should avoid using it.

I don’t know what happened to John; I left that place before he went to trial. I am sure he wished, in the end, that that pipe had not been there for him to pick up. Of course, it would have been better still if he and his friends had been capable of leaving it lying there on the ground.