This came near the end of Basic Training, the culmination of transforming us from civilians to professional killers: the instructions about what to do when attacked at night. We were preparing for a night of maneuvers in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. We already had weeks of instruction on how to take apart and put together our rifles; how to pitch tents and take them down; how to shoot, how to crawl on our stomachs and how to use a bayonet.
The instructor said, “If there is an explosion, stay still! Don’t move! Don’t move until you know what is going on!”
We went out after sunset, patrolling sandy paths through the woods. It was dark, very dark. And quiet. Until a deafening explosion and flash went off right next to us. Instantly we ran, as fast and as far as we could. Panic had overtaken us. The lectures and the hectoring had done us no good. The next time a bomb went off we stood still, the only sound I could remember was the ringing in my ears and the thumping of my heart. But my feet didn’t run and my mind didn’t race.
By the end of the night we were doing what we were supposed to. Until then it was panic.
What made me think about this is some of the recent the discussion about gun control. The tide seems to be moving not towards tighter control but towards allowing more people to have guns, even on college campuses. The argument is that if law-abiding people can’t have guns, only criminals will. If criminals knew that everyone might have a gun, they will be less likely to use one themselves. Or, at least if they did, civilians would take them down before they had a chance to wreak greater damage.
My army experience tells me that this is a dangerous fantasy. Target practice and video games don’t prepare you to use a gun properly under extraordinary circumstances. When a shooter opens fire in a shopping mall, school or railroad train, the scene is chaotic. There is panic. People are running, screaming, hiding. This includes the good people who have guns. Their hearts are racing, their judgment is blurred, they’re not sure who is the shooter and who is the victim trying to protect herself. If everyone carried a gun, there result would be greater carnage.
This is why we have turned over our safety to professionals—firefighters who practice going into burning buildings, soldiers who complete Basic Training and police officers who practice what it is like to be in the middle of a crime scene.
This really isn’t news, especially to police departments who by-and-large favor getting guns out of the hands of civilians. Those who believe that having a gun will add to the peace and safety have an exaggerated view of themselves. It is like the surveys that consistently show that most people believe that they are above-average drivers. The fact is that most people deal poorly in novel and chaotic situations. Fear is a natural reaction in these situations and it is stronger than reason.
Having been given training in handling guns and having gone through Basic Training, I don’t trust myself to have good judgment if I see a crime unfold in front of me; I don’t trust myself to have a steady hand, a sure shot or the ability to distinguish what is really going on under those circumstances. And I don’t trust my neighbors either, even if they are good people, know how to handle guns, go to target ranges, read about the proper care of weapons and go to paintball ranges. It isn’t practicing how to handle a gun that matters but having undergone training in what to do in dangerous, emergency situations. For this I leave to the professionals.
More guns in civilian hands will lead to more deaths of innocent people, not fewer.