Guns are security blankets, not insurance policies

The famous sci-fi author William Gibson once tweeted:

People who feel safer with a gun than with guaranteed medical insurance don’t yet have a fully adult concept of scary.

That simple observation actually explains quite a bit about the gun-control debate.

If you’ve ever wandered into an argument over guns and gun control, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that the two sides talk past each other. Proponents of gun control quote statistics: how many more shooting deaths we have in America than there are in countries with fewer guns, how many more suicides or police deaths there are in well-armed states, and so on.

Pro-gun advocates are more likely to tell stories, and often those stories are dark what-if fantasies: What if home invaders came to kill you, kidnap your baby, or rape your teen-age daughter? What if you were a hostage in a bank robbery? What if you were at a restaurant or grocery store when terrorists broke in and started killing people? Wouldn’t you wish you had a gun then?

Such stories are easily stretched to indict even the mildest forms of gun control, like limiting magazines to ten shots: Picture your wife hiding in a closet with a handgun. Before she hid, she already gotten off a few shots at the invaders, and now she’s not sure how many shots she has left. Don’t you wish now you’d been able to buy her a gun with a larger magazine?

What we’re seeing here is that there are two very different ways to think about risk and security. In the one Gibson describes as the adult way, you focus on the most likely risks and come up with ways to mitigate them.

Shortly after 9-11, I remember seeing a security expert interviewed on TV. (I wish I could remember enough details to google up a link.) The host asked what Americans could do to be safer, and the expert responded: “Wear seat belts and don’t smoke.” His point was that although spectacular risks like terrorist attacks may plague your imagination and call for spectacular remedies, more mundane risks like car accidents or cancer are far more significant, and there are a number of dull-but-effective things you can do about them. [1] If you’re just trying not to die, that’s the place to focus your efforts.

But you can also think about risk the way that children think about monsters in their closets. In that mode of thought, the problem isn’t the real-life probability of danger, it’s that a dark fantasy has gotten into your head and you can’t get it out. If you’ve ever dealt with a frightened child or remember being one, you know that you can’t solve a closet-monster problem by finding statistics to demonstrate how low being-eaten-by-a-closet-monster ranks among childhood death risks. Instead, you need to come up with some talisman or ritual that creates an aura of safety. The child needs a security blanket or a teddy bear, not more accurate information about relative risks. [2]

That’s the need that guns fulfill for most of their owners. [3] They’re security blankets, not insurance policies. The point isn’t that home invasion is a major risk in your life, that you are well-trained enough to win a middle-of-the-night shoot-out if home invaders show up, or even that you have a practical way to get the gun out of its safe-storage location in time to use it at all; it’s that when the home-invasion fantasy plagues you, you can tell yourself, “It’s OK. I have a gun.”

[1] One of those risks is suicide, and owning a gun increases it. Everyone has suicidal thoughts from time to time, and gun-owners have a very convenient and effective way to take action on such thoughts. Statistically, you are far more likely to kill yourself with a gun than to kill a terrorist or a home invader.

[2] Fear of flying is a second example of this pattern: If you’re afraid to fly, statistics about the safety of commercial air travel miss the point. The problem isn’t that you have incorrectly assessed the relative risks of flying vs. driving; it’s that you can imagine being completely helpless while the plane is crashing. What you need is some talisman or ritual that will keep that thought out of your head for a few hours.

[3] Of course, there are people who have real security problems whose solutions involve guns: presidents, for example. That’s why the complaint that it’s hypocrisy for Obama to advocate gun control while armed men protect him and his family is so off-base. Four of our 44 presidents (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy) have died by assassination, several others have been shot at, and all frequently receive threats. If you’re president, assassination isn’t a monster in your closet, it’s your most significant risk of dying.

Likewise, if you deal drugs, or regularly transport large quantities of cash to the bank, or have some other risk factor that makes death-by-violence more than just a what-if, your gun might be more than a security blanket. But if so, you are in a small minority of gun owners.

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  • Carol Wheeler  On December 7, 2015 at 8:54 am

    You write as if both sides were at least conspiring actually THINKING about the issue. Last I heard, Americans are 93 percent in favor of gun control. That doesn’t seem to affect craven Republican legislators.

    • Anonymous  On December 8, 2015 at 12:12 pm

      I think that you’ve only identified part of the problem.

      The NRA, like other special interest groups, uses lobbyists and campaign contributions to sway the people in congress to do what’s best for them, even if it’s not particularly good for the rest of us. And it works.

      If you want gun control, work for campaign finance.

      • Anonymous  On December 8, 2015 at 12:16 pm

        If you want gun control, work for campaign finance *reform*.

  • Carol Wheeler  On December 7, 2015 at 8:55 am

    At least CONSIDERING is what I meant.

  • Xan  On December 7, 2015 at 9:02 am

    Is it this guy?

  • Nada  On December 7, 2015 at 9:45 am

    I think the security expert you’re thinking of may have been Gavin de Becker. He’s the author of The Gift of Fear, and runs a high-profile personal protection and investigation company. (See .)

    I think it might be him because I recall him specifically mentioning smoking and seatbelts over and over in his books. E.g., here’s an excerpt from his book (“Protecting the Gift”) on protecting your children:

    De Becker’s post-9/11 book, Fear Less, is currently only available in physical copy, but I recommend it highly. It’s such a sane, informed look at the real landscape of risk, and just as relevant today as when it was written a decade and a half ago.

  • Nada  On December 7, 2015 at 9:55 am

    Coincidentally, there was also a post this morning on The Incidental Economist on an effective suicide prevention program; you might find it interesting.

  • David Andrew Kearney  On December 7, 2015 at 10:30 am

    The story that I hear all the time is a variation on “the Nazis took away all the guns!” The idea that an armed populace will prevent authoritarianism seems rife in Tea Party circles.

  • Anonymous  On December 7, 2015 at 10:49 am

    Yeah, your security expert is Bruce Schneier.

  • Bobby Lee  On December 7, 2015 at 11:08 am

    True to form, all 3 of your footnotes are about statistics.

  • Sara Robinson  On December 7, 2015 at 12:16 pm

    One of those risk factors these days is working in a clinic where they provide reproductive services. We’ve all become acutely aware in recent weeks of how heavily the threat of violence looms over these people’s daily lives. It’s not surprising that many of them have quietly taken to carrying. They’ve accurately assessed their situation, and accepted that they have chosen to live on the front lines of a shooting war.

  • Chris Carter  On December 7, 2015 at 12:59 pm

    Tangentially related to your post: A Layman’s Evaluation of Risk: Likelihood vs. Magnitude —

  • Abby Hafer  On December 7, 2015 at 4:38 pm

    Guns have played both roles in my family. My grandparents lived for years in a high-crime area in a small city where home invasions were fairly routine, and very scary. The little old lady next door to them, for instance, had her home invaded late at night, and she was beaten up in her bed. My grandfather was a hunter. He really was. He spent many happy hours tramping around in Maine hunting for deer, bears, and other things. When I was a kid, he said that when he came home from a hunting trip, he always made a point of unloading the guns from the curb in front of the house, and carrying the guns in the front door, one at a time. He also said that his was the ONLY house in the neighborhood that was never burgled. He thought that making sure that everyone knew he had guns was the reason. On the other hand, when my grandparents were very old, my grandmother developed the bizarre delusion that one of my cousins (who often came to take care of them) was out to steal her husband. Another cousin made a point of taking all the guns in the house and hiding them up in the attic where my grandparents–especially my delusional grandmother–couldn’t find them. Otherwise, it was feared that the delusional old lady would shoot her granddaughter. So we’ve seen both sides of the argument–the suspected safety from outside intruders based on guns, and the very real danger to family members posed by having guns in the house.

  • Terry  On December 7, 2015 at 11:41 pm

    There have only been 43 Presidents of the United States.

    • weeklysift  On December 8, 2015 at 7:00 am

      You are correct. Grover Cleveland had two discontinuous terms, so he is referred to as both the 22nd and 24th president. So Obama is the 44th president, even though only 43 people have been president.

  • mess1955  On December 9, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    Great article Doug. I put this one up on reddit yesterday to hopefully drive some traffic to your site.

    John G Messerly Ph.D

    Senior Research Associate, Dept. of Philosophy, University of Johannesburg, South Africa
    Affiliate Scholar of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies
    Affiliate of the Evolution, Complexity,and Cognition Group (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)
    Adjunct Professor, Department of Philosophy, Seattle University

  • mess1955  On December 9, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    Hi Doug

    I also put this post up on reddit. And let me just say that I look forward every Monday to reading your analysis. It is obvious yours is a well-ordered intellect as manifested by your carefully and conscientiously crafted essays. No doubt your mathematical training is in large part responsible for that. Thanks sincerely for your wonderful blog.

    John G Messerly Ph.D
    Senior Research Associate, Dept. of Philosophy, University of Johannesburg, South Africa
    Affiliate Scholar of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies
    Affiliate of the Evolution, Complexity,and Cognition Group (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)
    Adjunct Professor, Department of Philosophy, Seattle University

  • Ryann  On June 1, 2016 at 12:58 pm

    Great article!!

  • Uradumbass  On May 17, 2022 at 6:17 am

    There are to many guns to confiscate them in America and 10 round magazines have a small piece of steel you can take out to hold a regular amount again. I hope you reflect on your stupidity.


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