An in­truder, a hand­gun, and what hap­pened next

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Daniel J. Levitin Daniel J. Levitin is a neu­ro­sci­en­tist and au­thor, most re­cently, of “Weaponized Lies: Crit­i­cal Think­ing in the Post-Truth Era.” His TED talk on how to plan in ad­vance for stress­ful sit­u­a­tions has been viewed more than 10 mil­lion time

One morn­ing last De­cem­ber, while work­ing at my desk at home, I saw an in­truder peer­ing into my house, try­ing win­dows and doors. I didn’t know his in­ten­tions, or whether he was armed, but he seemed in­tent on break­ing in. My first in­stinct was to grab a loaded hand­gun and brace my­self for a con­fronta­tion. Then I thought twice. I sneaked out of the house and called the po­lice. They ar­rested him.

I wrote about the ex­pe­ri­ence for the New York Times in March. It forced me to think about the value of a hu­man life, pro­por­tional re­sponse, and the costs and ben­e­fits of avoid­ing a con­fronta­tion.

I re­ceived more than 100 emails from an­gry read­ers. About half scolded me for hav­ing a gun in the first place. Some were an­gry on philo­soph­i­cal/po­lit­i­cal grounds: “You have be­trayed our shared lib­eral val­ues by own­ing a gun. There is no place for guns in a civil so­ci­ety.” Some tried to shame me with statis­tics I al­ready knew: How many peo­ple die each year shot by their own guns, and how a home with a gun is less safe than a home with­out one.

From the other side, I got scolded for not shoot­ing the in­truder. I be­came the tar­get of a lot of pent-up frus­tra­tion at in­creas­ing crime rates and home­less peo­ple (what do they have to do with it? I won­dered). I was lec­tured to about so­ci­ety’s scum, stand-your­ground laws and the cas­tle doc­trine. Many ac­cused me of cow­ardice. A trained se­cu­rity of­fi­cer be­rated me for my hes­i­ta­tion in us­ing the firearm and said I had no right own­ing one if I was not go­ing to use it.

Sev­eral read­ers, in­clud­ing ac­tive-duty mil­i­tary and po­lice of­fi­cers, of­fered the prac­ti­cal ad­vice that a shot­gun would be more use­ful in a home in­va­sion sce­nario than a hand­gun. A half-dozen peo­ple were mad at me for writ­ing about some­thing they thought was in­signif­i­cant. One thought the es­say was a ploy to drive traf­fic to my aca­demic web­site. Not in­cluded in my piece was a very thought­ful cor­re­spon­dence I had with re­tired Army Gen. Stan­ley McChrys­tal right af­ter the in­ci­dent. He wrote: “I’ve not had an in­truder in our home, so don’t have that per­spec­tive, but have cho­sen not to keep a firearm in the house — or carry one at any time. It’s not be­cause I’m not com­fort­able with fir­ing them, but more likely be­cause I am. I know my­self well enough that in mo­ments of con­cern or high emo­tion I might very well use a firearm — and bul­lets are like the an­gry email you hit send on be­fore think­ing more calmly about — they can’t be re­called…. I don’t have or carry a weapon pre­cisely be­cause I worry I’d use it.”

Per­haps the most poignant story I heard af­ter my in­truder ex­pe­ri­ence came from a trial lawyer (I’ll call him Ken) in Ok­la­homa. At a mo­tel one night, he was awak­ened by a man bang­ing on his door, twist­ing the knob and loudly de­mand­ing en­try. Ken re­peat­edly yelled at him to go away and warned him that he had a gun. For­tu­nately the man­ager in­ter­vened just in time.

“As it turned out,” Ken wrote, “the man … was part of a Civil Air Pa­trol group stay­ing at the mo­tel, had got­ten drunk, be­came con­fused about his room num­ber, and thought his room­mate was mess­ing with him by re­fus­ing to open the door, which only made him an­grier…. I would have been in the right to shoot the man had he bro­ken through the door at 3:00 am. [But] I am not sure how I would have felt had I shot a mere drunk.”

I know how I would have felt: I’d have been dev­as­tated. Not re­gret­ful — you do what you have to do — but dev­as­tated nonethe­less.

In May I went to my lo­cal firearms store to buy a shot­gun for my city home (I al­ready have one at our week­end place). I was per­suaded by the read­ers who ad­vised it. Shot­guns are less likely to lead to fa­tal­i­ties, and they are ef­fec­tive for home pro­tec­tion. It’s also hard to ac­ci­den­tally shoot your­self with one. Af­ter the manda­tory Cal­i­for­nia wait­ing pe­riod (I’m re­minded of Homer Simp­son’s words, “Five days? But I’m mad now!”), I went to two dif­fer­ent ri­fle ranges to prac­tice. The peo­ple at the gun shop and at the ranges were friendly sorts. I told them my home in­va­sion story and that it ended with­out me us­ing my weapon.

Their replies sur­prised me. Th­ese were peo­ple who de­pend on wide­spread gun own­er­ship to earn their liv­ing. I imag­ined they might be vendetta-crazed, vig­i­lante-minded, ready to kill any man, woman or ro­dent that got in their path. None of them called me a coward for ex­it­ing the house. All were gen­uinely pleased that the sit­u­a­tion was re­solved with­out vi­o­lence. Two of them pat­ted me on the back. One of them didn’t charge me for my range fees, and praised my re­spon­si­ble gun own­er­ship.

Is my gun own­er­ship ir­ra­tional or the rea­soned act of a neu­ro­science pro­fes­sor? I grew up around guns; I’m com­fort­able with firearms. But I also sup­port gun con­trol; I don’t think the framers of the Con­sti­tu­tion en­vi­sioned semi­au­to­matic weapons in peo­ple’s bureau draw­ers, and I don’t be­lieve we’d all be bet­ter off if ev­ery­one had a con­cealed carry per­mit. I also don’t think it’s para­noid to pro­tect your­self against un­likely events as long as the cost is rel­a­tively low. That’s why we buy fire in­sur­ance though few of us will need it. It’s why we have airbags in our cars. And it’s why we prac­tice with guns, hop­ing we won’t need to use them.

The in­truder didn’t change my stance on gun own­er­ship, but he did make me en­gage in more se­ri­ous pre­pared­ness and sce­nario train­ing, so that in a mo­ment of ac­tual cri­sis I may be able to fall back on plans I made in a calm state rather than give in to the cor­ti­sol and adren­a­line in­fused fight-or-flight re­sponse of the mo­ment. Pre­pared­ness is ra­tio­nal, and think­ing ahead to mit­i­gate the dam­age of a mis­take is the best pro­tec­tion against the un­ex­pected.

Is my gun own­er­ship ir­ra­tional or the rea­soned act of a neu­ro­science pro­fes­sor? I don’t think it’s para­noid to pro­tect your­self against un­likely events.

Le­hel Ko­vacs For The Times

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