Like many Americans, I frequently carry a gun. I've done so for over 30 years without ever laying hand to it in need. Professor John Lott of the Crime Prevention Research Center reports that some 12.8 million people, over 5.2 percent of the adult U.S. population, are licensed to carry a concealed handgun. In addition to concealed carry license holders in all 50 states, seven states require no permit at all for concealed carry, and 40 states have few restrictions on carrying as long as the gun is visible. On top of that, as I have reported recently, there appears to be a growing trend among people who routinely carry a firearm to also routinely ignore signs that tell them they can't. It is a growing form of civil disobedience that puts no one at increased risk of death or injury. As the number of concealed carriers grows, violent crime continues to fall. This doesn't prove that more guns equals less crime, but it irrefutably proves that more guns do not equate to more crime.
Unless you live in one of the extremely restrictive states like New York, New Jersey, or Massachusetts, any time you are on the street or anywhere that does not have controlled access, with metal detectors and bag searches, etc., there is a fairly high probability that someone nearby is legally carrying a gun. But they are not carrying that gun to protect you.
A popular essay from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, divided humans into three categories: "Sheep," "Wolves" and "Sheepdogs." I would suggest that Lt. Col. Grossman left out an important fourth category: "Porcupines."
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My wife is neither "sheep" nor "sheepdog," and she certainly is no "wolf." She is a "porcupine"; harmless and docile if left alone, but ferocious and dangerous if threatened – even more so if her progeny are threatened. She would choose flight over fight every time, if flight is a viable option. But if flight is not an option, she has the tools, training and mindset to win the fight.
Our nation's convoluted laws on self-defense and liability also force all but the most dedicated "sheepdogs" into the role of "porcupine" as well, making "porcupines" the most prevalent variety of armed citizen. We won't passively stand by while the wolves have their way with us or our families, but neither can we take responsibility for protecting the "sheep" from the "wolves." Certainly, most people who carry would take action to help someone in need if there was an opportunity to do so and there was no obvious alternative – and while many of us would probably prefer to characterize ourselves as "sheepdogs" rather than "porcupines," the reality is that protecting you, your spouse and your children is your responsibility, not ours. You should also be aware that protection of you and your family is not the responsibility of the police, either. The courts have conclusively ruled that the police have a duty to protect only the public at large, not individuals.
Those of us who have a natural inclination toward being "sheepdogs" have some pretty significant disincentives to acting on those inclinations. Not only is it physically dangerous to intervene in a violent situation, it is a legal minefield that in most cases must be navigated in a matter of seconds. While laws and jurisprudence protect police from prosecution and civil liability, and while some protections exist for individuals acting in defense of themselves and their families, there are few shields for someone acting on behalf of a stranger. Armed citizens who intervene in situations where they or their families are not in imminent danger place themselves at significant risk of prosecution and civil penalties. We also tend to be keenly aware of the fact that any error involving a firearm can be devastating and permanent.
Violent encounters usually happen quickly, and they can be very confusing. It's not always clear who is the "good guy" and who is the "bad guy." Anyone who has ever been through a quality personal defense course has been cautioned to avoid deploying a firearm or engaging an aggressor unless there is no other alternative. In any shooting situation, there are two key problems to deal with. Problem One is survival. Problem Two is dealing with the legal and emotional fallout from solving Problem One. Ending a life can be emotionally devastating, and the legal consequences can destroy bank accounts and quality of life as surely as being gravely wounded. For most of us, there are no legal repercussions for running away. In the real world, this means flight is better than fight. Our training, and often the law, dictates that if we're enjoying a movie when a homicidal lunatic starts shooting people on the other side of the theater, our first responsibility is to get out and away, especially if our family is with us. If we're in a college class and we hear gunfire from the next building or a classroom down the hall, we, just like our unarmed classmates or students, should evacuate or "shelter in place," not head toward the gunfire.
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This approach is galling to many gun owners, especially those of us with a natural inclination toward being "sheepdogs." We would rather fight than run. We would rather put ourselves at risk than allow evil to go unchecked. But regardless of the level of training and skill a person has, the multiple layers of risk that are inherent in any shooting situation stack the deck against playing the hero unless there is no other alternative.
Both sides of the debate over bearing arms have a tendency to relegate armed citizens to the role of "sheepdog," but that is a role the law and prudence won't let us accept, though some of us will try despite the obstacles. For the most part, we are "porcupines." We are armed for defense of ourselves and our families, not for you and yours. In a worst-case scenario, one of us might be present and save your life in defending our own, but don't count on it. We don't carry for you.
Media wishing to interview Jeff Knox, please contact [email protected].