American law traditionally excuses threats and violence that would otherwise be treated as crimes when the perpetrators have a justification of self-defense. As instruments with lethal power, guns should not be employed for self-defense purposes unless someone has a reasonable fear that they are threatened with death by the criminal act of another person. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court’s definition of the Second Amendment—limiting the constitutional right to merely keeping a handgun in the home for self-defense (District of Columbia v. Heller, 2008)—is tied directly to and bounded by this concept. Yet, we have seen disturbing images in recent weeks of Americans who reflexively reach for a firearm to threaten others in completely unnecessary and inappropriate circumstances. Such reflexive uses of guns impose significant risks and harms while also impeding our efforts to discuss and develop policies that can reduce our horrific problems with gun violence.
Among the most troubling visual images in recent days were the cell phone videos and photos of the St. Louis couple who rushed out of their house with firearms to threaten unarmed Black Lives Matter protesters walking down the sidewalk. Contrary to the claims of certain politicians, witnesses at the scene reported that the protesters did not express any threats to the couple while walking past the couple’s home. The male homeowner carried a military-style rifle; a weapon of war capable of killing many people in less than a minute. The female homeowner pointed a pistol at the passing pedestrians with her finger on the trigger—thereby increasing the probability of an accidental homicide even if she did not intend to fire. Equally troubling are reports of shoppers in Washington and Florida who pointed guns at store employees or fellow shoppers upon being asked to respect current rules concerning mandatory mask-wearing in stores. Even worse, a store security guard was shot to death in Flint after turning away shoppers who did not wear masks. These unsettling, risk-raising events come on the heels of the recent invasion of Michigan’s capitol building by protesters carrying weapons of war into the legislative chambers while elected representatives conducted their policy making responsibilities.
Within these three examples, we can see varied motivations for these reflexive actions, including unjustified fear (St. Louis), anger (mask disputes), and an intent to intimidate (capitol building in Lansing). None of these motivations are appropriate or beneficial for society. What risks and harms flow from these reflexive, aggressive uses of firearms?
Public Health and Safety
Opinion polls, as well as news reports about Americans’ behavior, demonstrate that a portion of the public believes that keeping and carrying guns will make them safer. In reality, social science research consistently shows that guns increase the risk of harm to people with access to firearms and those in proximity to these individuals. The presence of guns and an absence of restrictive gun laws are associated with various harms, including higher rates of homicides, youth suicides, rural men’s suicides, and women’s victimization in domestic violence homicides (see examples of studies listed below). Thus, the recent photographs and videos of people’s brandishing of guns in public ought to raise concerns about how such behaviors increase the risk of gun violence.
Moreover, gun-toting people whose behavior is motivated by unjustified fear, anger, or an intent to intimidate others may be less likely to use due care than, for example, hunters, especially if they lack firearms training or are blinded by emotion. In addition, these individuals put themselves at risk of triggering a shooting by law enforcement officers or armed bystanders who perceive the reflexive use of firearms as posing an immediate, lethal threat that justifies an action in defense of self and others.
Normalization of the Routine Use of Firearms
If we do not highlight the grave risks posed by the unjustified, reflexive use of firearms, how might that affect routine behavior in society? Do retailers need to stock up on their own readily-available firearms if they must worry that any angry outburst by a shopper may lead to the reflexive drawing of a gun? As we see guns drawn over the request to wear a mask amid a pandemic, shouldn’t we worry that certain individuals unsuccessfully seeking a refund from a retailer may be similarly angry and react in the same way—if they can have their guns handy? In addition, military-style rifles were carried into the state capitol building for a pandemic-shutdown protest that was unrelated to gun rights and the Second Amendment. Should we worry that guns will be brought into the legislative chamber in an effort to intimidate legislators voting on other issues, such as school funding or any matter that upsets a segment of the populace? The risks and harms from such potential developments provide strong reasons to seriously consider gun laws that will steer our gun policies and practices closer to the actual limited boundaries of the Second Amendment as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In addition, we must be concerned about counteracting the statements and actions of politicians whose political motives lead them to legitimize and normalize unnecessary and risk-creating uses of firearms. Among recent examples are the Missouri governor who promised to pardon the St. Louis couple, politicians who falsely claimed that the couple was threatened by the protesters, and politicians who cheered the actions of those carrying high-powered weapons into the state capitol building.
Degradation of Democracy
In each of the three troubling examples cited above, those who reflexively displayed guns did so in an effort to short-circuit the discussion, development, or implementation processes that are essential to the policy making in our democracy. The St. Louis couple effectively made people risk their lives in order to express their views by demonstrating outside the nearby home of the city’s mayor. The threatening displays of guns inside retail stores to resist mask policies communicate an intention to use violence as a means to resist important public health policies developed by scientific experts and elected officials. Carrying weapons of war inside the state capitol’s legislative chambers makes it only too obvious that the implied threat of violence is intended to intimidate elected representatives away from using their best judgements about policies and, instead, feel pressured to vote based on fear for their own personal safety.
What can we do?
Highlight and publicize the risks and harms that threaten to worsen our problems with gun violence.
Educate others about the limited legal meaning of the Second Amendment.
Vote for those candidates who reflect your own views about desirable gun policies.
Encourage others to vote, too.
A. Knopov, R. Sherman, J. Raifman, E. Larson, and M. Siegel. 2019. “Household Gun Ownership and Youth Suicide Rates at the State Level, 2005-2015,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 56: 335-342.
P. Nestadt, P. Triplett, D. Fowler, and R. Mojtabai. 2017. “Urban-Rural Differences in Suicide in the State of Maryland: The Role of Firearms,” American Journal of Public Health 107: 1548-1553.
M. Siegel, Z. Xuan, C. Ross, S. Galea, B. Kalesan, E. Fleegler, and K. Goss. 2017. “Easiness of Legal Access to Concealed Firearm Permits and Homicide Rates in the United States,” American Journal of Public Health 107: 1923-1929.
J. Sivaraman, S. Ranapurwala, K. Moracco, and S. Marshall. 2019. “Association of State Firearm Legislation with Female Intimate Partner Homicide,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 56: 125-133.
Associated Press, “Walmart Shopper Pulls Gun on Man in Dispute Over Mask, Police Say,” WSLS-News10, July 16, 2020 (www.wsls.com)
M. Kornfield, “Three People Charged in Killing of Family Dollar Security Guard Over Mask Policy,” Washington Post, May 5, 2020 (www.washingtonpost.com)
P. Quinn, “Prosecutors: Man Pulls Gun on Shopper During Mask Dispute in Tumwater,” KOMO-News, July 18, 2020 (www.komonews.com)
J. Salter, “White House Decries Gun Charges for St. Louis Couple,” Dayton Daily News, July 21, 2020 (www.daytondailynews.com)