Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Gun Trap - do you really need one?

The Gun Trap - do you really need one?

With the election of President Obama, gun and ammunition sales have skyrocketed in the USA. To some extent, this is a reaction to perceived fears by some right-wing folks that the country will be reduced to anarchy soon. But in reality, this is more of a typical hoarding reaction that occurs when people believe a commodity is going to become scarce.

When commodities are scarce, or people believe they are scarce or will become scarce, then hoarding occurs. At the time of this writing, in Argentina, people are hoarding coins, on the belief that there is a change shortage. Since everyone is hoarding coinage, the feared change shortage has become a real change shortage. That's how these hoarding things work.

For guns and ammunition, the fear is that a Democratically controlled House and Senate, as well as White House, will pass legislation making it harder to obtain guns and ammunition. So, the theory goes, you'd better stock up now, before it is too late!

So many folks who do not own guns are buying guns and ammunition. Folks who already own guns are buying more - often on the advice of groups with ties to the firearms industry. It will probably take a year or two for the hysteria to die down. But in the meantime, sales are brisk.

Do you need to own a gun? It is a complicated question. For hunters, security officers, police, farmers, and the like, the question is fairly simple. Handguns and Rifles are tools of the trade, and you buy them out of necessity. But for the average homeowner, is a handgun really necessary? Moreover, is an expensive arsenal of weapons really necessary?

Some handgun proponents argue that owning a handgun will make you "safer" - that you can stop a violent crime in progress if you own a handgun, or shoot a burglar as he enters your home. This is great in theory, but in practice, it does not always work out, as we will see.

I am not pro- or anti- handgun. The rhetoric on both sides of that debate is far overheated (see my article "They BAITING You!") However, you should think about a handgun purchase carefully, lest it be a financially losing proposition.

Hoarding guns and ammunition is probably a bad idea. Like gold, people tend to buy when times are perceived as "bad" and as a result, pay the highest prices imaginable. When times are "good" they sell, and get a much lower price. Buying High and Selling Low is the worst thing you can do to your portfolio.

1. The Parachute Theory

Handguns are one of those items that you would wish you'd have if you really needed it at a particular moment. That is the logic behind handgun ownership. If you are confronted with a burglar, you'd wish you had a handgun! But then again, if you fall off the edge of the Grand Canyon, you'd surely wish you had a parachute, too.

Is buying a parachute (and wearing it at all times) a good idea to prevent a dangerous fall from high places? The question is not as ridiculous as it seems, as the odds of being confronted with a life-and-death situation with a criminal are about the same as you falling from a high place. And the parallels don't end there, either. Carrying a loaded handgun is very inconvenient - as it wearing a parachute all the time. Handguns are expensive - and so are parachutes. And even if you own a handgun, if you don't have it at hand when you need it, it is the same as not having it at all, which also holds true for parachutes. And finally, a handgun misused can be more dangerous to its owner than anyone else - as can a parachute (if you pull the ripcord while on your motorcycle, for example).

So yes, having a handgun could make you "safer", but so could wearing a parachute at all times, or a helmet for that matter. But the odds are very long against your ever needing any of these items. In short, buying a handgun for "protection" is not really a cost-effective proposition. Buying a plethora of handguns, rifles, and assault weapons is even a less sound.

2. Crime Attractant

One of the most desirable objects for criminals to steal are, ironically, handguns. When breaking into a home, a criminal is looking for items than can be quickly and easily resold at a profit. Home electronics are bulky and hard to move. And while your stereo system and flat-screen television may represent a few thousand dollars in purchase price, as used components they would fetch only hundreds in the legitimate market, and likely far less in the black market for stolen goods. In short, a stolen flat screen television worth $1000 new will fetch only $100 or so to the thief, and be hard to carry and conceal.

Money, Jewelry and guns are far better hauls for the average burglar. Money is probably the one of the best things to steal, as it is worth what its face value states and it does not have to be fenced. It is also virtually untraceable. Jewelry is a good second choice, as it can be fairly valuable and easy to conceal and carry, and yields a fairly good price in the stolen goods market.

But handguns are the one item that may be worth MORE to a thief than to you. Since handguns are getting harder to buy, and since crooks do not want to leave paper-trails when buying handguns, the stolen handgun is a highly desirable item. A handgun worth $500 in the gun store may yield $1000 on the street to a gang member looking for an untraceable weapon.

Thus, the ultimate irony of handgun ownership - you buy guns to protect yourself and unwittingly make yourself a target for thieves. Since most folks work during the day, it is a fairly simple matter to burglarize your home by showing up in a delivery van, wearing coveralls, and quickly enter, take your guns, and leave. Alarm systems can be easily disabled by cutting phone lines. And since most suburban areas are deserted during the day, the chances of getting caught are nil.

How does a burglar pick out your home? Again, the irony is that most handgun owners plaster their homes with signs advertising their gun ownership, as if it is a deterrent to crime, when it is actually an attractant. NRA stickers, and "beware of owner" signs only serve to advertise to potential thieves that there is booty here to be had.

If you do own a gun, don't advertise! Signs saying "beware of owner" may be macho and all, but do little to deter crime and may actually attract it. If you are prone to posting such signs, ask yourself seriously whether you are buying guns to protect yourself, or to cover up some deep underlying insecurity. Who are you trying to impress?

3. Shot With His Own Gun

Another problem with handgun ownership is that you have to know how to use a handgun and be prepared to use it properly. In the movies and on television, it is common to see a criminal or a police officer pull out a gun and wave it around. In these fictional scenarios, people cower at the sight of a handgun and the person waving the gun around often "saves the day" by saying silly things like "hold it right there!"

In reality, you should only pull a handgun out if you intend to shoot someone. There should be no waving or grand gestures involved. Take out your gun, aim carefully, and shoot to kill. Period.

This may sound harsh, but it is the only way you can effectively use a handgun. Waving guns around can be ineffectual and dangerous, as the opponent may also be armed, and while you are making grand gestures, he's plugging you in the skull. So you have to draw, aim, and shoot. That's all there is to it.

Of course, this means you can only use a handgun in situations where deadly violence is justified. If someone is vandalizing your car, are you justified in shooting them? Suppose someone enters your house late at night? Should you shoot them? Suppose you could just duck out the back door? Is the loss of your possessions worth the loss of your life? I don't have the answer. But you should, if you are prepared to carry a gun.

A friend of mine at the Patent Office suffered from this delusion that waving a handgun around would be an effective deterrent to crime. To save money, he parked in a very bad part of town and then walked to work, carrying a concealed pistol in his jacket. For the cost of the pistol, he could have paid for a parking space at work for several years. Plus, by bringing the gun to work, he was violating Federal Law.

The inevitable happened one night as he walked home in the dark, down an unlit alley in a very bad part of town. Two teenage boys spotted him and decided to give him a hard time and perhaps shake him down for money. The confronted him and he pulled out his handgun and started waving it around.

A funny thing happened. The kids didn't run away like in the movies. Hardened street kids, they had seen guns before, and they realized that my friend had no idea what he was doing. One distracted him momentarily while the other managed to get the gun away from him. They shot him with his own gun. Dead.

The same thing can happen in a home burglary situation. In a recent article in Reader's Digest, for example, a homeowner related how he confronted a methamphetamine addict trying to burglarize his home. Not wanting to use deadly force, he tried the "wave the gun around" technique, only to have the hyped-up meth-head wrestle him for the gun, win, and keep his family hostage for several harrowing hours. They survived, but learned a valuable lesson about handgun use.

4. Shot the Spouse

America has more handgun deaths per capita than any other country on the earth. And more than half of these are either suicides, family disputes. or accidents. People get drunk, they get angry, they get depressed, and someone reaches for a gun and its all over. And every year, tragically, young children decide to "play with Daddy's gun" with predicable results.Gun proponents would argue that "Guns don't kill people, people kill people" and of course, that is true.

But a gun produces a very sudden and violent death. You attack your spouse with a knife, at least there is a chance she can duck or run away - leave the house, find a neighbor, call the police. But a bullet travels at many times the speed of sound. You can't duck a bullet (like they do on television). It is a decision that can be made instantaneously and permanently.

There are also accidental shooting scenarios as well. One friend of mine, who owned a small arsenal of weapons on the premise that "Negros" were going to invade his suburban home, almost accidentally shot his roommate late one night when he returned home and forgot to deactivate the alarm. My friend rolled down the stairs and assumed a three-point stance with his loaded .45, aiming right at the head of the "intruder." Fortunately for both of them, he figured out at the last minute not to shoot. Others are not so lucky.

For example, a friend of mine kept a loaded .357 Magnum in his nightstand.   He's in the hospital, now, recovering from a gunshot wound to the head.   It is a life-changing event, and one that wouldn't have happened if he never bought that gun.   And for the life of me, I cannot figure out what he needed "protection" from.

So if you own a handgun, you'd better have a safe, locked place to keep it. But if you put it in a safe, then how do you get at it when the meth-heads break in? Again, this is another conundrum of handgun ownership - keeping a weapon easily at hand, but also keeping it safe.

5. Difficulties Carrying Firearms

Another friend of mine described the difficulties of carrying firearms. Like a parachute, a firearm is of no use to you if it is in a locked box at home while you are being mugged on the street. Unless you carry it at all times, it is of little use when you need it.

Recently, laws have been relaxed to allow more people to carry concealed weapons on their person. However there are still many restrictions on when and where you can carry a gun, making carrying a weapon a dicey proposition.

Heading to the courthouse, the motor vehicle department or any other government building? Better leave your weapon at home, or leave it in your car. Picking the kids up at school? Can't bring your gun in there, either. Many stores, malls, and other retail and public places are banning the carrying of concealed weapons. Many State and Federal Parks are limit who can carry a weapon and where.

There is such a patchwork of laws and regulations, my friend told me, that he ended up taking his gun on and off several times a day.

And locking your gun in your car is a dodgy proposition as well. Someone could break into the car and steal your gun - or just steal the car. Your weapon will likely then be used to commit the very crimes you are trying to protect yourself against.

6. Alternatives

There are, of course, some alternative actions you can take that can make you safer. And of course, you can take such actions AND own a handgun as well.

First of all, avoid high crime areas. My friend at the Patent Office intentionally went into a very bad part of town, late at night, to save a few dollars on parking. I am not entirely sure he wasn't doing this to provoke an incident, such as in the movie "Falling Down" or "Dirty Harry" - that he was secretly hoping to say "make my day" to some criminal. He was an odd fellow.

Similarly, intentionally living in a bad neighborhood "because it is cheaper" and then owning a lot of expensive consumer goods - on the premise that you'll protect them with your firearms, is not a sound proposition either. But I've had friends (acquaintances, really) do this. I think you are better off living in a wealthier, lower crime area and owning less consumer junk, frankly. Your house will appreciate faster in a lower crime area, and probably there will be better schools as well.

Of course, being alert to your surroundings and not letting yourself become a victim is important as well. If you walk down the street and see someone is following you, cross the street. Head toward a well-lit area. Take a taxi, even if it is only a few blocks, if you are alone late at night. Taking active steps to protect yourself will probably do more to increase your safety than carrying a handgun. But you can, of course, do both. Perhaps that is the irony of gun ownership. Like with airbags, people with guns take more risks.

And of course, it never hurts to run like hell. At college once, I was assaulted by a group of thugs looking to rob a student. My friend who was with me was paralyzed and stood there motionless. I nearly had to carry him as we ran toward the commercial district. The bad guys gave chase for a block or so, but quickly decided that there were easier pickings out there. The only reason we ended up in that situation to begin with was that my friend recommended a dodgy "shortcut" to his apartment, late at night. Lesson Learned!

7. How Many Guns Do You Need?

Yes, you can make a logical argument for the need for a firearm for self protection. Here in the country, we do get rabid animals (Raccoons) on occasion, and the only way to dispatch them is with some sort of weapon.

But many folks, such as my friend who nearly shot his roommate, end up buying several firearms. While this may be considered a "hobby" it can quickly become and expensive one. Handguns - at least good ones - are expensive to buy and ammunition can be pricey as well. One friend of mine bought a smaller gun for target practice simply because he tired of going through $50 of ammunition each time he went to the range ($50 is a LOT of money in my book!).

Many folks caught up in the recent wave of gun buying are spending thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars on weapons and ammunition. One survivalist told me he bought 10,000 rounds of ammo, and thinks that maybe he might need 60,000 rounds. I am not sure if he is planning on starting a civil war or what.

But what I suspect will happen, once all the hysteria dies down, is that he will realize that he maxed out his credit cards on a consumer good that he will likely never use. Worse yet, since so many guns will be on the market at that point, he will be lucky to get 50 cents on the dollar on his purchases when he decides to unload his arsenal.

The gun manufacturers are laughing - all the way to the bank.

Handguns generally require permits and waiting periods to purchase. There are alternatives, such as shotguns and rifles, which may require little or no paperwork to purchase and can be bought at any discount store. For home protection, where the range of fire is measured in feet, not yards, a shotgun may be a better choice, as it will tend to hit any target in the general direction it is aimed at. A short barreled shotgun might be an easier and less expensive alternative to an expensive handgun.

Cheap handguns are never a good investment, as they do not hold their value and some can be outright dangerous. A well-made handgun, at least, will hold its value over time, if well maintained.

But before you run out and buy a handgun because of all the hoopla in the news lately, think carefully whether you are really making yourself safer, or just buying an expensive consumer good that you will never need or use - and one that, not handled properly, could make you less safe as well.