Potential and Kinetic Energy

The Argument that Guns Don’t Keep Us Safe 5

President Obama and the Secret ServiceI received a comment on a previous blog post recently arguing that “gun’s don’t make us safer.” By extension, I’ll link that to an even more general argument I’ve heard lately that “guns aren’t safe.”

Oh… guns are dangerous, you say? Well, um, yeah. No duh. They’re literally designed to be dangerous for the person on the receiving end of the transaction. However, they’re also designed to promote the safety of the individual operating the trigger. The problem with the “guns don’t make us safer” argument isn’t the word “guns,” it’s the word “us.”

In the hands of a criminal, or someone with a history of violence, of sufficiently diminished mental capacity, or a mental disorder that prevents them from distinguishing right from wrong — or who has been conditioned in some way not to care about right or wrong, guns are dangerous. We’ve seen this proven most recently in Columbine, Aurora, Clackamas, and Sandy Hook.

In the hands of a trained Secret Service Agent (such as a grad school buddy of mine who currently happens to be on POTUS detail), they promote the safety of the chief executive of one of the world’s super-powers. In the hands of a child, whose parents were too irresponsible to secure their firearms so that the child can access a firearm in the home without permission or supervision, guns are dangerous.

In the hands of a S.W.A.T. team member, guns are dangerous to a kidnapper or hostage taker, while simultaneously promoting the safety of dozens of hostages.

In the hands of a first-time gun owner, who ran out and bought the first gun they could get their hands on as “gun fever” has caught hold recently, guns are dangerous, whether though a negligent discharge or a premature draw-and-fire before an actual threat has been confirmed — the risk of either being greatly diminished through training and practice.

In the hands of a 16 year-old boy with whom I went to church and high school, who had the presence of mind to retrieve his father’s gun from its secured location in the master bedroom, guns are dangerous to the a PCP-fueled manic who smashed through the glass of the front door, walked into the house covered in blood from glass injuries, and then proceeded to walk up the stairs toward him.

And in my hands, I like to believe guns promote the safety of my house, property, spouse, children, myself, and other law-abiding citizens around me — while still being dangerous to anyone who would pose a threat to them.

But don’t be fooled into believing that “guns are dangerous” means the same thing as “guns don’t keep us safe.”

In every example above, even in the tragic ones, guns promoted the safety of one individual only by virtue of creating a lethal threat to someone else. Why didn’t anyone tackle the shooter in the Aurora movie theater? Because his guns kept him safe from the other patrons (incidentally, he’d driven past three other movie theaters that didn’t restrict patrons from carrying firearms before arriving at his chosen target). Parents who keep guns in the home presumably do so to promote their own safety, but at the expense of their own children’s safety if they store them improperly. A gun in the hands of a criminal can protect him as he tries to break the law, while a gun in my hands can protect my family as a madman tries to break in.

Yes, of course guns are dangerous… by design. And yet, before I started writing this post, I took my Glock 17 out of its holster and laid it on the desk in front of me, and not once did it hurt anyone. In its current state, it’s not dangerous at all, as it poses no threat to me or anyone else. But the second I pick it up, it instantly poses a lethal threat — to an unintended target if I am negligent, or to an intended target if I am deliberate. It’s much like the difference between potential energy and kinetic energy. In physics, potential energy is the energy of an object or a system due to the position of the body or the arrangement of the particles of the system. Kinetic energy is the energy an object possesses due to its motion.

Potential and Kinetic Energy

Potential and Kinetic Energy

Unloaded, my Glock possesses no more danger than any other piece of plastic or metal. But by loading and cocking it, my Glock now possesses potential danger in its current state, due of the position of some of its elements: a round is chambered and the striker is cocked. Now, if I pick up the gun and pull the trigger, the potential danger is transformed into kinetic danger; more precisely, the bullet derives its kinetic danger by virtue of its kinetic energy — it’s moving at 1000 feet per second. Toward whom that kinetic danger is expressed is determined only by me, whether by my choice or my negligence. But without exception, in order to transform from zero danger, to potential danger, to kinetic danger, I have to put the gun in my hands. A gun can only cause harm with the kinetic energy of its bullet. It’s up to the individual that holds the gun that determines if, and toward whom, that kinetic energy is dangerous.

Further, whether or not a gun is dangerous, and, more importantly: for whom it is dangerous, depends not only on whose hands it’s in, but at what it’s pointed. Those who argue that “guns don’t keep us safe” are correct in a way, but only for the “us” that are on the wrong end of the barrel. Reducing violent gun crime in the U.S. is a worthy goal. To accomplish it, we need to get back to a place where guns can keep the majority of “us” safe. And yet, in order for that to happen, guns will always need to remain dangerous to the minority among “us” that would do the rest of “us” harm. But that can’t happen if “we (the People)” aren’t allowed to stay on the safe end of the gun while keeping the criminals on the dangerous end. And it will never happen while we keep allowing any guns, whether they be rifles, shotguns, hand-guns, in the hands of those of “us” who would use them improperly to hurt the innocent.

My wife (who in addition to being smokin’ hot, also has a Bachelor’s in Psychology and a Master’s in Education, which probably makes her smarter than you), has told me on many occasions that introspection is one of the hardest things for human beings to do. Apparently it’s crazy high on the evolutionary list of human mental abilities. Kids (particularly teenagers… as we’ve recently discovered) almost instinctively look outward for the cause of their problems, claiming things “aren’t fair” as they wallow in the all-too-fair consequences of their choices. Ideally, they will outgrow that, but only with the help of responsible parenting and practice. However, I see more and more evidence that too many in our society never outgrew that phase, and never mastered the ability of looking inward for the solution to a problem rather than looking outward for a scapegoat. In order for “us” to be safer, we have to look at what “we” are doing wrong. And there’s a lot we’re doing wrong. Let’s choose the harder, higher path of introspection, and discuss what we can do as a society and a nation to keep devices with the potential for danger out of the hands who would improperly use them, and be honest with where we’ve been failing in the mental health system, the justice system, the educational system, and even in our own families. Those types of discussions can be painful, embarrassing, and humbling. But introspection generally is.

Yes, once again, guns can be dangerous. They’re designed to be. A gun sitting on the desk in front of me is not dangerous. A gun in the possession of a law-abiding and responsible (that’s a key word) citizen is dangerous, but is appropriately so when used responsibly. But a gun in the hands of a criminal or irresponsible citizen is the most dangerous, and leads to the types of tragedies that have sparked the recent debate.

Rather than foolishly trying to take certain types of guns out of every hand, let’s be mindful enough, and introspective enough, to instead focus on keeping guns out of the hands of those who would point them in the wrong direction.