The Ineluctable Logic of Gun Ownership

I wish no one were armed. But if practically everyone is, how do we ensure our own safety?

A photo of window glass splintered by a bullet impact.
Trent Parke / Magnum

When we were in our 20s, my friend Jim Ferguson would say that if you find yourself living someplace where you need to own a gun, you should move. That made sense to me then; it’s not so easy now to find safe places. If you live in a remote area, it can take the sheriff an hour or more to get to you, so if there’s a deadly threat from an intruder, you are on your own. And the past few years—indeed, the past few weeks—have shown us that gun violence knows no boundaries of geography, socioeconomic status, or age. Wherever you are, violence can find you. This reality has pushed me toward a moral dilemma: I wish no one were armed, but because practically everyone else is, I have a gun myself.

The problem with having a gun is that you can be tempted to use it. Guns also make committing acts of violence seem easier and less personal; if you’re not looking someone in the eye, it may not seem as real when you pull the trigger. To control that risk requires mental and emotional preparation, as well as rigorous training. As a reluctant gun owner, I continue to be baffled by the lack of regulation on gun ownership. Shouldn’t it be at least as difficult to get a gun license as a driver’s license—or better still, as difficult as it is to get a private pilot’s license? Gun owners should have to prove their competency and their ability to exercise good judgment, just as other licenses require. Responsible gun owners will consider every other alternative before pulling out a gun, even in states such as California that have a “castle doctrine” that permits, in certain circumstances, a homeowner to use force (including deadly force) in self-defense against an intruder. Gun owners’ first thought should always be to avoid confrontations in the first place, and they should have a clear understanding of when using a firearm for self-defense is acceptable.

I realize that the phrase responsible gun owner has become a trope of the gun-rights lobby, but behind the cliché, it can actually mean something. Every two years, I take six hours of firearms training with an off-duty police detective. Most of the day is spent on finding ways to remove myself from a dangerous situation before things escalate. Can I run? Can I hide? Running and hiding are not cowardice; they mean taking the higher moral ground of avoiding confrontation in a situation where the person seemingly threatening you might be drunk, or off their meds, or simply confused about which is their car or the right address.

I am not talking about hypotheticals. Look at the string of recent incidents in the news: the 20-year-old woman shot for being in a car that turned into the wrong driveway, the teenage boy shot for ringing the wrong doorbell, the cheerleaders shot for getting in the wrong car in a supermarket parking lot, the 6-year-old girl shot while trying to retrieve a basketball from her neighbor’s yard. Do these gun owners feel justified in shooting because an unwanted person came too close, invaded their space? I have been in situations when I felt threatened and pulled out my gun. But that is what the training is for: You should shoot someone only as a last resort, you’re taught. You should not shoot just because you feel wronged or scared and can’t control your fear or frustration.

My education as a liberal gun owner began when my 70-year-old mother, living in Bel Air, Los Angeles, felt that she needed to get a pistol. My sister and I were against it, figuring that if she ever tried to use it, the most likely outcome would be that she would shoot my father. Despite our objections, she bought herself a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum. That same day, my father bought himself a Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun (I assumed to defend himself from intruders, not from my mother).

Neither of my parents ever ended up using their gun, so far as I know, in any real-life situation. But the sort of home invasion they feared happened to my wife, Heather, and me, at our house in Hollywood. After that traumatic experience, we made the wrenching decision to keep a firearm in our home. Heather, a very logical neuroscientist, reluctantly agreed that it was warranted; we came to an understanding about my having the gun by which Heather said, in effect, “I can accept this; I just don’t want to be reminded of it.” By this time, my mother was 80 and complaining of arthritis, and so I suggested that she let me borrow her Smith & Wesson—just until her arthritis cleared up, we said. It’s not the gun I would have bought for myself, but I kept it. I didn’t like the idea of selling it in case it wound up in the hands of someone who might use it in a crime (even though California is one of the few states that maintains a central database of firearms transfers); so I preferred to hold on to my mom’s pistol and registered it in my name.

Two years later, another intruder entered our property. As I’ve previously described, I was sitting at my desk one morning, looking out at the garden, and I saw a man peering into the windows and doors, trying each of them to see if they were unlocked. I called the police and told them what was going on. I didn’t know if the man was armed, if he had lock-picking tools, or even if I had remembered to lock all the doors and windows.

“We’re too busy to come out now,” the dispatcher said, “but call us back if he gets in the house.” To that, I said: “I am armed, and I’m worried that if he gets into the house, I may not have the time to call you, and there may be a much bigger mess here for you to clean up.” She said someone would be there in 20 minutes (an eternity when you’re on alert).

I got out my mother’s gun, took a deep breath, and started to run through different scenarios. If the intruder was armed, I might have to shoot him. I would have to live knowing that I had killed a man—justifiably, according to the law—but I’d spend the rest of my life wondering if there had been other options. There was a more practical issue: I am a good shot, but I’m no professional—how would I perform in a high-stress situation against someone who may do this for a living?

I snuck out through the garage with the .357 in my waistband and waited on the corner for the police. When the patrol car arrived, I held my hands out in front of me, palms facing them, and told them I was the one who’d called, and that I had a gun in my waistband. “Thanks for telling us,” the lead officer said. “Just don’t reach for it.” They went to the house and found the man still trying to get in; they arrested him without violent incident.

Afterward, the officer suggested that I’d do better protecting our home with a shotgun—you’re more likely to hit and stop an assailant, he explained, when you’re under pressure. My father had never even taken his Remington out of the case, and he agreed to let me “borrow” that too. Heather adapted to having the second gun in the house as long as I took care of it and she didn’t have to think about it.

Since then, we have not had another burglary or forced entry. But a couple of harrowing incidents did occur because of a “destination stalker” who slept in her car for a month in our neighborhood in hopes of finding me. When she did, she told me that the world was going to end in 2035 because of something involving music and the brain, and that I, as a neuroscientist who had written on that subject, was the only person in the world who could help her warn people. The LAPD got involved. (This being Hollywood, the department has a dedicated stalker unit.)

The police detective knew from the state registry that I had firearms—and he was glad to hear that I did. When the police are happy you have a gun, you know there is more violent crime than they can handle. (I am keenly aware that if I were a person of color, my conversation with the police could have been very different.)

I hope I never need to use my guns. My wife and I would like to live in a country where everyone feels that way. But how can we hope to remove the guns from American society, the firearms in so many homes like ours? We can’t. That is the conundrum we face: The individual’s decision to be armed feels rational, maybe is rational, but the societal sum of all those individual decisions is madness. That is the country, the place, we live in now.

I have spent my career studying the way the human brain works and how it can be influenced, including by stress. We know that when individuals are extremely stressed, their decision-making can be impaired, leading to impulsive or irrational behavior. When someone has a firearm, a single moment of impaired judgment can have devastating consequences. Just this week, a driver raced through a stop sign at a crosswalk in my neighborhood at 50 miles per hour, almost knocking me and my dog over. I didn’t have my gun, but for a moment I wanted to shoot at his tires.

Wanting and doing should be very different things. My firearms instructor repeats the mantra: Never pull out the gun unless you are facing an undeniable threat to human life. Not “I am feeling uncomfortable,” or “This might be threatening,” but an unambiguously imminent danger. “Okay,” he says. “You shot someone in self-defense. There will almost certainly be a trial, and the judge and jury will be asking themselves, Did he have any other options at all?” Practicing all this in your head, and feeling it in your heart, are key—so that when the adrenaline kicks in, you can rely on your training.

One night, when we knew the stalker was still lurking in the neighborhood, we heard a loud, insistent pounding on our front door. I locked the door to our bedroom and called the police. Heather suggested that I try to find a clear path out of the house; meanwhile, she’d stay in the bedroom. I agreed, but I wasn’t going to leave her unarmed. I handed her the shotgun. She held it for the first time. One of the things I love about Heather is her unflagging idealism; another thing I love is that when push comes to shove, she is very practical.

The police came and we didn’t have to use our firearms after all. But reality had forced Heather to do something she never imagined she would do and really didn’t want to. We at least had the solace of each other’s company, straddling the line of this impossible moral quandary of gun ownership.