A Gun-Holdup Victim on Whether He Wishes He Had Been Armed

Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Previously in this series:

Today, Eric Kingsbury, of San Francisco, on what he has thought, and felt, about guns after being robbed at gunpoint a year and a half ago. I should note that all the links in his dispatch are ones he added himself:

I’ve faced down a loaded gun once in my life. It was 10 PM on the night before the Fourth of July in 2016 and I was walking to the train from a friend’s house in Berkeley. Almost as soon as I walked out of my friend’s driveway, a kid ran across to the street to ask me if I had a phone. I told him I didn’t and asked that he leave me alone. That’s when he began to ask more forcefully. Within seconds I felt a hand over my mouth, as two other kids ran out from the shadows. I was completely helpless and, for the first time in my adult life, I wasn’t in control of my body or my fate.

The kid to my right showed me his gun. He told me he would, “pop a cap in you if you scream or tell anyone,” which would have been darkly funny—the sort of thing someone thinks they should say to sound hard—in almost any other circumstance. He then put the gun back in his sweatshirt pocket and pushed it up against my stomach. Meanwhile, his other two friends went to work grabbing my phone, peeling off my backpack, and checking all my pockets. Once they had everything, they let me go. It didn’t last more than 30 seconds, tops.

The aftermath of the whole situation was a bit of a blur. There was talking to the cops, a very restless night, and the conversations with all my friends and family the following morning. All of it was difficult, especially learning the truth that many of my most liberal-minded friends and family actually held quite retrograde views on race—the assailants were black, and I am white—that they felt freed to share now that something that they’d heard about so many times in the media had happened to “one of us.” But there was one question I got over and over again, one that really surprised me: Would it have been different if you had a gun?

Every time I was asked my mind flashed back and I replayed the situation. When would I have pulled the gun? Would I have grabbed it before they grabbed me? Would I have been able to shoot them? Would we have been in a gun battle on a quiet Berkeley street? Would I have ‘won’?

The kids were teenagers and, as the science bears out, teens don’t have the best judgment. If they had felt a gun while they were patting me down, how would they have reacted? My guess was they would have panicked. In the best-case scenario, they would have taken the gun; in the worst case, I’d be dead. I could not imagine a scenario where we both had guns and everything just worked out. Still, I was struck that so many people were even open to the idea of carrying a concealed weapon at all times, let alone that they would suggest that it might have prevented something like what happened to me.

It got me thinking more and more about our gun culture and how, even in the most liberal enclaves of the Bay Area, using a gun to protect yourself from crime was an accepted idea. The truth is that most muggings like mine are random—more crimes of opportunity than anything. Per the Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent crime is split evenly between strangers and non-strangers—even then there were only 386.3 violent crimes per 100,000 people in 2016. All of which is to say, we’re talking about an exceedingly rare situation when you would even find yourself using a gun for protection.

There are two things in play here. The first is that there is a perception that violent crime is much more common than that statistics bear out. This is almost certainly driven by the media coverage of crime, especially in urban areas. One study showed that when people “hear about the incident multiple times, probably over a period of months... This has been shown to lead to disproportionate and inaccurate views of actual crime rates within the city.”

But it’s not just the media, the human mind plays a role here, too. We are prone to what Michael Shermer calls ‘folk numeracy’ which he describes as “our natural tendency to misperceive and miscalculate probabilities, to think anecdotally instead of statistically, and to focus on and remember short-term trends and small-number runs.” To make matter worse, people are exceptionally bad at grasping probabilities because we “try to pay attention only to the current numbers, and not the way they change over time.” Even though crime, especially violent crime, has dropped dramatically over the last few decades, the public perception doesn’t align with the data. It’s no wonder the people feel the need to be protected from crime—which is far and away the most cited reason for gun ownership.

The second driver here is Hollywood. Not to sound like a conservative here—I am not—but the way Hollywood portrays the use of guns has helped make the concept of gun ownership for self-protection more palatable.

Just think of how many times you’ve seen this scene: the good guy is surrounded, there’s no way out. He’s doomed but … he has a gun. A gun battle ensues. He only has one clip, but he manages to shoot his way out, taking down two, three, four guys with only 12 rounds. Barely a scratch or only a flesh wound. The day is saved, the show can go on.

It’s a standard Hollywood trope, a hallmark of any decent action movie. And while most don’t fashion themselves Liam Neeson, Bruce Willis, or Jason Statham, it’s not unlikely that watching these scenes over and over has created the false perception that, with a gun, anyone could fight their way out of a violent situation. After all, to quote Mary McCarthy, “we are the hero of our own story.”

Of course, the truth is more complicated. Just as the officers on site at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School could not bring themselves to enter the building as the shooter moved through, people often struggle with using deadly force even when their lives are threatened. Entire books have been written about the topic and, amongst experts, “the possible existence of an innate resistance to killing, in most healthy citizens, is widely accepted.“ Even if someone were to find themselves armed and in the sort of rare situation that I found myself in, it’s not certain that they’d be able to bring themselves to use their weapon at all. And, if they did, it’s unlikely they’d be accurate—the NYPD only has an 18 percent hit rate, despite being some of the best-trained officers in the country.

It’s a tough conversation but, as a victim of a violent crime, I still find myself questioning the need for guns in our society. The truth is that they do not make us safer and the perception of security that they give off is nothing more than an illusion. With all of that in mind, I still understand why we’re so attached to guns and how the mind—and our culture—can trick us into thinking that we need to keep them around. It goes without saying that something needs to change but unless we begin to feel safer and see guns as a cause of not a solution to violence, then I don’t see how gun deaths drop anytime soon.

On a similar theme of what guns can and cannot do for their owners, a reader in the Midwest writes about the idea that guns, notably including the AR-15, would represent a bulwark against state tyranny:

I used to own a gun. I got it because I was an activist in the 60s.  The FBI had a program to infiltrate and cause havoc in the anti-war and black power movements of the day. The hostility towards anti-war demonstrators from those who supported American intervention in Vietnam was often visceral. The debates didn’t need to be amplified through talking heads on Fox and MSNBC as they are today.

Believe it or not, years later a roommate who ‘hated guns’ took mine and turned it over to the police on one of those gun amnesty days:  the original “don’t talk, don’t tell.” No questions asked.

So I do have a question for your readers who believe owning a gun will protect them against some future repressive, even fascistic, government they envision. Are you kidding me?!  

Sure, the Bundy family and others have warded off law enforcement with a few handguns, rifles—and tons of media coverage. But referencing Russia and China in the first half of the 20th century to support the amassing of a small arsenal in your home is as foolish as thinking ducking under a classroom desk in the ‘50s could save us from atomic fallout. Let’s be realistic: All the NRA members working as one couldn’t make a dent in the firepower that an illegal or impostor U.S. government, brought on by a coup or massive repression, would have at its disposal. An AR-15 is useless against tanks.

Hunting? Personal home protection? Fine. Once again, however, you have to wonder how much pro-gun fever in the U.S. is rooted in romanticism, nostalgia and plumage-stuffing. Don’t kid yourself: owning an AR-15 won't make you a neo-American Revolutionary.