A Burden to Carry

In response to the suggestion that people should carry their firearms in church to protect against mass shooters, my Federalist colleague Tom Nichols has advanced “a much better solution. The United States should allocate funds for the purchase and distribution of bullet-resistant vests and body armor in every place of worship across our great nation.”

“If we are that concerned,” Nichols argues, “and we believe that every American in church should be able to survive the smallest possible risk of every possible eventuality, then this is a low-cost, low-risk solution.”

This is all in jest, of course, as Nichols himself admits; his point is that “America is not rational with guns,” and that the “American gun cult” has infected our national process of problem-solving, at the expense of rational risk assessment:

Most people will snort at the ridiculousness of packing every parishioner in Kevlar, and rightly so, because the risk of needing body armor on any given Sunday is so low it is pointless even to try to calculate the odds. The whole exercise is costly and stupid, and that’s why we won’t do it.

But offer up the chance for a heroic interlude from an action movie, and suddenly statistics and risk go right out the stained-glass window. It’s not sexy to help on Grandma with her ceramic plates, but the majestic, slo-mo imagery of reaching for that weapon as your fellow citizens dive behind the pews right as the lone madman bursts into the church during the Gospel reading is irresistible.

We live in a world full of risks. I have been the victim of violent crime; a member of my immediate family was shot at in a terrorist attack many years ago. And yet, I live my life, in both my small town and the big cities in which I work, mostly afraid of the things far more likely to kill me: texting drivers and slippery stairs. This is not because I am unafraid of terrorists or madmen, but because I passed high school mathematics.

There are a number of problems with this rather unexamined hypothesis, but first it is worth pointing out that this interpretation of people who carry concealed weapons—that they are interested in “heroic interludes,” “slo-mo imagery,” that they fancy themselves as heroes in “action movies”—does not readily comport with the vast majority of concealed weapon carriers, or at least those with which I have regular contact. Virtually every gun carrier I am aware of does not relish the chance to use his or her firearm; they do not find the thought of a shootout “irresistible.” This is a silly and nonfactual evaluation of concealed carry culture, the obvious product of having never spent that much time around people who carry weapons on a regular basis. Ignorance is very much a handicap in public debate, even when said ignorance is concealed behind sneering rhetoric.

Nichols’s hypothetical in this case also betrays a dearth of knowledge about the basic mechanics and even the economics of gun carrying. Wearing a Kevlar vest is bulky, hot, awkward, and uncomfortable; wearing a gun, assuming you have the right holster and you’re not packing a Desert Eagle, is none of these things. The price points are also wildly incomparable: outfitting everyone in a quality Kevlar vest would be far, far more expensive than a small handful of trained and qualified individuals buying handguns and bringing them to church (and those people probably already have handguns, rendering the whole point moot to begin with).

That leaves the consideration of what Nichols calls “mathematics:” we are apparently supposed to leave our guns at home because the “statistics and risk” tell us it’s a bad idea to carry a firearm in church (or I guess anywhere). I think we are supposed to believe that the odds of shooting oneself or someone else with one’s own gun is greater than the odds of using one’s gun to stop a mass murderer, and so we should leave our gun at home for the sake of safety (because “mathematics” tell us this is the right thing to do).

Let us stipulate that the odds of finding oneself in a mass church shooting are very low. They are also not zero, as the terrible events of last week proved. Of course, the odds of a negligent discharge are also not zero—but with one important caveat: you can control those odds to a significant degree. If you follow the four simple rules of gun safety at all times and wherever you are, the chances of you shooting yourself or an innocent person more or less turns into a rounding error.

One can exercise no such control over a mass shooter, however. We can pass certain laws (or enforce the ones we already have), but we can never affect the odds of a mass shooting in the way one can affect the odds of accidentally shooting an innocent person with our own firearms. The latter you can manage very easily; the former is much more difficult. All of which is to say: carrying your firearm in church, or anywhere else, makes sense so long as you’re doing it appropriately—and it’s not hard to do it appropriately. Those who are profoundly afraid of carrying guns—who think “high school mathematics” dictate that the risk is simply too much to bear—are welcome to not carry them. But it is perfectly sensible to carry a weapon if you so desire it and you are properly capable of doing so. Those who argue otherwise are interested in pushing an agenda, not logic and facts.

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