Are guns an effective form of personal protection? Will having a gun in your house do anything to protect you and your family?
This article examines this through the exploration of game theory.
Consider the following (and yes, it reads like an excerpt from a cliché thriller novel).
Out in the ‘burbs, a family is asleep in their home. Mum, dad and their three children; Dale, 18; Macy, 14 and Chloe, 8. Big two story house in a beige suburb with well-manicured lawns and a whole heap of local ordinances and by-laws to make sure nothing ever strays from the tediously boring. At 1am, Dad awakes to what sounds like a window frame opening and something clunking in the kitchen.
Fearing the worst, Dad pulls out the pistol he keeps locked in his bedside drawer and creeps downstairs to check it out.
The house is shrouded in darkness, and Dad keeps the lights off to avoid detection. Looking down the corridor he sees the outline of a man at the end of the hall. He can hear muttering sounds and gurgles; incoherent babble. A madman? A deranged killer? Adrenaline surges, and in that precarious instinctive computation of fight or flight, the primordial dice turn up fight. Without thinking, Dad draws the gun level and fires at the figure in the darkness.
In quite a number of states in the US, there is no duty or obligation to retreat when a person reasonably perceives a threat to their person; even more so when they are in their own home. What Dad did was stand his ground- he shot a man he reasonably perceived to be a threat. Moreover, he was a fully licensed and responsible gun owner.
He did nothing wrong.
The only problem in this scenario is that the man in the darkness was Dale. Going to bed early because he ‘had a test in the morning’, Dale had actually snuck out and gotten stoned with his friend Jeremy. After a fun couple of hours doing what teenage stoners do – talk about other times they got blazed – Dale got the munchies and thought it best to return home, where he knew that there was a tube of Pringles lurking somewhere in the pantry. Dale’s problem was that in his state he must have dropped his keys on the walk home. After considering laying on the lawn and reflecting upon whether or not the universe was a figment of his friend Fin’s imagination, Dale decided to slide off the dodgy security screen on the kitchen window and climb in through there. Unable to find the Pringles, Dale began to debate to himself whether or not to cook an omelette.
Which was around the time Dad shot Dale.
Great story mate, you’re obvious a gun-bashing leftie with no understanding of the ‘real world’ (whatever the fuck that actually is).
The point of this story is not to say gun-owners are nothing but reckless rednecks whose idea of responsible gun ownership is not leaving a child under 5 unattended with a loaded gun for more than 5 minutes. I grew up with firearms, and I was fortunate enough to learn about guns from a step father who instilled in me unequivocal rules about how my brother and I were to behave around, and with, firearms. He made it very clear that a gun is not a toy, it is a tool – a tool capable of horrific consequences from the slightest misuse.
In a rural environment, they were an absolute necessity for two very important things – the control of feral animals (have you ever witnessed the damage a wild dog can do?) and to avoid unnecessarily prolonging the suffering of dying livestock. They were clinical tools to be treated with absolute respect. For my farming friends, rest assured this article is not about limiting guns for farmers. Anyone who thinks farmers can get by without guns has never spent time in a rural area and, quite frankly, has no credibility in the gun control argument.
No, this article is concerned with this increasing obsession from urbanised middle class white males on social media that guns are vital for their personal protection. In what follows, I will be exploring how urban people possessing guns are actually the antithesis of personal protection, and how firearms have become a means of feeling safer; as opposed to being safer.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma
In international relations, scenarios are often examined through the use of ‘logic games’. These are theoretical exercises which allow practitioners to analyse decision-making between two parties. Game Theory was used by security experts throughout the Cold War to better understand nuclear deterrence strategy between the United States and the Soviet Union. It is the process by which the macabre notion of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) came into our lexicon.
Whilst an interesting concept, its application to issues of international security can be somewhat limited because international relations issues are not simple-sum scenarios; they are highly complex, multifaceted situations involving state and non-state actors. However, it found a niche in issues of Cold War nuclear security because the sheer destructive power of such weapons meant nuclear war was, in essence, a zero-sum game. Hence, in less ‘complicated’ scenarios, it is a fantastic tool through which we can analyse problems and consequences.
If we were to narrow down the field of analysis from international relations to human-to-human conflict, then a prisoner’s dilemma is a highly effective tool for understanding why guns do not increase personal security.
But, what the fuck is the Prisoner’s Dilemma?
The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a game of logic utilised in the social sciences to examine how two parties cooperate or compete with each other in certain circumstances. Simplistically, it is predicated on the notion of two prisoner’s having been arrested and charged with a crime. The problem for the police, however, is that there is insufficient evidence to actually prosecute the pair.
The two prisoners are separated, and the police offer each of them a bargain – that they confess and implicate the other for a lesser sentence. They are both told the other suspect has been made the same offer, and that the penalty will be much harsher if one holds out whilst the other confesses. If they both confess and implicate each other, they will receive the standard sentence.
For the sake of simplicity, if P1 confesses and P2 does not, then P1 will receive a one year sentence and P2 three years. If both confess, then they will both get two years. On the flip side, if both hold out, then there will be insufficient evidence to prosecute and they are free to go.
|Prisoner’s dilemma||P1 Confesses||P1 Stays Silent|
|P2 Confesses||P1 & P2 get 2 years in prison
|P1 gets 3 years, P2 gets 1 year in prison (3/1)|
|P2 Stays Silent||P1 gets 1 year, P2 gets 3 years in prison (1/3)||P1 and P2 walk free (0/0)|
Quite simply, there is an incentive to stay silent, but it requires both parties to trust that the other will stay silent in order to get the best possible outcome.
The game can be made more interesting by adding unknown variables to the situation – if you are P1, let’s say you don’t know who P2 actually is – do they have sufficient knowledge of your criminal activities to even implicate you? Do you know enough about theirs to implicate them? In essence, it is an issue about trust and mutual benefit through cooperation. You are being asked to make a decision regarding cooperation and competition, but you are doing it blind.
Right, and how does something about prisoners apply to guns?
This is where it gets interesting.
Let’s modify the above scenario so as to take out the emotive aspects which were designed to bait you into the story before boring you with game theory.
Transposing the Prisoner’s Dilemma onto the concept of guns for personal protection, we are left with a dark corridor in P1’s house. At one end stands P1, at the other stands P2. P1 has no idea or ability to perceive who P2 is – he is just able to make out that someone is standing there. Who P2 is actually irrelevant – rather, P1 has to make a decision about whether P2 is a threat or ‘friendly’.
P1 has the following options:
- Shoot P2.
- Turn on the lights and determine who P2 is.
- Keep the lights off and confront P2 non-lethally.
|P1/P2||P1 Shoots||P1 Does not shoot.|
|P2 is a threat||Threat is averted. P2 is dead (0/3).||P2 survives. P2 is still a threat to P1 (2/2).|
|P2 is friendly||P1 has shot a friend (2/3).||Friend survives (0/0).|
Obviously, the ideal situation is that if P2 is a threat, then he is shot, and if he is a friend, he is not shot.
The problem, however, is that guns exponentially shorten the amount of time between identifying a threat and determining whether or not to terminate it. What if there is a decent chance that P2 is armed? If you lived in a society with a high rate of gun crime, this is not something that can be ignored and left to chance. Yet in a dark corridor you cannot identify the difference between friend and foe. The only way to do this would be to either shout at P2 or turn on a light which, if P2 is armed, creates a potential Western-esque shootout scenario with a high risk of death and injury.
Rational intruders and guns.
The key theme here is that humans are inherently self-preserving creatures. Faced with a situation of threat, most humans will instinctively act in a manner which they believe will offer them the greatest possibility of preserving their own life. If a man comes into your house with a gun because they believe that you might be armed, then logic determines that they will not hesitate to use their gun. They came prepared with a weapon to ameliorate your potential superiority (the possibility that you are armed). If they perceive a threat, the situation becomes kill or be killed.
It becomes quite apparent that shooting P2 is quite a brutal option, with significant risk that a person could be risking the people they care about. Looking at the United States, some important statistics to remember are that for every time a gun is used at home to kill or injure in self-defence, there are:
- 11 gun suicides completed or attempted;
- 7 criminal assaults or homicides using a gun;
- 4 unintentional shooting deaths or injuries.
Further, children in the United States are 17 times more likely to die from a gun than their peers in 25 other high income countries combined, despite being only 43% of the sample population. Just as firearm proliferation creates a high octane environment of kill or be killed between criminals and their victims, a gun in the house makes occupying children significantly less safe (and that is before you examine child suicides in the United States).
Instead of shooting, what are the other options?
Turning on the lights and determining the identity of P2?
|P1/P2||P1 Turns on lights.||P1 Keeps lights off.|
|P2 is a threat||P1 reveals himself, P1 & P2 must make decisions between fight or flight.||Keeps presence secret. P2 does not know they are there.|
|P2 is friendly||P1 knows that P2 is not a threat, violent confrontation avoided.||P1 still unaware that P2 is friendly.|
Keep the lights off and confront P2 non-lethally?
|P1/P2||P1 Non-lethally confronts P2.||P1 Does not confront.|
|P2 is a threat.||P2 is aware that they have been detected. They are confronted with a choice of fight or flight.||P2 remains a threat to P1.|
|P2 is friendly.||P2 might be hurt, but they survive.||P2 survives.|
For the purposes of experimentation, I challenge you to consider your approaches to the two options above in two ways. Firstly, how would you look at the options and payoffs in a society with a high prevalence of guns? Secondly, in a society with very few guns? Hold onto that thought as we proceed.
Those are tables of options- not a prisoner’s dilemma!
What I was attempting above was to set out clearly what a person’s options are should they choose a course of action to in regards to confronting an ‘intruder’ – irrespective of their identity.The problem with the above options is that they are overly simplistic, and present options without regard for the fact that there is a variable that dramatically affects the consequences which arise should a particular option be taken.
That variable is the proliferation of firearms in a society. P1 and P2 may exist as an abstract in a hypothetical hallway eerily reminiscent of the labyrinth, but they do not exist in a vacuum completely oblivious to societal context. Wherever we decide to situate the hypothetical hallway, P1 and P2 are going to be products of that society. They are both rational, contextualised individuals.
Now let’s replay the scenario, but in a society where there is a much higher number of guns, and an irresponsible lack of regulation.
You can buy and trade firearms easily, and the proliferation of guns makes it difficult to track rogue sellers and black market dealings. In the above scenarios, the problem for P1 is that revealing his presence means the potential that P2 may attack him instead of fleeing. Before taking any course of action, P1 has to consider what the dangers are for himself. In a context where firearms are more prolific, an individual in the hypothetical hallway must take into account the chance that P2 has a gun. Quite simply, the more guns in society, the more likely the unknown person is armed. Suddenly, revealing your presence to P2 is exponentially more dangerous; if he is armed, you are at a disadvantage because you have given up the element of surprise.
The bigger problem is that if P2 is an intruder, then they are aware and prepared for the probability that a target house’s occupant is armed. They have quite obviously not been deterred by the presence of weapons, but rather are more likely to arm themselves as a precaution for an armed confrontation. This is the key – they are more predisposed to believing that a P1 will shoot them if discovered than vis-a-vis a society with less guns. Criminals don’t suddenly lose their instinct for self-preservation upon deciding to ignore the law and judicial consequences – if confronted with a potentially fatal scenario they will respond in kind.
This is the nexus of why guns for personal protection are such a flawed idea -they heighten tensions between the intruder and the occupant, exacerbating the risk of escalation with deadly consequences.
Enter the prisoner’s dilemma.
Reimagining the hypothetical tunnel scenario. Let’s consider that P1 and P2 are aware of each other’s presence. Nothing changes for P1, except he knows that P2 is aware he is there – he still does not know whether or not P2 is a threat or a friend, nor whether or not he is armed. P2 knows P1 has seen him, but does not know whether he is armed.
P2 understands that at the end of the corridor the occupant has seen him, he has the choice to flee or fight. It is mutually beneficial to the lives of both of them to flee – P1 to another part of the house, P2 to exit the premises. Put yourself in P2’s position and ask yourself what you would do? If you thought that the man at the other end of the corridor was armed, would you flee and risk getting shot as you turned around, or would you shoot?
As the prevalence of firearms in a society increases, so does the amount of risk a person in P2’s situation encounters by not shooting P1, or by entering the building unarmed. A higher number of guns in society creates a rational incentive for criminals to be similarly armed so as to not overly expose themselves to the risk of death or harm during the course of engaging in criminal activities. Suddenly, instead of being able to use the threat of physical violence to deter defensive action from homeowners, criminals have to possess and be ready to use lethal force. Combine that with the fact that P1 doesn’t know whether P2 has a gun and whether or not they are a friend or foe, and you begin to garner an understanding of the problem with guns as a means for personal protection.
The core theme here, if it has to be reduced to a vignette, is that guns create a self-perpetuating incentive for civilians and criminals to possess and be ready to use firearms. In this sense, it is not dissimilar to the nuclear arms race that occurred between the US and the USSR during the Cold War. Both countries poured enormous resources into missile and military technology in the hope of developing a decisive strategic advantage which would give them a first strike capacity that would render the other side’s nuclear arsenal redundant. But for every offensive development on one side, there was a counterbalancing defensive development on the other, so that neither side ever actually developed a clear first strike advantage. The balance of armaments and nuclear technology between the two countries meant that in the event of a nuclear attack, both sides were assured to be destroyed because neither possess the ability to completely eradicate the other side’s capacity to retaliate; a concept known as mutually assured destruction.
People want guns because it gives the impression of safety, not because it actually makes them any safer. We are naturally emotional beings; rationality and logic are learned responses designed to moderate and redirect emotional reaction to external stimuli through the application of our acquired knowledge and learning. Analysing guns and personal protection as one individual, it makes entirely good sense why you would want to possess a firearm – it gives you the ability to defend yourself from threats. But no human exists entirely as an island unto themselves. The decisions you make, when magnified by the decisions of others, creates social contexts and circumstances that must be responded to and negotiated. Criminals have existed as long as there has been organised society and greed overwhelming means, and they will continue to exist. Armed civilians only deter crime so long as the risk is not worth the payoff. Greed and desperation are endless, and eventually the payoff for the individual criminal is high enough to warrant the risk, or the criminal finds a means to ameliorate that risk. They can alter this equilibrium by arming themselves.
In the United States this is phenomenally easy to do. Despite the belief that most guns used for crime in the United States are stolen from private homes, the fact is that, absurdly, most are purchased through legal sellers – often by one person on behalf of another, or by corrupt licensed traders. So in a country where there are 112 licensed firearms for every 100 citizens, there are suddenly enormous incentives for criminals to arm themselves, and this process is facilitated by a regulatory process with more loopholes than actual regulation.
The pro-gun mantra chanted by the likes Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association that ‘the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun’ is clearly not working in the most overly-armed country on the planet with a violent death rate that does not belong amongst high-income nations. Weapon proliferation is inseparable from this undeniable truth because guns inherently demand more guns, and more guns mean less thinking and more shooting- lest you be shot yourself.
Let’s reduce this to its core notion – when you are standing at the end of the corridor, every 1% increase in firearms in your society is a 1% increase in the chance the other person is armed. Do you want to trust that the other person will choose the mutually beneficial option and flee so you both survive? Do you risk waiting or revealing yourself and risk a Wild West pistol duel?
That is what is going through Dad’s mind in the moment he squeezed the trigger that released the pin that struck the casing that ignited the powder that propelled the 9mm slug at 1200 feet per second down a narrow corridor until it lodged itself in Dale the Stoned Teenager’s head. Dale the Stoned Teenager is now dead. Poetic yet macabre, which is really a tragic metaphor for how counterproductive the obsession with guns as a means of protection has become.
What people need to understand is that guns are a personal weapon unlike any other in the course of human history. There has never been a weapon that, wielded comfortably by the individual, can so easily and so precisely do the damage of a firearm at the slight squeeze of an index finger. It means that any time a dangerous situation potentially involves a firearm, the consequences for both parties become significantly more lethal, yet the time to react and analyse the situation is dramatically shorter.
If all your ‘adversary’ has to do is draw and squeeze to kill you in an instance, you don’t have time to figure out who the person is and whether they are armed. You don’t have time to decide whether or not that person will cooperate by not firing. The only rational solution is to shoot, whether in protection or in crime.
Right across America that situation plays out every day from sidewalk muggings to home invasions and accidental killings. Would you rather be robbed and feel indignant, or would you rather risk your own life and the wellbeing of your family by creating an incentive for criminals to be armed and dangerous?
Remember, feeling safe and being safe are not necessarily the same thing.