Robert C. Koehler

"But my instinct was that if someone is shooting at you, it is generally better to shoot back than to cower and pray."

This is the hidden argument for guns as America's primary peacekeepers -- that the debate comes down to gun ownership vs. helplessness.

Jeffrey Goldberg's 7,000-word essay, "The Case for More Guns (and More Gun Control)," which ran in the December issue of The Atlantic -- just prior to the Newtown killings -- came down, for me, to the above sentence.

He made a number of quasi-reasonable points, the main one being that there are 300 million guns in America right now and it's simply too late for gun control to be effective: ". . . only the naive think that legislation will prevent more than a modest number of the criminally minded, and the mentally deranged, from acquiring a gun in a country absolutely inundated with weapons."

While he called for a number of sensible measures, such as closing the massive gun-show no-background-check loophole, requiring stringent training before someone can be eligible for a conceal-and-carry permit and restricting the sale of drum-style magazines that can hold 100 rounds of ammo -- all allegedly demonstrating his lack of fanaticism on the issue -- he ultimately makes the big surrender to the gun lobby: " . . . could it be that an effective way to combat guns is with more guns?"

We're stuck, America. The guns are out there and would-be mass murderers and every other sort of punk and gangbanger who wants one is going to get one -- laws or no laws -- and we're all in danger. Maybe there's a way to keep yourself and your children safe without a gun, but if there is, Jeffrey Goldberg doesn't know about it.

"I have a daughter," he even says at one point -- commenting on what seem to be remarkably lame instructions at various "no guns allowed" universities to ward off mass murderers, rapists, etc. -- "and I'd rather have her have the ability to defend herself." Presumably he means he wants his daughter to be able to carry a handgun to class, though he doesn't say this outright.

He could suggest that she take a self-defense class, which is the suggestion I made to my own daughter a few years ago -- and she did, and gained sufficient self-confidence to handle a few troublesome situations. A good self-defense class first of all teaches presence of mind and awareness that one always has options in the face of danger -- a topic I will continue to address in future columns.

But back to the poor sap who has no better option than to "cower and pray" as the mayhem is going off around him. First of all, whether one is armed or unarmed, finding cover is probably a sensible plan, but calling it "cowering" probably is not. And when one is not in immediate danger but merely writing about the generic possibility of danger in gun-saturated America, to imagine only two options for oneself, one of which is to cower and the other is to shoot back, is to regurgitate propaganda and lay the groundwork for perpetual fear.

Before we need a gun debate in this country, or on this planet, we need a sensible discussion about the nature of empowerment, and we need to wrest the concept from the hands -- if necessary, the cold, dead hands -- of gun-industry shills, who claim that unarmed means disempowered, and who forget, among much else, to warn us that it's possible to be both armed and disempowered, and that this is perhaps the most dangerous state of all.

"Most assailants work from a definite set of expectations about how the victim will respond, and they need the victim to act like a victim," theologian Walter Wink wrote in "The Powers That Be." And, he said, the best way not to "act like a victim" is to respond to a threat from outside the expectations of the attacker -- not with flailing fear or paralyzed surrender, not with prayerful cowering, but, sheerly, with presence of mind. In such a state, your self-defense options multiply.

Several years ago, I wrote a column called "Presence of Mind," in which I relayed several stories told to me by friends about how they (in one case it was my friend's mom) diffused dangerous situations without a weapon. In both cases, the key was maintaining eye contact with the assailant and, as Wink said, refusing to act like a victim. I then invited readers to email their own stories to me about defusing a threat with unarmed presence of mind.

The idea was to start piercing the myth of unarmed helplessness that is the invisible companion of the gun discussion. I agree with Goldberg that the 300 million guns in this country aren't going to simply vanish, and any attempt to ban or, heaven forbid, confiscate them will set off a "Prohibition effect" that will surely make matters worse. I also agree that occasionally armed civilians thwart or curtail dangerous situations. For good or ill, I have no choice but to coexist with the gun culture.

What I don't want is to see the gun culture or its sidekick, the fear culture, spread. I don't want to see guns become as common as cellphones. The only long-term antidote to the plague of violence that's consuming us is a culture of empowerment, which is a "pre-armed" state, you might say.

Please send me stories of unarmed dispersion of danger. I plan to re-launch a clearinghouse of such stories and contribute to the establishment of a new American consciousness about violence.


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