Thursday, January 1, 2015

You need to do the gun math

Kent firing a Thompson submachine gun at the FBI range
    You don't want to rush to make hay from a tragedy, dipping your fingers into the fresh blood to underscore your political points.

      Besides, the poor woman who was shot to death by her 2-year-old in a Walmart in Idaho this week, well, really, do you really have to comment? It's clear, isn't it?
      Then I read that the mother was a nuclear researcher. Which just shows how this is not a matter of intelligence, but emotion. 
      Frankly, I view the argument about guns as purely a question of math.  If she had weighed the probability of a felon assaulting her in a way that let her get to the gun in her purse—in slow motion perhaps—versus the odds that her 2-year-old might dig into her purse when she wasn't looking, well, that isn't much of a puzzler either.
     I wrote this column nearly 20 years ago. It lays out my views on the subject in a way which even the staunchest gun rights advocate couldn't debate. Not that anybody's really debating this anymore.
     I've decided to include a few photos of myself and the boys when we were guests of the FBI at its training range in North Chicago, just to show that we're not anti-gun fanatics. We shot guns, we had fun, though we also left the guns with the FBI. where they belong and didn't start toting them around with us. Because guns are dangerous—that's seems really obvious, stated plainly. But look how many people miss this, to their sorrow.
     As a coda, after this column was published, there were two unexpected reactions. First, a top manager at the newspaper called me into his office and yelled at me. See if you can guess what he yelled at me for. And second, I received more complaints about this column than any other I've ever written in my entire career—thousands of angry emails—but not from gun rights advocates, or anything having to do with guns. Can you guess what set people off? I'll tell you after the story.

     The goal was to buy some aspirin. Nothing expensive — aspirin is aspirin. So I went for the generic store brand. But Walgreens has two types: "Extra Strength" 500 mg tablets, and regular, 325 mg tablets. I reached for the 500 mg size. I like to think of myself as an Extra Strength kind of guy.
A liberal takes aim.
     Then I stopped. The Extra Strength were $4.99 for 100 tablets. The regular, $3.99 for 300 tablets. I realized, to my horror, that I would have to do the math. I squinted hard. I held my breath. I let out a loud "Nnnnnnnn" sound that, I'm sure, attracted the attention of store clerks.
     One hundred tablets of 500 mg meant 50 two-pill doses of 1000 mg each; 300 regular tablets meant 100 three-pill doses at 975 mg each. I was about to pay a dollar more for approximately half the amount of aspirin. I grabbed the regular.
     In a world where people stopped to do the math, Walgreens wouldn't sell many bottles of Extra Strength at that price.
     But people don't do the math, as a rule, instead basing their decisions on a sexy label, such as "Extra Strength."
     The problem is not limited to cost-comparison shopping. I was reminded of this while reading Michael O'Neill's letter to the Sun-Times this week. O'Neill says that he wants the legal right to carry a gun to protect himself. He points out that 38 states already allow residents to carry firearms, and reassures us that he has "no criminal intentions."
     There is sound math behind O'Neill's reasoning. A gun's usefulness is directly proportional to how available it is. If my handgun is locked in an attic safe, the range of instances where it could do me any good is severely limited. Should polite felons remember to phone first and say they're on their way over to get me, then I'd be ready.
      Otherwise, the gun is almost useless. If, however, that gun is loaded and on my hip, the set of circumstances when it might come in handy is greatly expanded -- unarmed felons who demand their money before hitting me over the head with a brick are in trouble, for instance.
     So at first glance, the answer is simple: O'Neill is right. We should all carry guns. There is, however, more math to do. Like usefulness, the danger of a handgun is also directly tied to its availability. Carrying a gun around increases the chances that I will shoot myself in the foot while drawing it to scare off the newspaper boy, or that I may decide to rakishly thrust the gun into my belt — the way they do in the movies! — and accidentally unman myself.
     Conversely, locking the gun in a safe in the attic lessens the chance that your little Timmy, whom you carefully trained in firearms safety, is going to have his head blown off by little Billy, the dim neighbor child who discovers your chrome plated .38 Special in the bureau drawer.
Ross tries the Glock.
     To me, the decision is a no-brainer, not based on the Constitution, but on probability. Police carry guns because they can reasonably expect to encounter crime during an average day. I am not a policeman. Even if I thought I'd be attacked once a year, I wouldn't carry a gun. Because the slim chance it would help me during the few seconds of the attack wouldn't balance out against the risk the gun would pose to me and my family every moment of the rest of the year.
     I'm not anti-gun. Like any little boy, I love guns. I have fired handguns at target ranges and enjoyed doing so. But I wouldn't own one, for the same reason I wouldn't own a Bengal tiger. The pleasure of having a big cat padding around the apartment just doesn't outweigh the risk that — no matter how tame — the tiger would one day decide it wants to taste the baby.
     Maybe that makes me a coward.
     I wouldn't ride a motorcycle either. I understand that they are a lot of fun, that there is a close-knit community of motorcyclists, that a Harley-Davidson is a work of art whose engine sounds like God Almighty clearing his throat.
     But I also know that the nurses at Presbyterian-St. Luke's call them "donorcycles" and the answer to my favorite party trivia question — "Why are there more heart transplants in summer than in winter?" — is, "Because people ride motorcycles in summer, and that's where donated hearts come from."     
     In life, people put their chips down on the odds they like. I've placed my bets on a boring, work-a-daddy four-door sedan with an airbag and a shoulder belt. And any felon who asks for my wallet can have it -- to tell you the truth, even if I had a gun, I like to think I wouldn't shoot somebody over $17 and a few credit cards anyway.    
     But a lot of people would. A lot of people are so eager to shoot somebody that they want to carry around loaded weapons. Balancing the hazy, hard-to-figure risk of popping some mischievous teen or hapless motorist or themselves against the crystal-clear, ingrained movie fantasy of Clint Eastwood gunning down bad guys, they chose the fantasy.
     Math is tough, after all, and not that much fun.
     —Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, April 14, 1996.
     What upset Larry Green about the above was that it mentioned Walgreens, a big advertiser, even in a neutral, discussing-the-price-of-aspirin fashion. They hadn't even complained; he was just terrified they might and, if I recall, the head of advertising had complained. I tried to explain my philosophy that specificity leads to more interesting writing. Didn't get me very far, but I'm still here, and he's long gone.
     And the line about the donorcycles enraged the top flack at the American Motorcyclist Association, the group that lobbies to allow motorcycle riders to not wear helmets, who wrote a deceptive post fingering me as the enemy of freedom and directing their membership to deluge me with hate emails, which they did. For years afterward, if I got an email saying simply, "You're an asshole," I would write back, "Don't believe everything your motorcycle masters tell you." 


  1. I had a family member who worked at Northwestern Hospital in the late 1970s tell me that they called them "donorcycles".
    As she worked in a neurosurgery ward, many of the patients were known as "GORKs", as in "God only really knows" if they will ever wake up.

  2. Guns are good. We need more guns. Repeal all gun laws now. Every person on Earth should be armed.

  3. I'm a 2nd amendment fanatic. I don't like motorcycles either I think they're dangerous. But to each his own if someone wants to ride and take the risk I'm tolerant of their choice. I hate Pit Bulls and Rottweilers. I think they're dangerous and unnecessary dogs but I've learned to be tolerant of other Americans love for their dogs.

    My love for the 2nd Amendment has taught me to be tolerant of a lot of political positions I despise. I think that is what Neil and International Liberalism (Newspapers-Hollywood-Academia) have to accept about guns. Just because you don't like the 'math' on guns or whatever doesn't give you the right to disarm the rest of America.

    Also you living in a North Shore suburb might give you a VERY different view of crime. Crime for you might be on channel 7 5:30 news but for us it's up close and personal. In the real world a gun is the difference between a woman being raped or a rapist's brain being splattered all over her kitchen floor. I'll take the mess on the kitchen floor over being raped.


    1. Or a mother's brain being splashed all over a Walmart. I try not to intrude upon another person's fantasy. Gun's are about assuaging terror. It only amplified the irony that you think your protection fantasy is the real world, while dismissing what actually unfolds all around you every day as a liberal dream.

    2. Here's my problem with your argument. As far as I can tell, Neil didn't say guns should be banned; he said that the risk of harming someone you love with a handgun is far higher than stopping a criminal. I think that's true. While you are right about crime in Northbrook, it's also true that most neighborhoods in Chicago are just as safe. If I lived in Auburn/Gresham, I would think about getting a gun. But I grew up in Uptown and lived in Bronzeville, and I never considered getting a gun.
      Just like your point about Rottweilers - you're allowed to have them, and if you take care of them, it's fine. Same thing with guns. If people would think about this rationally, and not base their decision on fear, there would be far fewer accidental shootings - more people would act as the majority of gun owners do - responsibly.

    3. [["Just because you don't like the 'math' on guns or whatever ...']]

      Shorter Karen: Don't try to confuse me with facts.

  4. "Taste the Baby." Hilarious.

    1. I liked "sounds like God Almighty clearing his throat" and thought that was what Neil's editor would take offense at.

  5. I read the article about the woman, Veronica, and one thing stood out; she loved guns. Her reasons for carrying that day, in a Christmas gift (from her husband, the purse with the special zippered gun pocket) weren't based on fear or protection. She loved toting that gun. Perhaps that should be the epithet engraved in her tombstone.

    I wonder, though, if that thought will console her son as he slowly absorbs the horror of his act through his upcoming years of development and comprehension.

  6. " It lays out my views on the subject in a way which even the staunchest gun rights advocate couldn't debate."

    didn't know you engaged in wishful thinking, neil. any column about guns or the 2nd amendment that doesn't praise either/both as gifts from an all-knowing deity is going to piss of some ammosexual somewhere.

  7. I was carjacked a few years back. In front of my apt. At 6:30 in the morning. At 110th and Artesian. I had enough CPD officers as neighbors that I could have formed my own battalion.Did't matter.Two men. Two guns. The next day my coworkers were very sympathetic. Except one. He reminded me that if I had a gun I could have protected myself. I agreed. I said "Only if the bad guys were willing to just wait as I lifted the role of fat spilling over my belt buckle to retrieve my gun, all the while struggling to undo my seatbelt, I think we could have had a splendid gunbattle. But they seemed to be in a hurry." Robert Grabill

  8. It would be interesting if there was a data base showing how many people were able to protect themselves with guns as to how many were shot while trying to do so. I do wonder how the guy who shot the to policemen in New York was able to sneak up on them and kill them. Something we will never know. But here are two guys who had weapons and for what ever reason were not able to save themselves. In case you haven't read much about this, the gun was traced back to Georgia. I am sure most of the southern states would holler states rights, but we need a better method of tracking guns.

  9. Doug D

    Being in the radio racket for many years, I nailed the first complaint.

    Many years ago while working at a country music station in Indianapolis, I wrote a fake "guest editorial" about guns. It was a copy of Carson's Floyd Turbo character and I had a non-actor read it. The phones went nuts and all the callers said basically the same thing. Most of them complained about "a poem" they just heard. Not even close. Somebody had mis-heard it and by the time he'd called all his friends it got dumber and dumber. I saved the bit but wish I'd saved the calls. They were much funnier and quite telling.

  10. Having had to carry a sidearm at times while on active military service, the notion of using it to defeat a dedicated, similarly armed, assailant has always struck me as ludicrous. Prevailing in a gun battle with someone who has the drop on you would not be plausible even in a movie western. Using a gun to defend your home against an intruder, the basis of the prevailing argument in Heller vs. Washington D.C., is a little more rational, but, depending on where you live, the danger that comes from just having the thing around probably makes keeping a gun in the house a bad decision.

    The lady who is in love with the 2nd Amendment should probably read what Alexander Hamilton wrote about the matter in The Federalist Papers. The issue back then was a fear that the Federal Government would use its standing army to impose its malignant will on the unarmed states, a notion that still resonates with some on the extreme right. It really wasn't that those 18 Century gentlemen wanted us all to drive around with a Glock in the glove compartment.

    Tom Evans

  11. non-owner (guns and cycles) for many of the same reasons you cite in the article. had to periodically qualify with side arms and automatic rifles in the military and gave shot skeet on occaision. always fun and always done with the utmost of respect for the weapon and its destructive capability. perhaps the key to ownership is respect. but then if everyone had respect perhaps firearms would not be necessary.

  12. Well said, Mr. Steinberg.

  13. I never get the guns = safety argument. Look at the per-capita rates of murder by firearm in almost any other Western country vs. ours. It's a tiny fraction.

  14. It won't be easy changing the mindset of those who misinterpret the 2nd amendment and think they need guns for any odd reason.


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