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The Science of Panic: Why the NRA Is Wrong About Defensive Gun Use

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Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, released an op-ed for the Daily Caller on Wednesday, February 13, to defend the pro-gun position, listing hurricanes, tornadoes, riots, gangs, lone criminals, and my personal favorite, terrorists, as threats Americans are "sure to face -- not just maybe." This use of fear to implement a political agenda is nothing new to America's right wing. From the infamous Southern Strategy to Milton Friedman and George W. Bush passing laissez faire reforms in New Orleans following Katrina, conservatives have unabashedly manipulated their ranks because scared people are obedient. Studies indicate that people who have larger right amygdalas, the part of of the brain associated with sensitivity to fear, tend to be more conservative. It is no surprise, then, that this tactic is so effective. Now, I find myself wondering where Mr. LaPierre lives that he encounters each of these threats, but more importantly I question his underlying assumption that armed civilians are competent enough in crisis scenarios to ward off or kill an attacker.

Though the scenario plays out in virtually every western and action film ever made, good guys stopping bad guys with guns is a rare occurrence as we know from reports from the U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice and the Harvard Injury Control Policy Research Center's David Hemenway. Every year there are even a few token incidents in the news of this occurring, but for most part these events are uncommon. And there is a good reason for why that is: Human physiology.

When people are put in a crisis situation the fight-or-flight response is triggered and the sympathetic nervous system kicks into action involuntarily. Stress hormones like epinephrine are released en masse into our blood stream increasing arterial pressure and blood flow to major muscle masses, dilating the blood vessels. This boosts our gross motor skills. Still some blood vessels constrict which reduces blood flow to the ends of appendages to limit injuries. The heart rate increases. A report from Killology Research Group, that studies the science of combat, explains that "extreme SNS activation will cause catastrophic failure of the visual, cognitive, and motor control systems." Tunnel vision and auditory exclusion impair our ability to take in our surroundings, we lose complex motor control (meaning we fumble performing anything but the most basic movements) and irrationality and confusion prevent sound action.

This is precisely why police officers and soldiers require constant training in high stress situations to develop muscle memory to overcome these physiological barriers to rational decision-making. Even then, prolonged exposure can result in post-traumatic stress disorder. The argument that armed civilians are just as capable as law enforcement at stopping crime is essentially the same as saying "police don't need training."

In a controlled study, ABC News put the "good guys with guns" myth to the test. They took a random sample of ordinary students by pretending that local police were offering training. Subjects ranged from 0 to over 100 hours of gun experience. They were then trained, armed, and sent to a class where a "shooter" interrupted and began opening fire. None of the test subjects "survived" the test, let alone saved the day. Many could not even get the gun out of the holster. As Dr. Stephen Hargarten, a leading expert on gun violence at the Medical College of Wisconsin, explains, in the event of a shooting civilians are "less likely to hit their targets" than police officers who make mistakes themselves, citing the events outside the Empire State Building. A survey of prison inmates in DC found that the majority who had been shot had been hit by other criminals, rather than armed civilians.

When pro-gun advocates make claims like "the UK's high violent crime rate is the result of the lack of armed civilians" they fail to take into account the rarity of such occurrences even in the U.S. where there are more guns than anywhere else in the world. Moreover, they fail to acknowledge the science behind why that is. The ironic part of Mr. LaPierre's op-ed is that he himself understands the debilitating impact that panic has on rationality, and that is why he resorts to fear tactics. He's counting irrational concerns that the Obama administration to overwhelm reason. However, LaPierre's omission of basic science is not quite so disturbing as his characterization of his political opposition as "enemies of freedom." There is a cost to this brand of politics; a danger that arises from distorting facts and manipulating the most base emotions in people. The casualties are well known: George Tiller, Charles Pollard, Gabrielle Giffords, and countless others over the years.