Guns and Self-Defense

Main Image: U.S. Constitution- taken from Wikimedia Commons

In a nod to Andy Warhol, I have experienced my “fifteen minutes of fame” on a couple of occasions. The most recent instance began in the summer of 2014 and lasted until 2017. It was during this period that I wrote and provided public commentary about both the rise of ISIS in the Middle East as well as the scourge of Islamic terrorism. As a historian of the crusades, and religion more broadly, I conducted dozens of television interviews with local news stations, even being contacted by CNN on occasion, and wrote quite a bit about these topics on my blog. One of my blog essays, considering how deaths by terrorism are calculated and the seemingly politicized manipulation of such figures, was shared widely in conservative media outlets, even resulting in a news story about it in the Wall Street Journal. This brought a lot of attention, and not all of it positive. Strangers more than happily voiced their criticisms, by email and even by phone on one occasion. This is to be expected and I did not mind so long as such criticisms were expressed with some small degree of civility or reason. Indeed, I engaged in lengthy dialogues by email or over social media with some. If a professor is going to add their voice to public discussions they should expect criticism, dialogue, and debate from the public. It should be understood that some degree of that attention will be impolite, rude, or obnoxious.


What was unsettling, however, is that during this period I also received some violent threats. This was not a regular thing, as I only received perhaps a handful of such messages over this two-and-a-half-year period. They mostly came through social media in the form of private messages. On one occasion, when I asked Facebook to help look into it, I recall they were unable to provide any help. It appeared in that instance a “troll” had created an account just for the purpose of anonymously making threats and then abandoned the account. I was assured by others that this was “trolling” and not to take it too seriously, which I tried to do. On one occasion I recalled showing one of the threats to my wife, who is not as immersed in the online world. She was alarmed and quiet after reading it. After nearly 25 years of marriage, I obviously know when she is bothered, and I tried to convince her not to take it seriously. Nevertheless, I recall we then even briefly discussed whether or not I should continue to comment publicly, yet this was never a serious consideration for me. I will not be cowed into silence. My wife is no shrinking violet either, so for her to bring this issue up was significant, and it represented some genuine fear on her part. We have three wonderful children, and so threats of violence made in our direction are obviously highly discomforting. In that case, I recall looking up the person who had made the threat, trailing them through social media, and discovered the person was likely a student at a university in Morocco. I envisioned some nut living in his mother’s basement on the internet, spouting off ISIS related propaganda, and so it did not bother me as much as he wasn’t local (based on what I could tell). My wife was not so comforted, as ISIS supporters were making their presence felt in the U.S. through various terror incidents and threats.

As a result, during this period, we became more security conscious as a family, figuring it was better to be safe than sorry. We took measures around the home to insure our security as much as possible. This period also happened to coincide with the entire family studying martial arts, with me and my children eventually earning our black belts in Taekwondo. I also rationalized that I had always been physically strong, and a champion wrestler in my youth, so if someone did attack me, I would hope (in most cases) that I would have the advantage. That wasn’t, however, the extent of our preparations. Since I became a U.S. Marine at the age of 19, I have been around firearms my entire adult life. I’ve had periods of my life where I am more proficient with them than others, depending on the amount of training I was conducting at the range. I’ve even had the chance to train (and will train again) with my friend and firearms expert Patrick Minor, a former Marine, police officer, SWAT team member, and private security contractor who, no less, was hired by the U.S. government to direct the Baghdad Police College Transitional Integration Police Firearms Program in Iraq from 2006 to 2007. One could not ask for a better instructor on the range.

Unquestionably, the most effective means of defending myself or my family, if one of the people described above should ever attempt to make good on their threats, would be with a firearm. I know how to use a gun, and have known for a long time. I assume my collective experiences and training over the course of my life give me an advantage over most people when it comes to firearms. I’m certainly no gun fighter, as high level experts like Patrick put me (and pretty much everyone else) to shame on the range. Nevertheless, over the course of my life, I have also sent thousands of rounds down range and I can hit a target. Having the right to arm myself, particularly when threatened, gives me comfort. The right to defend oneself or one’s family is, after all, among the most fundamental of human rights, regardless of any constitutional provision for it.

Thus, it is with alarm that I recently viewed a piece in the National Review that highlighted a disturbing point in a recent Yougov poll showing that 39% of Democrats would like to see the Second Amendment repealed. This information was revealed in the wake of a recent article that made a splash as former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens had openly called for the repeal of the Second Amendment. Moreover, when I posted about it on my Facebook page, expressing my disillusionment, one colleague, a crusade historian that I admire and consider a friend, voiced her support for the repeal of the amendment. I assume that many more of my academic colleagues feel the same way, as implied in their comments on social media.

Let’s not pretend anymore that gun owners are silly for thinking some people on the other side of the gun debate want to eliminate their right as a U.S. citizen to own a gun. To have 39% of a major U.S. political party in favor of repeal, in a two-party system, is an ominous sign for gun owners. Add to this the recent call for repeal of the Second Amendment by Justice Stevens in the pages of the New York Times, as well as former President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s calls for consideration of Australian style gun reforms, involving confiscation, and the news becomes even more worrisome.

To be clear, I have never objected to many of the so-called “common sense” measures advocated by gun control advocates, to include background checks, the prohibition of fully automatic firearms without a complex federal permitting process, or the prohibition of guns for those with violent backgrounds or those suffering from mental illness. Also, I am not a member of the NRA (although I might have had a one-year membership back in the 1990s- I genuinely can’t recall if I signed up for it at a shooting event I once attended), but if things became so bleak that I believed the NRA offered the only possibility for maintaining the Second Amendment, then I would join. The right to self-defense is among the most fundamental of human rights and currently a firearm is among the most effective means of self-defense. Indeed, various studies have shown that Americans use guns in self-defense anywhere from 4.7 million times per year (on the high end), depending on how one defines “defensive gun use,” to a low-end estimate of 55,000 to 80,000, with other estimates falling between 1 million and 2.5 million. I should note, however, that these numbers are hotly contested and debated due to their implications for gun control debates and concerns over public safety.

Whatever the final numbers, it’s clear that large numbers of Americans use guns every year for the protection of themselves, their families, or others. Millions more, like myself, have them available and train with them for the same reasons. As a result, gun ownership is often intensely personal to those who own guns, as they associate it with the protection of their lives and those of their families. There are, of course, other issues that relate to gun ownership in the U.S., and fair and honest debates (without the usual vitriol) should be had about those issues. But ultimately it is often our personal experiences that influence how we view an issue and so I have laid out my experiences here.