Taking aim at gun morals

Published 8:36 pm Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Two stories in Tuesday’s edition of the Suffolk News-Herald highlight the power of handguns to destroy lives or to protect them — the consequences of recklessness and mindlessness when it comes to firearms, versus the way things can turn out when they are used with clear-headed, considerate deliberation to protect life and property.

In one incident, a man was shot in the chest by an unknown assailant outside a party on Linden Avenue early Sunday morning. According to the story he told police, he went outside the home where the party was taking place, heard an argument and then gunshots, realized he’d been hit and ran home, afraid. It was unclear at press time whether the shots were fired at him or into the air. In either case, his injuries were not considered to have been life threatening, though they easily could have been.

In the other incident, the owner of a store on Godwin Boulevard heard someone trying to break in to his building. Having experienced a recent burglary and worried for the safety of himself and his wife, he grabbed a handgun he keeps nearby and shouted at the would-be burglar, who then hopped into a car. Unsure, according to his own account, what the man intended to do, the store owner said, he decided to fire his own weapon. Instead of shooting at the intruder, through, he aimed at — and hit — the man’s tires. After the intruder had left, the store owner headed downtown to make a statement at police headquarters, saw the man changing his tire at another store along the way and called the police, who made a quick arrest.

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It’s clear that there are many differences in the two scenarios. One likely involved people who had been drinking alcohol; the other did not. One involved a physical altercation that erupted in gunfire; the other did not. One involved an apparently un-aimed shot that injured someone claiming to be an uninvolved bystander; the other took out the front tire of an alleged attempted burglar. One appears to have been a version of self-defense; the other is unknown.

According to a widely reported 1993 survey by Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck, there are about 2 million defensive gun uses by civilians each year. Other studies have put the number somewhere between 800,000 and 2.5 million defensive uses annually.

There’s a saying that’s at least as old as the debate over the right to bear arms: Guns don’t kill people; people do. Fortunately, no one was killed in either of the weekend’s incidents. But the lesson is still important — guns can be used for good or ill. Their moral authority — or lack of it — comes entirely from the hands of the people who use them.