Shoot first? Intruder prompts decision

By Daniel J. Levitin

One morning last December, while working at my desk at home, I saw an intruder peering into my house, trying windows and doors. I didn’t know his intentions, or whether he was armed, but he seemed intent on breaking in.

My first instinct was to grab a loaded handgun and brace myself for a confrontation. Then I thought twice. I sneaked out of the house and called the police. They arrested him.

I wrote about the experience for the New York Times in March. It forced me to think about the value of a human life, proportional response, and the costs and benefits of avoiding a confrontation.

I received more than 100 emails from angry readers. About half scolded me for having a gun in the first place. Some were angry on philosophical-political grounds: “You have betrayed our shared liberal values by owning a gun. There is no place for guns in a civil society.” Some tried to shame me with statistics I already knew: How many people die each year shot by their own guns, and how a home with a gun is less safe than a home without one.

From the other side, I got scolded for not shooting the intruder. I became the target of a lot of pent-up frustration at increasing crime rates and homeless people (what do they have to do with it? I wondered). I was lectured to about society’s scum, stand-your-ground laws and the castle doctrine.

Many accused me of cowardice. A trained security officer berated me for my hesitation in using the firearm and said I had no right owning one if I was not going to use it.

Several readers, including active-duty military and police officers, offered the practical advice that a shotgun would be more useful in a home invasion scenario than a handgun. A half-dozen people were mad at me for writing about something they thought was insignificant.

Not included in my piece was a very thoughtful correspondence I had with retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal right after the incident. He wrote: “I’ve not had an intruder in our home, so don’t have that perspective, but have chosen not to keep a firearm in the house — or carry one at any time. It’s not because I’m not comfortable with firing them, but more likely because I am. I know myself well enough that in moments of concern or high emotion I might very well use a firearm — and bullets are like the angry email you hit send on before thinking more calmly about — they can’t be recalled. … I don’t have or carry a weapon precisely because I worry I’d use it.”

Perhaps the most poignant story I heard after my intruder experience came from a trial lawyer (I’ll call him Ken) in Oklahoma. At a motel one night, he was awakened by a man banging on his door, twisting the knob and loudly demanding entry. Ken repeatedly yelled at him to go away and warned him that he had a gun. Fortunately the manager intervened just in time.

“As it turned out,” Ken wrote, “the man … was part of a Civil Air Patrol group staying at the motel, had gotten drunk, became confused about his room number, and thought his roommate was messing with him by refusing to open the door, which only made him angrier. … I would have been in the right to shoot the man had he broken through the door at 3:00 am. (But) I am not sure how I would have felt had I shot a mere drunk.”

I know how I would have felt: I’d have been devastated. Not regretful — you do what you have to do — but devastated nonetheless.

In May I went to my local firearms store to buy a shotgun for my city home (I already have one at our weekend place). I was persuaded by the readers who advised it. Shotguns are less likely to lead to fatalities, and they are effective for home protection. It’s also hard to accidentally shoot yourself with one. After the mandatory California waiting period, I went to two different rifle ranges to practice. The people at the gun shop and at the ranges were friendly sorts. I told them my home invasion story and that it ended without me using my weapon.

Their replies surprised me. These were people who depend on widespread gun ownership to earn their living. I imagined they might be vendetta-crazed, vigilante-minded, ready to kill any man, woman or rodent that got in their path. None of them called me a coward for exiting the house. All were genuinely pleased that the situation was resolved without violence. Two of them patted me on the back. One of them didn’t charge me for my range fees, and praised my responsible gun ownership.

Is my gun ownership irrational or the reasoned act of a neuroscience professor? I grew up around guns; I’m comfortable with firearms. But I also support gun control; I don’t think the framers of the Constitution envisioned semiautomatic weapons in people’s bureau drawers, and I don’t believe we’d all be better off if everyone had a concealed carry permit.

I also don’t think it’s paranoid to protect yourself against unlikely events as long as the cost is relatively low. That’s why we buy fire insurance though few of us will need it. It’s why we have airbags in our cars. And it’s why we practice with guns, hoping we won’t need to use them.

The intruder didn’t change my stance on gun ownership, but he did make me engage in more serious preparedness and scenario training, so that in a moment of actual crisis I may be able to fall back on plans I made in a calm state rather than give in to the cortisol and adrenaline infused fight-or-flight response of the moment.

Preparedness is rational, and thinking ahead to mitigate the damage of a mistake is the best protection against the unexpected.

Daniel J. Levitin is a neuroscientist and author, most recently, of “Weaponized Lies: Critical Thinking in the Post-Truth Era.” His talk on how to plan in advance for stressful situations has been viewed more than 10 million times. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.