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Jane Ahlin, Published June 28 2009

Ahlin: Flawed gun-owner philosophy leads to tragic consequences

Note to the folks who keep loaded guns in their houses: that stranger rustling around in your bushes or lurking by your garage may be a teenager playing a game. Don’t shoot.

In the wake of last weekend’s fatal shooting of a teenage intruder, the nagging momma-voice within me won’t leave me alone. Suddenly, I feel myself thrust back in time to the days my teenage kids played “Slip.” To play it, the kids divided into two sides. On one side were players called “runners” and on the other, players called “chasers.” The runners were dropped off at one location and given a head start. Their goal was to get to a specific destination a few miles away – across business and residential districts – without getting caught by the chasers, some of whom were in cars and others, on foot.

I used to shudder at the thought of the kids, hiding in one yard or another, being mistaken for someone sneaking around with criminal intent. (Indeed, I found out later that on a night one of my kids was playing the game, a player was hollered at by a man who came out of his house with a gun.) I worried what might happen if homeowners suspicious about people in their yards called police. After all, even seasoned professionals can make mistakes.

The “what-ifs” kept me awake nights.

Of course, kids running through yards are not the same thing as a drunken or drugged out kid wandering into the apartments of people he doesn’t know. In the case of the teenager who was killed a week ago, no matter what the toxicology report reveals, the boy was an intruder who went into places he had no right to be.

That said, the question becomes whether he really was a threat to the man who shot him. The experiences of the two women who already had expelled the teenager from their apartments suggest he wasn’t, since neither of them found his trespassing to be ominous enough to bother calling police. After getting the kid to leave, the first woman even walked outside past him to get to her car, and when she saw him enter another apartment building, thought he probably had found his way home.

And yet, the man with the unlocked door and the loaded gun thought differently. He described the situation as “him or me.” Whether his perception of danger meets the legal definition won’t be clear for some time. (That determination is in the hands of authorities where it belongs.)

Regardless of the legal outcome, however, a teenager is dead, our community is shaken, and we’d better talk about it. Best-case scenario, the debate would be led by gun owners, because contrary to the monolithic stance of the National Rifle Association, there is a clear divide in the gun-owning community.

There are plenty of folks who value the Second Amendment who also think keeping a loaded gun in the house is stupid stuff. (If there are children in the home, these gun owners see it as criminally stupid stuff.) Their emotional attachment to guns is tied to sport and skill, hunting and marksmanship rather than self-defense.

On the other side are the gun owners who believe they always are a split second away from needing their guns to stop bad guys. It’s too simplistic to say they view guns as instruments of heroism, but their mantra is that “they have the right to protect themselves and their families.” Emotionally, they tie guns to personal honor and self-sufficiency.

Although we often lump all gun owners together, the difference between those two philosophies of gun use is enormous.

The shooting of the teenager reminds us that the second philosophy is deeply flawed – an American myth echoing our frontier past. Guns are lethal weapons, and when a gun is seen as the first (and best) line of defense, tragedies are bound to happen – much more likely, in fact, than saving anybody’s life.

Ahlin is a regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary pages.