“Rational” Fear, Unreasoning Fear, and Firearms

In a previous post, I noted that sociologist Barry Glassner, in his book The Culture of Fear, debunks the excessive fear of mass killings which gripped the American public back in the late 1990s and which does so again today. In the same book, Glassner makes clear that his point is not that we have nothing to fear but fear itself (to quote FDR quoting Henry David Thoreau quoting Michel de Montaigne), but that we fear the wrong things. He observes, “Valid fears have their place; they cue us to danger” (p. xxiii). Here one thinks of Gavin de Becker’s best-selling work on The Gift of Fear.

Culture of Fear

What then are “valid fears” for Glassner? In both the 1999 and 10th anniversary editions of his book, he makes clear that the danger “that by any rational calculation deserves top billing on Americans’ list of fears” is guns (p. xxvii).

Glassner’s Unreasoning Fear of Guns

You can read my initial response to this assertion, but I also promised to follow-up with further consideration of the idea of “rational fear” introduced by Glassner. Suffice it to say at the outset that not everyone who has written about fear agrees with Glassner’s assessment. For example, in his book The Science of Fear, Canadian journalist Daniel Gardner agrees with Glassner that there is appropriate fear and “unreasoning fear.” However, with respect to firearms, Gardner – who as far as I can tell does not have a dog in the American debate over guns – disagrees sharply with Glassner, observing, “if you are not a drug dealer or the friend of a drug dealer, and you don’t hang out in places patronized by drug dealers and their friends, your chance of being murdered with a handgun shrinks almost to invisibility” (p. 12).

Fear of being murdered by a handgun, then, is for Gardner an unreasoning or irrational fear. In the United States, the firearm homicide rate is 3.2 per 100,000 and the road fatality rate is nearly four times that, at 12.3 per 100,000. “Handguns are scary,” Gardner writes, “but driving to work? It’s just a boring part of the daily routine. So it’s no surprise that handgun killings grab headlines and dominate elections while traffic accidents are dismissed as nothing more than the unpleasant background noise of modern life” (p. 12). Indeed, with such extensive exposure to automobiles in American society, these massive self-powered projectiles remain one of the most dangerous entities we face, despite the facts that cars have become much safer over the years. To wit: Gardner begins his book with the number 1,595. As it turns out, that is the number of additional Americans who were killed in automobile accidents by switching from planes to cars in the year following 9/11 (p. 3).

 Gardner Science of Fear

Like Glassner, Gardner discusses how a culture of fear is fostered by politicians seeking votes, advocacy groups seeking support, businesses seeking profits, and media seeking ratings. But he is more fundamentally interested in the many ways in which cognitive biases uncovered by psychologists like Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman account for unreasoning fear. Even more fundamentally, he is interested in what evolutionary and cognitive scientists tells us about how the brain works and how this affects our assessment of risks. The bottom line is that there are many economic, cultural, psychological, and cognitive reasons we are unable to rationally assess the risks we face. I won’t do it here, but Gardner’s analysis of the biases that lead people to unreasoning fear could be applied exactly to Glassner’s fear of guns argument.

Unreasoning Fear Cuts Both Ways

Of course, unreasoning fear cuts both ways. The same statistics that I invoked to argue that Glassner’s fear of guns is irrational might be applied to those who own and carry guns for self-defense. In the literature on fear, one of the most common foci is crime and (mistaken) perceptions of the risk of crime. Consider a recent statement by NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre: “Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Riots. Terrorists. Gangs. Lone criminals. These are perils we are sure to face—not just maybe. It’s not paranoia to buy a gun. It’s survival. It’s responsible behavior, and it’s time we encourage law-abiding Americans to do just that.” The move from a possibility that we will face peril to a certainty here is striking.

LaPierre is not alone in his assessment of the necessity of carrying firearms for self-protection. Journalist and veteran shooter Michael Bane is host and producer of the Outdoor Channel television series “The Best Defense” and the expert on the Panteao Productions “Concealed Carry” DVD. As he notes in his on-line bio, “I have had a CCW pretty much forever and carry concealed every day.”


In a video promoting the current (fifth) season of “The Best Defense,” Bane discusses how he and his co-hosts (Michael Janich and Mike Seeklander) decide what topics to cover in each episode of a given season. He says they scour the internet and newspapers, and get input from military and law enforcement contacts on the most recent trends in crime – “what’s happening in the real world.” From there, they create models of certain crimes, break them down, and show how people can respond so as to keep themselves and their families safe. Among the scenarios covered in the current season are:

How criminals prey on the elderly in their homes. The hosts suggest that the disabled are twice as likely to be victims of violent crime than the able bodied.

  • How to best defend your home if you see an intruder outside. The hosts suggest that the average 9-1-1 response time is 10 minutes, and even longer if you live in a remote area. So, you need to be able to take responsibility for defending your home in this situation.
  • How criminals use social media to identify victims.
  • How to protect yourself if you have to work or travel alone in potentially dangerous situations, such as real estate agents or women checking into hotel rooms.
  • A situation in a suburb of Chicago in which as many as 18 people with bats and hammers attacked diners at a restaurant (possibly a group of white supremacists).
  • A situation modeled on the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting.

As Bane summarizes “The Best Defense,” “It’s a show designed to keep you safe in an increasingly difficult, for lack of a better word, world.” Although Bane’s scenarios might be ripped from the headlines, other than the claim about the disabled, no evidence is given for the idea that the world is becoming more difficult. In fact, most data show that we are safer and healthier than any time in human history (see Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined).


The show’s motto is “Avoidance. Awareness. Preparation.” Bane consistently preaches that the best response to crime is always avoidance through awareness. But in the event that avoidance and awareness do not work, then preparation is key. And frequently that preparation involves carrying and using a handgun for self-defense.

(It is worth noting that Bane also produced and hosted the Outdoor Channel series “Best Defense: Survival,” a show that focused on “some of the most dangerous and unimaginable situations ever encountered” including “terrorists attacks, natural disasters, and other large-scale emergencies.” As my colleague and writing accountability partner reminds me at each of our meetings, there is some connection between owning firearms for self-defense and the “prepper” movement popularized most recently on the National Geographic channel series “Doomsday Preppers.)

In any event, among the questions that I am interested in answering in my research on those who concealed carry is: Why some people do this despite the very low odds that they will need to shoot another person in self-defense? Is this a “rational calculation” in some way that is not immediately evident? If it is an irrational calculation, what accounts for the deviance from rationality?

Here I will continue to read the psychology of making judgments under conditions of uncertainty, notably the work of Tversky and Kahneman.


As well as work on risk analysis and decision making.

Risk A Very Short Introduction

And of course the pioneer work of Ulrich Beck on modernity as a risk society.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.