The Cornered Cat
Power tools and foolish toys

An oldie but goodie from my email box: a note from someone who has a loving family member who really wants them to carry a gun for self defense. The person who sent me the email really isn’t interested in guns, but wants to keep their loved one happy. The question was,

“What gun do you recommend for someone who will probably not practice very often or learn much about it?”

My answer:

I recommend NO GUN for someone like this. Save that money and tell your loved one to stop pressuring you.

Owning a self-defense gun is a heavy responsibility. Although popular right now, it’s not a lighthearted fad or a trend like owning a pet rock. The gun isn’t a magic wand or a rabbit’s foot that will keep you out of trouble all on its own. Using it safely takes work and practice. Using it well takes more work and more practice. Using it in self defense often creates serious, lifelong consequences. It’s okay to count those costs for yourself and walk away if it’s more than you’re willing to pay.

Don’t let anyone pressure you into doing anything with a gun if you’re not ready to accept the responsibility that comes with it. Doesn’t matter who they are or how fond you are of each other; you are the one who must live with the choices you make.

When you are ready to own a gun – really ready, including being willing to learn something about it and practice with it – I’m more than happy to work with you to find the one that’s right for you and help you learn how to use it well. Until then, leave the most serious self defense tools for people who take them seriously.

When I told this tale on a private forum back when it initially came into my mailbox, some people suggested that my correspondent could use less-lethal tools instead, such as a rape whistle, pepper spray, or even a roll of quarters. “No practice needed,” wrote one of them.

I beg to differ!

There’s really no such thing as a self-defense tool that works if you aren’t willing to do the work it takes to learn how to use it effectively. (See Niven’s Law #17 for more on that.) If you’re not willing to do the work it takes to master a handgun, you might be willing to do the work it takes to master some other kind of defense tool. And that’s good — highly recommended, in fact.

But if you’re not willing to learn anything, practice, or do any other type of work at all, there’s really nothing out there that does it for you.

Power tools

Extended analogy follows. For the analogy-impaired, in the story below, “power tools” equal handguns, and “less powerful tools” equal things like rape whistles and pepper spray.

Most people can figure out a hammer without too much effort, but even so, an overconfident hammer-user can easily break their own thumb if they aren’t careful. As our tools become more powerful – think buzz saws, hydraulic presses, and combine harvesters – we need to spend a little more time learning how to safely use them before we’re ready to go to work. The payoff, of course, is that power tools help us get the job done faster and with less effort than we could otherwise do it. That’s why they were invented!

If power tools seem frightening because of their power, choosing a less-powerful tool might feel safer in an abstract sense. That’s especially true when we look only at the tool itself, and not at the job that needs to be done with it. But that doesn’t mean the least-powerful tool is actually a safer choice or a better one.

You may be less likely to accidentally amputate your own arm with a butter knife than you are with a chainsaw, but if you really need to cut down a tree, you’ll probably need a chainsaw.

Not only that, but if you need to cut the tree down right freaking now, a power saw would almost certainly be the safest tool for the job. Once you know how to safely use the power tool, using the power tool would be a lot safer than trying to hack the tree down with an inappropriately weak substitute such as a butter knife.

End of analogy.


The rule of thumb is that the less powerful your defensive tools are on their own, the more direct energy you have to put into using them, and the harder you’ll have to work in order to learn how to do that.

Effectively defending yourself with empty hands takes more training than defending yourself with pepper spray. Effectively using a keychain weapon, no matter what it is, requires a lot more training than using a handgun. As our tools become more powerful, they become more risky to use without training, but the same power that produces the risk to an untrained user also reduces the amount of work we must put into mastering them — and greatly reduces the effort it takes to use them effectively.

People often want to hand silly little toys to women for self-defense. Keychain doodads. Illegal ball-bearing dingleberries on a rope. Non-Taser buzzers about as powerful as the gag-gift handshake toy your brother had when you were kids. Whistles you can use to call the dog or that a rapist can use to strangle you.

No matter how tempting it is to think that these toys will erase the need to study and learn defensive skills, there’s still no such thing as a free lunch. And there are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going in this life.

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