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Will a gun protect a single woman frightened by a bump in the night?

It's tempting to buy a gun for protection after hearing an unidentifiable bump in the night. But it may not be the right response.

July 13, 2013|Sandy Banks

It started with a noise, a mysterious thump in the middle of the night that sent my dogs bounding down the stairs, barking furiously.

I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep, hoping it was nothing more than a raccoon-in-the-garden thing. But the barking didn't stop. And I thought I heard a door downstairs clank shut, though it might have been the pounding of my own racing heart.

I was home alone and knew I should go down and check things out. I scanned my bedroom in the dark for something to arm myself with: A shoe, a book, a blow dryer? What a puny arsenal, I thought.

I imagined reaching under my mattress and pulling out a gun. I envisioned the comfort that would deliver, the power it would provide if I encountered an actual intruder in the middle of the night.

Instead, I flicked on the light, marched into the hall and yelled down the stairs in what I hoped was a super-confident voice. "Yes, you get the gun, honey, and let's go down to check on the dogs."

Then I crept down the stairs feeling foolish and frightened, a woman trying to scare off an imaginary intruder by pretending I'm not alone.

I can't create a human protector. But maybe it's time to consider a gun.

::

I know what statistics say. People who have guns in their homes are more likely to die of suicide or homicide than to safely dispatch an intruder.

In fact, the mere act of carrying a gun seems to promote paranoia. Research shows that people armed with guns tend to perceive danger in harmless situations and engage in threat-induced behavior such as raising a firearm to shoot. If George Zimmerman had been unarmed, he might not have seen Trayvon Martin as a threat worthy of being stalked.

But those studies haven't stopped us from believing that guns keep us safe. Almost half of gun owners say their weapons are for protection. That's up from one-quarter in 1999, when most gun owners were hunters, not homeowners fearing a noise in the night.

Joining the ranks of gun-owning households would mean crossing an ideological divide. I'm enough of a pacifist that I'm not sure I could pull the trigger if I knew my shots would end a life.

But vulnerability has a way of warping the intellectual process. I realize now, thinking back on last week, that what I felt in the dark that night was not just momentarily frightened but unrelievedly helpless.

I thought back to 20 years ago, to just after my husband died. My brother wanted to install a security system to protect me and my daughters. We'd have alarms attached to the windows, a laser guarding the stairs, a sign out front warning strangers that this family is prepared.

That seemed embarrassing back then, a sign of paranoia. That little sign on the front lawn would have reminded me every day that there's something to be afraid of.

I chose to make my peace with insecurity instead. I settled for locked doors, open windows and bright lights in the yard.

Maybe that was fearlessness, or maybe foolhardy denial. But I miss the confidence that see-no-evil stance inspired.

Now I can't check out a noise in my own home without quaking like a coward. So I headed this week to a sporting goods store to do something about that.

::

I probably know less about baseball bats than I do about guns. But for $34.99 I could get a Louisville Slugger, and I liked the way it felt. I imagined marching down the stairs, holding it over my head.

Then I headed to the gun case for a sobering reality check. The sales clerk recommended a Glock, "if you're dead-set on a pistol," he said. But the purchase process reminded me, this was deadly serious business: The license, the paperwork, the background check, the waiting period. I wasn't ready for this.

I asked if there was anything a little less intense. The clerk lifted a $200 shotgun from the rack and showed me how to pump it. You push a button and slide the barrel like you're chambering a round. The sound alone is enough, he said, to scare a burglar off.

I liked that idea even more than I liked the actual gun. A weapon with no ammunition. The threat of firepower, without the thought of killing someone.

But as I walked out of that sporting goods store, a stranger ran me down.

"Ma'am," he said. "Don't get a gun. Or a baseball bat. You'll only hurt yourself."

He was an off-duty LAPD officer, who'd been shopping behind me. He'd seen fear shape too many bad choices.

"You want prevention," he said, "not power."

That would-be thief in the middle of the night wants an easy in-and-out. Get a bigger dog. Install an alarm. Don't go down and pick a fight.

And don't imagine that circumstances are more dangerous than they are.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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