Guns, Dogs and the Weapons Effect

It is my custom on a clear summer’s day to go cycling along the beautiful Ystwyth Trail near where I live. The track attracts walkers, cyclists and no small number of dog owners, all eager to experience the peace and tranquility of the idyllic Welsh countryside. Over the years, I have been attacked and molested by quite a few ill-disciplined and poorly controlled dogs, a situation which I find very distressing due to more than one childhood trauma where I was savagely attacked by a rabid dog while growing up in rural Africa where rabies is prevalent. Such unprovoked attacks greatly disturb my peace of mind, ruin my experience and make me nervous of going cycling again for several days after.

Recently, I was cycling down the hill onto the track and a sleek grey sheep dog leaped out of a newly arrived car and sprinted towards me with its teeth bared. I couldn’t stop due to my momentum and the dog met me half way down the hill. It immediately started snapping at my ankles, all the while snarling and barking loudly. I nearly fell off the bike and had to shout and kick out at the dog for a couple of minutes before it finally gave up the chase and went back to its ineffectual and unapologetic owners. Needless to say, this spoiled my ride from the very beginning. I was already in a foul mood when I returned back to the start of the track an hour later, and things got worse when the same dog was there. It spotted me again and sprinted towards me for another piece of my leg. This time however, I leaped off my bike stood my ground and shouted obscenities at it at the top of my voice. It stopped in some surprise, and its owner ran up and held it while I got on my bike and continued on my way. Needless to say, I had some choice words for the owners, and I haven’t seen them on the track again!

The incident really upset me and was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I decided I wouldn’t stand for it any longer, and I canvassed the opinion of friends and family as to possible remedies. This produced a number of suggestions ranging from the hilarious to the downright disturbing. In the end, I decided to buy a sonic blaster – a kind of pistol with a cone barrel that emits a high frequency sound that is meant to startle a dog or a cat and make them stop in their tracks – and carry it with me on my rides. I felt it would be more humane than carrying a stick or using pepper spray, but would also provide the maximum level of protection.

The interesting thing is that once I was armed with the sonic gun, I quickly realized that I also carried a new attitude with me on my rides. Whereas in the past I had always slowed down and tried to act in a sensitive manner so as not to alarm or upset the dog unnecessarily, I now found that I actually hoped for a confrontation and made no efforts at all to avoid one. Not only did I want to use my new sonic gun, if for no other reason than to see how it worked, but I now felt that I no longer needed to be concerned about the needs of the dog. If the dog didn’t like what I was doing, I would just zap it and go on my way. I expect I also wanted to get some pay-back for all the times that (other) dogs had attacked me and upset my peace of mind. I would race towards the dog and look aggressively at it, daring it to bark or attack.

Disturbed by my new attitude, I consulted my psychologist friends and soon learned that my experience was probably a reflection of the weapons effect – a condition in which the presence of weapons makes people more aggressive. The fact is, in this case, simply carrying a weapon (albeit a mild, non-lethal weapon) made me approach potential conflict situations with a new, more aggressive attitude. No longer did I need to try and resolve tricky situations with tact and sensitivity, and avoid violent confrontation for my own sake, but now I could escalate and aggress without worrying about the consequences. Simply carrying the sonic gun made me a more aggressive person.

I can’t help thinking that this is probably a good reason not to have armed police and to try harder to limit the number of weapons in society. If people carry weapons, the presence of the weapon and sense of surety it gives them will mean that they may be much more likely to approach potential conflicts and confrontations aggressively. Instead of trying their hardest to resolve the situation nonviolently, and developing their skills in interpersonal negotiation and peaceful conflict resolution, they will rely on coercion and force to create compliance and get their way. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that countries where the police carry weapons have the highest rates of killing members of the public. I would include Tasers here. I think they are used far too often, and with terrible consequences. Tasers have actually killed hundreds of people around the world over the past decade. In fact, they cannot be assumed to be non-lethal weapons because it is not possible to get a full medical history before using them in a confrontation: most deaths from Taser use come when the victim has a pre-existing (sometimes undiagnosed) heart condition.

I also can’t help thinking that this may explain why the most heavily armed countries of the world are also the most aggressive and have the most violent conflicts. If you have a very powerful military there is little incentive to try really hard to resolve a conflict peacefully or struggle to find a diplomatic solution. If things don’t go your way, you can always bomb or invade your opponent.

The claim that guns don’t kill people, but rather that people kill people, is dangerously misleading: guns make it far more likely that people will kill people rather than resolve their differences peacefully. This is why I think every society and every person would be better off if there were fewer weapons in the world. At present, there are 600 million handguns circulating in the world, and thousands more produced in over 100 countries every single day. They kill a person every minute of every day, and they have a shelf-life of hundreds of years. This is why I support the principle of disarmament, the strictest possibly gun controls within every country, and the proper regulation of the international arms trade.

In the end, because I didn’t like the way it made me feel and act, I stopped carrying my sonic gun and went back to trying my hardest to avoid giving any dogs a reason to attack me. I heard that a squirt of water in the face will also do the trick, so now I just get out my water bottle when I approach a dangerous looking dog. I figure it’s a small price to pay to make the world a tiny bit less aggressive and confrontational, and to try and to do my bit to make the culture a little less violent.

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About richardjacksonterrorismblog

I am currently the Deputy Director of the National Peace and Conflict Studies Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Prior to this, I was Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth University in Wales, UK. I study and teach on issues of terrorism, political violence, conflict resolution and war. I have published several books on these topics, including: Terrorism: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011; co-authored with Lee Jarvis, Jeroen Gunning and Marie Breen Smyth); Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and Cases (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010; edited by Richard Jackson, Eamon Murphy and Scott Poynting); Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009; edited by Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning); Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century: Principles, Methods and Approaches (Ann Arbor MI: Michigan University Press, 2009; co-authored with Jacob Bercovitch); and Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). I am also the editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism.
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6 Responses to Guns, Dogs and the Weapons Effect

  1. Andy Selby says:

    Sorry, but your limited experience with a weapon has lead you to the wrong conclusion. What you experienced was what we call “weapon immaturity.” It is natural to feel that sense of increased power and control of your surroundings when first adding weapons to your life. Just like every new bit of knowledge, skill, or experience in life, it takes time to temper our initial arrogance and desire to use these things at every and any opportunity. This is why an understanding of weapons and their power early in life leads one to a healthy respect and wise utilization. Assuming that no one should have the right to own or use a weapon because they will act like a 3 year old with it is presumptuous and not borne out in real life.

  2. I wish I had your faith in human maturity. All the evidence suggests otherwise: countries with widespread gun ownership results in significantly more violent killings, mass shootings, police shootings, and accidental deaths than countries with strict gun laws. It’s simply a fact that gun ownership makes everyone that much less safe.

  3. Alan Jackson says:

    If you’re a person with limited education, raised by a poor family in substandard living conditions, I can only imagine this feeling of weapon “empowerment”, even if it is only initial, makes for a scary combination.

  4. Andy Selby says:

    That’s a really good point, Richard. I do have faith in the maturity of a lot of people, and not others. Which is why we need weapons in the first place. Weapons will never be gone…. ever. There are too many people with evil, oppressive intent, whether they be individuals, groups, governments, etc. Without guns, we are back to the rule of the physically strong. You sure you want that?

  5. Andy, I think you’ll find it is the opposite in most parts of the world: the gangs, criminals and cops with the guns terrorise the population relentlessly. Guns make the strong! It’s only when disarmament comes that civil society can effectively resist the oppressive strong through people power. You might have also heard of the security dilemma: when your neighbor gets a gun to protect themselves, it only functions to make everyone else feel anxious because you can’t tell if it’s for offensive or defensive purposes. Soon everyone has a gun, and everyone feels nervous. Inadvertent violence becomes inevitable. It’s what happened in the first world war when Europe armed very quickly and no one could be sure why they were arming. This is another weapons effect: fear of the armed because you can never know for sure why they’ve got a gun.

  6. Andy Selby says:

    You say you have no faith in humanity when guns are involved, but will have faith in humanity when guns are gone? Guns are implements, tools, a method of evening the field. Bows & arrows, swords, rocks, slings, boiling oil… we had only these for centuries. Didn’t stop human nature from doing its thing.

    Intent is the weapon. If you really think you can rid the world of those will evil, oppressive intent, then you might be on to something. Since you know full well you cannot, a civilized society has no choice but to allow itself a powerful defense without guilt and irrational fear.

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