Guns and Psychological Belays

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As a much younger man, I was briefly a rock climber. I was never very good at it, and eventually abandoned it for safer pursuits. But I did learn many skills and concepts that I carry with me to this day. The most useful of these is the term "psychological belay".

A belay is an attachment point between the climber's rope and the rock, a pivot that will arrest a fall. Sound belays are essential to safe climbing, the difference between a close call and a casket. A psychological belay is a belay that probably won't hold if put to the test. But it is somehow consoling to emplace it. It feels like you are doing something, like you are in charge. But psychological belays kill, and climbers are constantly warned to avoid them. I've found the concept an accurate metaphor for the ineffective, feel-good actions I sometimes take when I feel overwhelmed and need to do something to create the illusion that I have some control over a situation.

This brings me circuitously but inevitably to the subject of private gun ownership. I understand how many of my fellow citizens feel threatened and powerless in a world of terrorists, random violence and unexpected economic implosions. I understand their desire to feel that they are doing something, that they are taking charge of their lives. I understand their desire not to be bossed around by others. But guns are psychological belays. They are much more likely to be used for suicide, by accident or in a moment of anger between acquaintances than as a defense against real dangers. So I beg gun owners to think with their heads, not their hearts. Guns are psychological belays, and like their climber's namesakes, they are more likely to kill you than to help you.

With a Perspective, I'm Paul Wolber.

Paul Wolber is a scientist and technical manage in Silicon Valley.