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In Defense of Self Defense

I kept my daughter home from school today, not because of the horrors of Friday morning, simply because she had a fever. But I am not going to pretend that there wasn't a tiny bit of relief in having one more day at home with her, one more day where I do not have to drop her off at school and say goodbye. I am not worried about school shootings. As horrifying as Newtown was, I know the reality, I know how rare these things are, how incredibly unlikely it is for anything to ever happen to my own child. But I am a mother. And as a mother, when you hear about children being hurt you can't help but want to hold yours a bit closer for awhile.

In the wake of the terrible tragedy of Newton, CT, everyone is talking about protection. How can we better protect our children. How can we prevent this from happening again? In his powerful (and hopefully history making) speech last night, President Obama said, "Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change." 

When we are talking about change, we are talking about better mental health services. We are talking about more security measures in schools. But ultimately, we are talking about guns. Those twenty children may have been killed by a very disturbed person. But he was a very disturbed person, with a gun.

So yes, guns do kill people.

When you ask many gun enthusiasts why the right to bear arms is so important to them, they often speak of protection."I want to be able to protect my family." Forget about the obvious question: from whom is this kind of protection necessary? Who are these bad guys that are allegedly going to attack your family any minute? Skip that for now.  Lets just go with this idea of defending your family. 

I have been a martial artist for over twenty years, first as a student of karate, and then more recently, Brazilian Jiu- Jitsu. I know numerous kicks, punches, chokes, arm locks. I teach karate to children. I teach them to push hard, to kick sharp and most importantly to yell loud enough for the whole city to hear you. So of course, I am a huge advocate for self defense. If someone tries to hurt me, I am going to use every weapon in my arsenal to get away safely. If that means that I have to break your arm, so be it. If that means I have to jump on your back like a spider monkey and choke the living s--t out of you, oh well. You should have minded your own business. You should have left me alone. And god forbid if you ever, ever try to hurt my child. 

The place where the gun people and I differ seems to be how far we will go to protect the ones we love. Would I kill someone? Only if it were absolutely necessary in order to save my own life, or that of my child. Do I train to kill someone? No. I train to get away. How often have I had to use my martial arts skills to defend myself? Once. Many years ago, I accidentally found myself trapped in the middle of a crowded bar that had just broken into a massive fight. Stuck between a wall , the mahogany bar and two people about to swing for the fences, I had to shove a guy as hard as I could so I could run for the door. And I didn't hesitate. But how often in my life will this kind of force be necessary? Rarely. How often will deadly force be necessary? Most likely, never. 

Gun people, when you go to the shooting range do you practice controlling your attacker? Do you practice ways to stop them so that they will wake up a few minutes later, unharmed save for a splitting headache,but with you long gone? Do you practice aiming for his knee so he can't run away while you call the police. Of course you don't. Where's the fun in that? When you pull out your gun at the range, you practice shooting at a paper cutout of a human being with a target over his head and his heart. You practice shooting to kill.

We both want to protect ourselves and our children from harm. We both train with our chosen weapons. We both will do what is necessary to ensure our safety. But we have very different views on what is, in fact, necessary.

The other difference between me and you is that no one can take my martial arts skills from a locked closet and go murder a bunch of kids. If I misjudge the situation perhaps someone gets an arm broken. If you make a mistake, and in the heat of the moment you probably will, you have taken another person's life. Because they might have been trying to steal your big screen TV, you have ended their life.

What gives you the right to make that choice?

Are there bad guys out there? Ones with guns whose number one desire is to hurt innocent people? Of course. Are they knocking on your door? No. You know they aren't. Not on your door or your neighbors' door either. You just saw it on the news and it scared you. Yeah it scared me too. But I can separate the desire to feel safe from the fantasy that I am some kind of superhero who is going to save the world.

Will my triangle choke beat a guy with a gun? Of course not. But really, what are the odds of it needing to? Slim to none.

I get it. The world is a scary place. And you need to feel in control. You need to feel like a man. But here's the thing. You aren't in control. Bad s--t could go down at any moment and there is nothing you can do about  it. A car crash, an illness, a flood, a hurricane. Some crazy guy with a gun could walk into your child's school and turn it into a war zone. And you won't be able stop it, not for all the bullets in the world.

But you don't need a gun to feel like a man. I know lots of men. Men who would do anything to protect their families. Men (and women) who train every single day to make their bodies strong and their minds even stronger. Men who put themselves out there day in and day out, against real opponents, against real obstacles, and beat them down. For real. Not in some made-up Batman fantasy inside their own heads.

The firemen who walked into the smoking rubble of the Twin Towers are heroes. Those teachers who lost their lives shielding small children from gunshots are heroes. I know you want to be one too. So be one. Put away your guns and stand for something far more important than your right to feel invincible. Don't just fantasize about protecting your family from imaginary bad guys, help protect all families. From real ones. Help create a world where children are safe from harm, a world where all mothers can send their kids off to school without fear. Put away your guns. You don't need them.

There are bad guys out there. Please don't be one of them.


  1. What We Can Do
    Sometimes we feel hopeless in the face of tragedy and violence. Some people retreat into anger or confusion. Others just shut down.
    I refuse to adhere to just one reaction. All of us have different emotional make-ups and the issue of gun violence is very complex. Politics, religion, sex, and where you reside (a city, suburban, rural area) all influence what position you take on whether gun ownership protects or endangers those around you.
    I can only speak from my experience. I live in the most populous city in the U.S. and am lucky that I have never witnessed a shooting. I have also worked for almost thirty years in the Bronx and used public transportation every day. In the high school where I worked in the west Bronx, there were incidents involving student fights and gang violence. I sometimes had to break up fights in my classroom or assist controlling incidents in the hallways.
    After retirement, I worked for two years at a live-in facility for teenagers who were locked down because they came from detention centers or the psychiatric wards of city hospitals. They themselves were often the victims of parental and street violence. Adults who worked at this facility were trained to respond to students who were out-of-control and almost every day there was an alert on the loudspeaker system for such an incident.
    Despite all of these experiences, I never once felt that allowing a security officer or aide to possess a weapon was a solution to these problems. And I know I would have felt unsafe in an environment with adults and guns.
    On the other hand, I have participated in many situations in which I felt students were unsafe and I, and other teachers, reacted quickly to these events to protect the students. For example, I remember one morning when the hallways and classrooms were filled with smoke because of a raging fire in the street outside the school. The school administration issued no announcements over the intercom to evacuate the students so I took it upon myself to lead my class outside the building.
    Once again it was apparent that adults like teachers, parents, security personnel and even teenagers can make their own decisions about how to protect themselves without the use of weapons to control the situation. Using a weapon only signifies that things are out of control as evidenced by what happened in Newtown on December 14, 2012 and will continue to happen so long as guns are all around us.


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