Here are two fun facts I learned a from a patrol officer with the San Francisco Police Department:
1. It’s a felony offense to carry or possess nunchuks in the state of California.
2. Carrying a concealed handgun in California is a misdemeanor.
I can only imagine what kind of Mad Hatter’s Tea Party the N.R.A. hosted when they were lobbying for this legislation; it must have been quite a spectacle. It certainly produced some first-rate nonsense. As someone who has used both handguns and nunchuks, I can attest that a gun is a lot easier to do serious damage with, accidentally or on purpose. (This is why guns are my least favorite weapon, ranked a few notches below “throwing poisonous spiders at people with my bare hands.”) A handgun is so appallingly easy to use that a two-year-old can pull one from his mother’s purse and kill her with it, as happened in a Walmart in Idaho last December. Point, pull trigger, wait for ambulance: So simple a child can do it.
Whereas carrying chuks is, for the average person, more like carrying around, say, an astatic galvanometer. Even if you understand what it’s supposed to be used for, neither you nor your two-year-old child are going to be able to deploy it with any kind of effectiveness. Nunchaku are certainly dangerous in the hands of an experienced practitioner, but they’re a complex, bitchy little piece of equipment—more of a specialist’s gadget than a traditional martial arts weapon. The important question, “Which end of this weapon is the dangerous one?” is easy to answer with a gun, much more difficult with nunchuks. They only look simple: two short pieces of wood connected by a rope or chain. Pick up a pair sometime, and you’ll quickly discover why Wikipedia reports that “One significant weakness of chained weapons in general is a lack of control.”
In my experience, there is no easier way to hit yourself in the face than to swing a chained weapon at someone else.
Yet the chuks are felonious in California and the handgun is not.
It’s not entirely the N.R.A.‘s fault that our weapons laws are irrational. Fear is irrational, and weapons are a response to fear. For a beautiful illustration of this fact, consider the recent post at Instructables.com on making “anti-rape” gloves. Said gloves were created by an Australian man who, in his own words, feels an “urge to protect” his sister, “a small, sweet, lovely woman” who “works in the bad part of town.” This woman’s brother worries about her. A lot. He says he has “regularly thought of ideas of things that she could have on her to protect her, however there are many problems with self-defense items because of obvious reasons.”
His solution to the many problems that exist—because of reasons, obviously—is to scratch-build something his sister could use to protect herself. He does this by cutting four oblong pieces of 2-mm stainless steel plate, drilling and tapping holes in them, inserting a couple of 40-mm screws, flat grinding the screw tips, hollow-grinding the screw mid-sections, and rounding the front of the screws downwards, to replicate “the velociraptor claw out of Jurassic Park that the weird guy carries around.” (If there’s a better model for effective weaponry than that, I don’t want to know about it.)
Next, this concerned brother explains, all you have to do is deburr the plate edges, screw the plates to a set of women’s cycling gloves, and give the gloves—carefully—to a grateful woman.
What I find fascinating, reading through these directions, is the way the glove-maker’s amorphous anxiety about his sister’s safety is transformed, through a laborious 15-step process, into a tangible object, a comforting piece of proof against the risks his sister faces: a weapon. You can almost see the therapeutic benefits accrue as the worried man applies his knowledge and skills to the problem. In his workshop, he has tools to help him create safety: clamps, vice grips, an angle grinder, a drill press, an automatic center punch, a vernier caliper. Every material he handles is measured, every step is planned. The process offers control. It requires precision. It lets the glove-maker think creatively, consider options, make choices—all things that help us feel we’re in command of our lives.
Are the gloves he produces going to help to his sister? It’s possible. Unfortunately they aren’t dressy enough to wear on dates, which is when women are most likely to be assaulted. The gloves would also likely be illegal in many states. Their creator is happy with them, though. He feels better for having made them. And he wants to share that feeling with others, by posting the instructions online. Which is, really, a lovely way to show how much he cares.
The irony here is that, if all the glove-maker really wanted was to give his sister something to defend herself with, he could have just given her his vernier caliper. If you’ve never seen this particular implement, it resembles a cross between a monkey wrench, a slide rule, and a medieval mace. Using it to measure something would require some skill, but anyone could use it as a weapon. If you swung a vernier caliper hard into someone’s skull, it would probably stick there. It would be much easier to wield than nunchuks, and legal even in California. It’s a simple answer to the glove-maker’s problem.
But the glove-maker doesn’t see this pre-existing solution staring up at him from his workbench. Instead, he labors for hours with his power tools, constructing mastery over chaos, piece-by-piece. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m laughing at him. Well OK, maybe I am a little bit, mainly because of the velociraptor thing. But who am I to mock anyone’s attempts to arm a loved one? I’ve spent years training in karate myself, hoping to gain some rudimentary control over the weapons that come standard on the human body. Good heavens, I practice hitting people with sticks—with three different sizes of stick in fact—sometimes for several hours a week. I’d wager that’s more time than a lot of gun owners put in at the shooting range. I find these activities valuable, whether I ever use a weapon for self-defense or not, for much the same reason that the anti-rape glove-maker found value in his process.
The repeated experience of addressing a threat in some coherent way can be empowering. It gives us confidence that we could survive a dangerous situation. Our true level of expertise with a weapon, the skill we gain or the improvement we generate through practice, is largely immaterial to this benefit. It’s the ritual, not the weapon, that matters. In fact, since the situations in which the average person could use a weapon effectively are so few and far between, you might as well be carrying a rabbit’s foot or a clove of garlic for protection. Still, working with weapons can be a therapeutic and mostly harmless activity, if we’re willing to suffer a few bruises from the nunchuks, or lose the occasional gun enthusiast to careless cleaning and handling.
The benefits don’t always outweigh the costs, though. Sometimes practice becomes obsession, and our rituals devolve into empty, reflexive behavior that amplifies and distorts our fear rather than calming it. I’m sure you’ve encountered someone like this, especially if you spend any time online. They are deeply invested in their weapon of choice and tend to spend a lot of time criticizing other weaponry as inferior. They may carry their weapon with them everywhere, stash one in their car, keep one under their pillow. They tend to jump into any discussion about self defense to proclaim “I carry a Glock!” as if the word itself is a magical talisman that protects those who utter it. They’ll do this even if the conversation is about the best 8th-century armor for deflecting crossbow bolts. It’s almost like they don’t have a choice. They’re compulsive about it.
Such a fixation isn’t just irritating to people around you; it can easily become a net loss in terms of safety. In the first place, it narrows your focus and reduces your ability to improvise. Real-world self-defense situations are fluid and unpredictable, so what really increases an individual’s odds of surviving is having skills that transfer from one situation to another. Too much focus on a particular weapon—or on weapons, period—makes you short-sighted. In other words, the ability to use nunchucks, or a gun, or to create anti-rape gloves, is less helpful than the ability to see the vernier caliper.
Secondly, over-reliance on weapons as a solution can make us lose perspective on the problem itself. Meticulously crafting a set of anti-rape gloves may give you some sense of control over the problem of rape, but it also fixes your attention on your individual response to an attack in progress. You lose sight of all the ways to address a threat early, or collectively. Of course, things like better policing and changed cultural norms are much harder to create than a pair of gloves with spikes in them. They’re far less satisfying projects to work on, trust me. Emailing city council members is much less satisfying than hitting someone with a stick. But it’s just as important, arguably more so, if you want to actually reduce the threat.
That’s a big “if.” If, for example, you are a gun manufacturer, and you want to sell guns, you don’t have much motivation to work on reducing the threats that motivate people to carry guns. In fact your motivation is the opposite—you want people to see more threats, and you want them to see guns as the only feasible way to counter those threats. You want voters agitating for laws that will expand their freedom to carry guns; you don’t want them agitating for laws that might reduce the threats themselves—poverty, sexual assault, drug abuse, mental illness. You want people feeling terrified and helpless, so you can sell them your weapons as a comforting pacifier. The California laws covering handguns and nunchuks are a very neat example of how this is managed: Handguns are normalized as such sensible accessories that carrying one around is essentially a breach of etiquette. Whereas nunchuks, those ridiculous twiddly bits of stick, are positioned as a mortal threat. The gun lobby has skewed the legal perspective on these weapons just as effectively as the cake and cordial in Wonderland make Alice grow or shrink.
I believe that most of us normal people, whether we practice with weapons or not, really do want the underlying problems solved. We’d prefer to live in a society free from violence, rather than one where it’s necessary to carry weapons to protect ourselves from violence. I personally don’t want to carry a gun or a stick or a sackful of poisonous spiders wherever I go. Nor do I wish to be surrounded by armed, paranoid people, or even armed, forgetful ones who allow their two-year-olds to dig their gun out of a purse. I don’t think that makes any of us safer.
Focusing on weapons can leave us with a blind spot about other possible solutions. Our fear leads us in that direction naturally, and there are unscrupulous people who will gladly manipulate our fears further, for their own gain.
Just like a weapon, every problem has two ends. You have to understand both: “How can I protect myself from a violent person when I cross paths with one?” and “How can we prevent that violent person from becoming violent in the first place?” There’s always a reason. The forces in play are not unknowable or unpredictable. We can build our skills and assert some control.
Read some research. Call a legislator. Talk to a social worker. Pick up the stick and swing it a few times. Expect a few bruises. Practice.
You’ll feel better, I promise.