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Personal Security and Emergency Preparedness

Do We Need Guns to Survive Disasters?


Updated January 31, 2013

Man shooting an assault rifle

A Colorado man practices at the shooting range.

(c) Joshua Lott/Getty Images

There's a common thread regarding firearms among folks who like to be well prepared. In general, the feeling is that you should be armed. Most preppers will tell you it's not the hurricane or the tornado or even the terrorist they expect to defend themselves against. It's the panic, looting and civil unrest that follows.

In short, they are arming themselves against their neighbors. Is it necessary?

Civil Unrest

I responded to Mississippi in the wake of hurricane Katrina. I arrived only 5 days after the storm and was greeted almost immediately with stories of fighting and looting. The most poignant anecdote we were told was that an ambulance crew had been held up at gunpoint for supplies and drugs. We were told to be safe and stay alert.

Driving around the counties of Hancock and Harrison in southern Mississippi, guns were everywhere. It was surreal to see folks wearing sidearms in low riding holsters like old fashioned gunslingers. Some people had shotguns resting on their shoulders as they walked down the sidewalk.

Presumably those who were armed expected to be faced with a measure of panic or lawlessness, but almost everywhere people reacted in exactly the opposite way. Neighbors were fed and housed. Churches took donations of disaster supplies and created food lockers for entire communities. It was well reported that the government didn't do a very good job responding to the crisis of Katrina, but the people of Mississippi sure did a great job taking care of each other.

Indeed, that's precisely what research has found as well. Instead of civil unrest in the face of a catastrophe, people are much more likely to treat each other better. Crime rates often fall and there is a spirit of cooperation rather than isolation after a major disaster. It's not what really happens in disasters that folks are afraid of; it's what we think will happen that scares us.

A report by Katy Waldman on Slate.com after Superstorm Sandy illustrates our collective confusion:

"What’s going on? Conventional wisdom, supported by media narratives and Hollywood disaster flicks, says that emergencies bring out the worst in us. The 1977 New York City blackout still haunts our collective memory: Anarchy reigned, fires blazed, and looters and vandals ran amok. So where were the riots last week? Where was the mass panic? Why did so many people seem to rise to the occasion, instead of descending to some modern version of the Heart of Darkness?"

Of all those stories I heard when I arrived in Mississippi, I'm not sure any of them was true. I could never find the names of the original crewmembers who were supposedly held up and I never saw anyone use those guns they were carrying around.

To Arm or Not to Arm

If civil unrest after a natural disaster is a myth, how important is it to have a gun in the house when the floodwaters rise? It is exactly the same in a disaster as it is any other day. To own a weapon or not is one of the most personal decisions we have to make in this country, but it doesn't take a disaster to make the choice.

I'm not going to get into the gun control debate. I understand the arguments from both sides and I'm not sure I have made up my own mind about the right level of restrictions. Wherever you land on the issue of gun control, don't let the myth of civil unrest after a disaster convince you to get a weapon.

Any law enforcement officer will tell you there's a big difference between having a gun and the willingness to use it against another human being. It takes training and an unwavering belief that your own safety relies on using deadly force. There's an old saying that you shouldn't point a gun at something (or someone) unless you're willing to kill it. I'll take that a step further: don't buy a gun unless you're willing to put in the hours training to use it effectively and to keep it out of the hands of unsavory folks who would take it from you.

Another bit of advice I give to all my paramedic interns on their first day of training: never carry a weapon you wouldn't mind having used against you when the bad guy takes it out of your hands.


Tierney, Kathleen, Christine Bevc, and Erica Kuligowski. "Metaphors Matter: Disaster Myths, Media Frames, and Their Consequences in Hurricane Katrina." ANNALS, AAPSS, 604, March 2006.

Quarantelli, EL. "Looting and Antisocial Behavior in Disasters." (pdf) University of Delaware Disaster Research Center. 1994

Welter, Katy. "The Myth of Disaster Looting." Next City. 5 Nov 2012.

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