Skepticism

Why a Dog Keeps You Safer Than a Gun

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Transcript:

That’s right, it’s once again time for me to spread my blatant pro-dog agenda! Look, it’s not my fault: six years ago, I adopted a random mutt who turned out to be the world’s cutest dog, and now I am unable to resist spreading the good news. Wait…is this a religion? Is Indy a prophet? Dare I say, a paw-phet? Hm.

Anyway, I’m actually going to start with a little content warning: while most of this video is going to be lighthearted and fun and interesting, I’m going to start by talking about guns and homicide and suicide. If you’d like to skip that bit, just jump forward to this timestamp. 

So, the reason why I have Indy is in part because six years ago, there was a man living about a 40-minute drive from me who made a YouTube video in which he gave out my home address and commented that I had the same first name as Rebecca Schaeffer, an actress who was brutally murdered by a stalker who found her address using a public records search. I found that video because another woman contacted me saying that this man was also stalking her and had been to prison and she was working on putting him back in prison because he was very dangerous.

I lived alone at the time, in an apartment building with no real security and no rules that would allow me to install my own security system. So obviously, because I am an American, my first thought was “Hey, I should get a gun!” I am very much in favor of strict gun regulations, but personally I am happy to undergo training and education and background checks and I have no moral quandary about shooting a man in the face if he enters my home to try to murder me.

Unfortunately, I am also a critical thinker, and so I know what the data shows. Like, yes, having a firearm in the home increases a person’s risk of dying of homicide by 3-fold, and significantly increases the risk of dying of gun violence. But it seemed like my risk of dying of homicide was ALREADY significantly elevated, which is, you know, why I was considering getting a gun, so…shrug. 

As a woman, having a firearm in the home also would significantly increase my chances of dying of intimate partner violence. As the American Association of Family Practitioners sums up, “There is a nearly eight-fold increased risk associated with gun ownership and homicide when the perpetrator is the intimate partner or a relative of the victim. If the gun owner has a history of domestic violence, the risk of homicide is 20 times higher. Women who are physically abused by current or former partners are seven times more likely to be murdered if the partner owned a handgun compared to women whose partner does not own a handgun.”

But hey, I was single at the time and had no interest in cohabitating with a man, abusive or otherwise, so not a huge deal for me.

But I also knew that having a firearm in the home also would significantly increase the chance that I would die of SUICIDE. 60% of all suicides involve a firearm, and homes with a firearm are much more likely to experience a successful suicide. And while those other things might not necessarily apply to me, that one…I was pretty depressed at the time, and in fact I was working with a psychiatrist to fine tune my crazy pill meds, which has the delightful side effect of possibly increasing suicide risk.

Also, I should mention that hundreds of people die each year from unintentional firearm incidents. Not only am I a bit of a klutz, but I also experience really vivid dreams that often end up with me sleepwalking and doing random things without realizing it. It’s probably best not to give delirious, asleep Rebecca a gun to battle the alien she thinks is melting through the ceiling or whatever.

Have I overshared enough in this video yet? No? Let’s go on.

Anyway, I quickly came to the conclusion that a gun was not for me. But what MIGHT be for me? A dog. I’d never had a dog before (as an adult) but I thought that having one might help: something like a big German shepherd or a pit bull might be able to bite the shit out of a potential murderer, or at least scare a potential murdererer away, or at the very least make me think he COULD do those things and thus make me FEEL safer. 

So I adopted a puppy who I was told was a German shepherd mix. He wasn’t. He’s 35 pounds and he prances when he walks. He has butt curtains and ears that flop around. He always looks happy. He’s ridiculous. He couldn’t intimidate a cynophobic squirrel.

But it turns out, he DOES make me safer. On the one hand, he really is good at alerting me when there’s a stranger around, growling if someone approaches me when I don’t want them to, and scaring off door-to-door salesmen. But on the other hand, he may actually keep everyone in my neighborhood safer, at least according to a new paper titled “Paws on the Street: Neighborhood-Level Concentration of Households with Dogs and Urban Crime.”

In a survey of about 43,000 homes in and around Columbus, Ohio, researchers found that the presence of dogs in a neighborhood significantly reduced the number of property crimes, like burglaries. They also specifically looked at neighborhoods with a high amount of trust, found by asking residents how much they trusted the average person on their street. Higher trust among neighbors is already associated with less crime in previous studies, but this one showed that even in those neighborhoods, more dogs meant less robbery, homicide, and aggravated assault.

So what’s the idea? Are all these dogs roaming around biting criminals? Not exactly – the researchers think the benefit can actually be due to the dogs’ owners. More people walking their dogs around a neighborhood means more “eyes on the street” to notice things that might be out of place, and to dissuade nefarious actors from committing crimes.

The researchers cite the work of Jane Jacobs, and I’m so glad they did because I fell down a rabbit hole and learned about a very interesting person.

I had previously known of Robert Moses, an urban planner who was, essentially, a supervillain. He was an inveterate racist who is responsible for destroying black and Latino communities in New York by bulldozing their homes, building highways that cut them off from schools and parks, and even purposely building overpasses too low for city buses to use certain corridors, meaning that if you weren’t rich enough to have a car or take a taxi you simply could not travel certain places. Yeah. You thought I was being hyperbolic when I said “supervillain,” weren’t you?

While I was aware of Moses and his horrific legacy, I had no idea that this supervillain actually had a nemesis: Jane Jacobs, a journalist who moved to Greenwich Village in the 1930s. In 1959, Robert Moses submitted plans for the Village, along with the area that would become Chinatown and Little Italy, be bulldozed. 2,000 families in more than 400 buildings would be evicted, and more than 800 businesses would be displaced for the plan, and the mostly non-white Lower Manhattan would be effectively walled off from the rest of the city. The city approved the plans in 1960.

Jane Jacobs leapt into action, organizing community rallies and forming the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, roping in people like Margaret Mead and Eleanor Roosevelt to support her. She led these protests for ten years, fighting Moses and his lackeys tooth and nail in City Hall and at rallies and in the newspapers, with the New York Times siding with Moses and the new Village Voice siding with the neighborhoods. By 1971, Jacobs and the neighborhood activists won and Moses’s plan was canceled.

Though she had no formal education, Jacobs spent her entire life studying what makes a neighborhood a good one, what makes a city a happy place to live. She wrote one of the most influential books on urban planning, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” in which she argued that dense, mixed-use neighborhoods where people have a reason to walk around outside on the street, meeting each other and building trust, are those that are the safest and most likely to maintain order. That’s where the concept of “Eyes on the Street” comes from, and that’s why these researchers think dogs help our neighborhoods.

Anecdotally, I buy it. As an adult, I’ve lived in dozens of different neighborhoods all over the United States and even a few in London. Prior to getting Indy, I NEVER knew any of my neighbors. After? I know EVERYBODY. I know my neighbors’ names, I know whether or not they like dogs, I know what they do for a living and what time they tend to be home and when they tend to go for walks or be out in their yards. I know what their cars look like, and I know when a car is new to the neighborhood. And honestly, I never thought I’d say this because I HATE for people to be up in my business, but…I love it. I love that my neighbors drop off extra lemons they picked from their trees. I love heading out to the grocery store, seeing them out for a walk and asking if they want me to pick them up anything. I love that when Indy and I found a dog wandering around, we knew exactly which house he had escaped from, the little scamp. I love that last week a neighbor texted me while on vacation and asked if I could go into his house and make sure the stove was off. Trust makes me feel happier and more fulfilled, and I’m more invested in making sure my neighborhood stays happy and healthy.

Obviously bad things will still happen in neighborhoods like this–trust and eyes on the street aren’t a silver bullet. But I’d rather have those things then, well, any bullet at all. So if you want to be safer, don’t get a gun. Get a dog, and take him for a walk.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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