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Gun owners talk: Self protection is more complex than 'stand and fight'

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Often the decision to keep or carry a firearm for self-defense is emotion-based and not that well thought out, say many experts. The immediate formation of lines at gun stores after the Newtown shooting is an example.

"Fear makes people go out and buy a firearm," observes Young. "Fear makes them lose confidence in the lifestyle they had before, that gave them the feeling of being safe. However, this perceived safe lifestyle is not the environment they're in now."

But even aside from headlines like Newtown, the background noise of American culture is fear-inducing, says Dave Grossman, a former West Point psychology professor who wrote "On Killing," a study of the psychology of killing in war. Entertainment violence – from the endless loop of TV police dramas to video games, and even iconic movies like "Jaws" – creates a sense of a world of danger and a pervasive sense of fear, Mr. Grossman says: "Fear [in American society today] is at levels unknown in history."

'We are bad at judging risk'

The world may not be as dangerous as portrayed in the media. But, says Sam Harris, an author and neuroscientist who promotes secular values, even in what is probably the safest period of American history, "we are bad at judging risk. We are much more animated and frightened by dramatic events that are easy to remember and horrifying. A horrifying shooting like Newtown gets into our imagination."

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