Friday, April 19, 2013

Protecting your family: A follow-up

I wrote about gun control a while back, much to the offense of, well, apparently most everyone. One of the common refrains I saw and heard in discussions was, “What about protecting my family [from home invasion]?”

This is a fair question, and needs to be addressed. Now (as I discussed before), Christ and others have very little to say about this. (The first century was not exactly the highlight for health, safety, and environmental theory.)

So I approach the problem of “How to protect my family from death” more as an engineer than anything else. Which is to say, this is not a "Christian" or "moral" article as much as an "engineering" one. As an engineer when approaching a problem, I follow a fairly standard approach:

·         First, I make sure that I am using my energy on the most important problems first. This is called the Pareto Principle, or the “Rule of the Significant Few.” It is based on a rule of thumb in statistics, which finds that in most situations, 80% of the defects in any situation are caused by 20% of the possible causes. Some people call this the “low hanging fruit”—it means spending your energy and money on the things which have the biggest impact.

·         Second, we try to apply error-proofing concepts. There are three levels of error-proofing:  poka yoke (which means that the error cannot possibly happen), detection (which means the error is detected and a person informed to fix it), and administrative controls (where checklists, training, or warning notices are relied on.)

For example, consider the speed of your car as you drive. There is a maximum speed limit you are allowed to drive. The first level of control applied is Administrative—the speed limit is posted on the side of the road, you are trained during your licensing, etc. The second level of control applied is Detection—police officers use radar to detect speeders, and some areas have those signs which tell you if you are driving too fast. But these are not error proofing…as is evidenced by how often we drive over the speed limit! A poka yoke solution would be to put a speed limitation on the car so that it could not possible go fast enough.

Methods – Determining the Significant Few

So, what are the significant risks we need to focus on, and how much energy should we put into each?

Ignoring health-related issues like obesity, smoking, and communicable diseases, what are the most common causes of accidental death? Here are the top 11 most common causes (plus home invasion defense), and the odds of dying from each:

1.     Alcohol:  3,327:1

2.     Poisoning:  5,142:1

3.     Errors by doctors at hospital:  6,428:1

4.     Traffic accidents:  6,577:1

5.     Suicide or accidental home shooting:  16,383:1

6.     Drug overdose:  16,635:1

7.     Homicides (usually domestic dispute):  26,184:1

8.     Falls:  47,135:1

9.     Fire:  90,935:1

10.  Choking:  282,810:1

11.  Drowning:  353,512:1

12.  Home defense from invader:  472,164:1

How likely is it that you will ever use a gun to protect your home from an invader? Not very. That situation accounts for only two-tenths of one percent (00.2%) of all cases. In other words, 99.8% of the ways your family are at risk today are not addressable with a gun.

So forgive me for being a bit suspicious when you say that you want to have a gun for home defense. Common sense says that this is only a valid argument if you have already error-proofed the 11 things above it.

Is it not strange that people feel the need for a gun in the home to protect their family, yet have no fire extinguishers—even though death from fire is 519% more likely than from a home invasion?

Is it not strange that people feel the need for a gun in the house, yet they leave their guns unlocked and accessible—even though the odds of a child shooting themselves (intentionally or otherwise) are 2877% more likely than from a home invasion?

Is it not strange that people feel the need for a gun in the house, yet text and talk while driving—even though the odds of dying from distracted driving are 7167% higher than from a home invasion?

Can we just be honest about one thing:  people want to have guns in the house not to protect their families, but because guns are fun to shoot. They are fun. I have shot machine guns, including a vintage 1930s Tommy gun. That’s cool. I have hunted, many times. So admit that you want guns because you feel they are fun to shoot. And then we as Christians need to just be wise about what makes sense.

But the home defense angle makes little sense. To protect yourself against 0.2% of the potential issues, but not against the other 99.8%, is not a very good provision for protecting your family!

(But on the other hand:  it also makes no sense at all to fight against having guns in the house and yet being willing to drive on bad tires, or while texting, or distracted by talking on the cell phone, or with bad brakes…car accidents are 150% more dangerous than any of the options which can result from owning guns.)

So how should you protect your family?

The top four causes here account for 80% of the unintended deaths; the top six account for 92%. So you should be focusing about 90% of your home defense efforts on the top 6 causes.

But let’s go through all 12. For each, I will suggest methods of poka yoke (complete error proofing), as well as the lesser Detection/Administrative options. Poka yoke is preferred when possible; if not, at least make sure you are doing one of the others. (Note: risk factors are scalable—so a risk factor 30 is twice as risky as a risk factor 15.)

1.     Alcohol (risk factor: 30) – alcohol poisoning, drunk driving, and health issues related to alcohol

Poka yoke options:  Teetotalling (no alcohol at all); alcohol out of reach/locked up; use of designated driving.

Detection/Administrative options:  Children are taught and warned about risks of alcohol; plan to stop drinking when “buzzed” instead of getting drunk.

2.     Poisoning (risk factor: 19.4) – a child swallowing medication accidentally, or an adult taking the wrong pills, or children accessing dangerous chemicals

Poka yoke options:  All medicine remains in medicine cabinet and out of reach of children; no mixing of pills in bottles; babyproofing of cabinets which contain cleaning supplies and other dangerous chemicals

Detection/Administrative options:  Poison control number available; labeling of dangerous chemicals

3.     Doctor mistakes (risk factor: 15.5) – misdiagnosis of illness by doctor or hospital; mixing of pills or IVs at hospital; passage of diseases between patients; surgical errors

Poka yoke options:  Never see a doctor (note—this is usually more risky than the risk above!); do not go to hospital unless absolutely necessary; do not undertake elective surgeries

Detection/Administrative options:  Use the internet to confirm diagnoses; research drugs you are given; ask lots of questions; wash hands frequently at hospitals; first aid kits and CPR training at home for basic issues

4.     Traffic accidents (risk factor: 15.2) – distracted driving, blowouts, accidental collision

Poka yoke options:  Never drive

Detection/Administrative options:  No texting and driving; use hands-free phone; always check tires and fuel levels; never drive sleepy (leave early); always wear seat belts

5.     Suicide or accidental home shooting (risk factor: 6.1) – accidental home shooting/playing with guns, purposeful suicide

Poka yoke options:  Have no guns in the house: no guns = no accidental shootings. Another option: have guns but keep them in safe and/or with chamber locks, and ammo stored separately.

Detection/Administrative options:  Teach kids about gun safety; mental health issues taken seriously and addressed immediately.

6.     Drug overdose (risk factor: 6.0) – overdosing on drugs, either for suicide or from use of illegal drugs

Poka yoke options:  Teetotalling from illegal drugs

Detection/Administrative options:  Mental health issues taken seriously and addressed immediately.

7.     Homicide (risk factor: 3.8) – domestic arguments which get out of hand; random shootings; criminal activity

Poka yoke options:  Avoid dangerous areas of town; build a strong marriage and family life; avoid criminal activity; live in safe areas

Detection/Administrative options:  Concealed carry permit to try and respond if someone attacks you; stun gun or pepper spray to stop attack; wear kevlar

8.     Falls (risk factor: 2.1) – falling from roof, or in shower, or from a ladder

Poka yoke options:  Don’t do any work from height; use anti-slip bathroom mats; kids wear helmets riding bikes and skateboards

Detection/Administrative options:  Hand rails in bathroom to catch during falls; wear safety equipment when working at height; use ladders appropriately

9.     Fire (risk factor: 1.1) – fire in house

Poka yoke options:  Turn off appliances when not in use, keep flammable liquids apart from heat sources (like water heater)

Detection/Administrative options:  Have smoke detectors with charged batteries, have fire extinguishers, have evacuation plan

10.  Choking (risk factor: 0.4) – choking while eating or at night

Poka yoke options:  Keep bedrooms free of plastic debris, cut up and chew food appropriately

Detection/Administrative options:  Have family members trained in CPR and Heimlich maneuver

11.  Drowning (risk factor: 0.3) – drowning in pool or tub

Poka yoke options:  No swimming pool; take showers not baths

Detection/Administrative options:  Don’t leave kids in bath unattended; swimming training; pools are surrounded by locked gates; no swimming without adult presence; no horseplay at pools

12.  Home invasion (risk factor: 0.2) – killed by burglar or other unknown home invader (domestic disputes count in ‘homicide’ above)

Poka yoke options:  Deadbolts to prevent entry; safe room for protection

Detection/Administrative options:  Methods of attacking back (guns, stun guns, tasers, pepper spray), security system with alarm

So what do we do?

The actions we take at our house from the above list are:

1.     Alcohol – drinks inaccessible; never drunk; never drink and drive; children taught risks of alcohol

2.     Poisoning – all medicine in cabinets; only parents allowed to administer medicine; chemicals baby-proofed; no mixing of pills in bottles (note…my wife is not fully on board with the last one; it’s a bad habit I’m still trying to break her of!)

3.     Doctors – first aid kits and CPR training at home (self handling when possible); use of internet to confirm diagnoses; no elective surgeries; no unnecessary hospital trips

4.     Traffic accidents – no texting and driving; never drive sleepy; frequent tire and car tune-ups; hands free cell phone set just bought (not yet in use); always buckle up

5.     Suicide/accidental shooting – no guns in house

6.     Drug overdose – no drug use (tetotalling)

7.     Homicide – avoid dangerous areas of town; build a strong marriage and family life; avoid criminal activity; live in safe areas

8.     Falls – kids wear helmets on bikes and scooters; proper ladder use; hand rails in shower

9.     Fire – turn off appliances when not in use, keep flammable liquids apart from heat sources (like water heater); have smoke detectors with charged batteries, have fire extinguishers

1.     Choking – keep bedrooms free of plastic debris, cut up and chew food appropriately; CPR and Heimlich training

.   .     Drowning – no pool; swimming lessons; no swimming without parents

.   .     Invasion – deadbolts; safe room; pepper spray; stun gun


Please protect your family. But don’t just think going and buying a gun is going to get it done. Guns aren’t much use against traffic accidents, or choking, or drowning, or fires, or accidental ingestion of medicine. And all of those are FAR more likely than someone breaking into your home and you needing to shoot them. If you spend more than 0.2% of your time, energy, and money on protecting against home invasion, then you are doing it wrong: focus on the high-likelihood things first, then work your way down the list.


  1. I dunno Micheal... That whole "thou shalt not mix the pills" is a little close to heresy for me! :p I'm with your wife with that as a bad habit, if for no other reason than I like to have a "bug-out-bottle" that I can just throw into a bag when going on a trip :p granted.... That'll probably be adjusted some once I have kids :p

    1. Ha--yeah, I'm never gonna sell her on that.

  2. Most people are aware, i think, of the dangers of alcohol, texting while driving, suicide, etc. when people die from these things, it's usually not due to someone being responsible, but due to someone thinking they can take a risk while controlling it enough to negate that risk ("i can quit drinking any time i want" or "I'm only buzzed, i can still drive", "i'm just going to look down long enough to type 1 word, and i'll hold my cell phone at the top of my steering wheel so i'm barely even looking away from the road", and, well, the people who want to commit suicide, of course, aren't looking to protect themselves from it) and there are laws against that type of irresponsible behavior just as there are laws against the irresponsible handling of a gun.

    I'm personally willing to risk dying from a fall rather than keeping a death grip on the hand rail the entire time i'm in a shower. My attitude is that accidents happen even when all responsible measures have been taken. That's what makes it an accident. If someone tells a joke that makes me laugh while i'm eating and i choke to death as a direct result, that's an unfortunate accident that I had little control over. I'm willing to risk choking to death while i eat rather than tell everyone else in the room not to say anything funny while i'm eating. I also seldom (that is, never) make sure i'm in the presence of someone who is certified in CPR before putting food in my mouth. That's a risk i'm willing to take.

    As unlikely as it is, someone breaking into my house and murdering me and my family (and potentially doing a lot of other terrible things in the process) is not an accident. Someone else is doing that on purpose. Owning a gun is a means of trying to control that particular hazard in case it ever happens. I'm not willing to risk letting that happen by not owning a gun the way i'm willing to risk eating food and standing up in the shower.

    Having said that, i and many gun enthusiasts that i know actively try to prevent many non-home-invasion related deaths, as well, so owning a gun is not the only protections we have in place.

    I would also say that, as long as i'm not breaking the law, it doesn't matter why i want to own one. Yes, entertainment/hunting/sport is the function my gun serves most often, but it is far from the only reason i want one.

    1. I agree with everything you just said - that's exactly the RIGHT attitude. To quote you, you "actively try to prevent many non-home invasion related deaths, as well" and that is exactly what I was going for. I was more pointing out that I know many people who have 5-6 guns in the home for protection and yet don't have a smoke detector and don't buckle up in their cars.

      You have a better attitude here than many people I know. My point is...if you want to protect your family you need to follow the Pareto principle: 80% of your effort should be aimed at 80% of the risks. Rather than aiming 99% at 1% of the risk...which is what many people do.