by Bruce Dunlavy (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)
The gun controversy is, of course, still active. Last week’s post preceded the Democratic presidential candidates’ debate, in which Hillary Clinton and Lincoln Chafee tried to out-gun-control Bernie Sanders, who had to apologize for having only a D-minus rating (instead of an F) from the National Rifle Association.
In this post, we’ll look at some other aspects of the gun issue.
Having a gun in your home increases the chances that you will die as a result of gun violence.
One of the most often cited reasons for gun ownership is for protection of home, self, and family against intruders. It is indeed true that guns are sometimes used for this purpose. However, the Harvard Injury Control Research Center has found evidence that such claims are generally miscounted or misreported, or are based on the use of guns for purposes other than self-defense.
On the other hand, any number of web sites can be found speculating and counting anecdotal reports. The Cato Institute maintains a web site with an interactive map through which users can list when guns are used in self-defense. Anyone can report such an incident. Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck has speculated in that the defensive use of guns is vastly under-reported (he cites a figure of 200 million times per year), and he and another researcher published one of a small group of studies showing that those who use guns in self-defense have lower rates of injury and death in confrontations with criminals.
However, the statistical methodology in Kleck’s 1995 study is suspect, as it was based on telephone responses from 66 people and extrapolation of the results to purportedly represent the population of American adults. In addition, researcher David Hemenway, writing in the same journal that published Kleck’s study, pointed out that Kleck and his co-author had themselves stated that between half and two-thirds of the incidents they counted, the guns were carried/used illegally, including some cases where the person counted as the victim was the aggressor. The Violence Policy Center counters with a 2012 study that found only 259 cases of defensive gun use, compared to a gun theft total of about 232,000, suggesting that for every defensive gun use, 896 guns are put into the hands of criminals.
In any case, the likelihood that a gun in the home will be used in the suicide or homicide of owner is much greater than the likelihood that it will be used to shoot an intruder. A study by the National Institutes of Health reported that “For every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.” The American Journal of Epidemiology compiled and analyzed statistics to determine the effect of gun ownership on gun deaths in suicides and homicides of or by the gun owner.
The best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is not a good guy with a gun.
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice-president of the NRA, famously said in a 2012 press conference, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.”
As much as American popular culture – movies, television shows, the myth of the Old West – glorifies the cool-headed lawman or bystander who rises above the panic and takes out the crazed gunman with a single well-placed shot, it doesn’t happen like that.
In the confusion of a violent gun battle, even highly-trained people cannot rely on instant reaction. As an Iraq-war combat leader and a university faculty researcher who is also director of a police rapid-response training center and member of a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms SWAT team told The Nation, appropriate reaction under fire comes to combat troops and law enforcement officers only with extensive training and experience.
On March 30, 1981, the President of the United States, surrounded by the best-trained armed bodyguards available, was met by an insane young man who shot the president and three others before any of the bodyguards could stop him. And when they did take him down, they did it without firing a shot.
When the shooting starts, if there are several people with drawn weapons, no one can be sure who is the “good guy” and who is the “bad guy.” The recent mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon occurred on a campus where gun-carrying is allowed, and there were concealed-carry gun-holders present. However, as one of them pointed out, they chose not to pull their weapons because “if we had our guns ready to shoot, they [SWAT] could think that we were bad guys.”
Sometimes the “good guy” can become the “bad guy,” as in an incident in Houston last month. A bystander saw a carjacking in progress, drew his gun, and fired. He missed the carjackers, but shot their victim in the head.
In 2014, an FBI study found 160 mass shootings between 2000 and 2013. Of the 160, only one was stopped by gunfire from an armed civilian (not law enforcement or armed professional security guard). In other words, nearly every time, what stops a bad guy with a gun is something other than a good guy with a gun.
Without guns, the death toll in mass murders would be lower.
This should be immediately obvious. No other weapons are as efficient in killing large numbers of people. Yet there are plenty who consistently argue that if mass killers did not have access to guns (or to semi-automatic weapons, or to assault rifles), they would use knives, bombs, or some other weapon. I cannot conceive of, for example, Klebold and Harris being able to kill two dozen at Columbine with knives, Cho killing 32 at Virginia Tech with a baseball bat, or drive-by killings in gang wars performed by throwing pit bulls out of cars. Let’s just discard this notion that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” out of hand. People using guns frequently kill people in ways they could not without guns. We might say, “Guns don’t kill people; people with guns kill people.”
(Image credit: Private collection of the author)
Gun control is neither a new idea nor an urban idea.
The notion that America was conquered in the Old West of the 1800s by the open carrying and use of firearms is spurious at best. The fantasy world of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show is not representative of reality. Look at the photograph accompanying this post. It was taken in the 1890s and shows cowboys who had just finished a cattle drive at the end of the Old Chisholm Trail in Kansas. No ten-gallon hats, no high-heeled boots, no spurs, no chaps, and – above all – no six-guns [full disclosure: the young man in the middle of the picture is my grandfather].
In June of 1870, the lawless plains town of Abilene, Kansas, hired Tom “Bear River” Smith as its first marshal, and he immediately instituted a rule of “no guns in town without a permit.” He successfully enforced his rule with only his fists. However, he did not last long on the job because he could not enforce the no-guns policy outside of town. In a confrontation ten miles away, he was shot and decapitated after only five months as marshal. He is, however, remembered as a better lawman than his successor, James “Wild Bill” Hickok. Years later, Abilene resident and USA president Dwight Eisenhower recalled the stories from his youth of how, without a firearm, Smith “subdued the lawless by the force of his personality and his tremendous capability as an athlete.”
The 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, that made deputy town marshal Wyatt Earp a legend was sparked by an attempt to enforce the town’s Ordinance Number Nine, which prohibited the carrying of weapons within the limits of Tombstone.
The experience of Tom Smith and Wyatt Earp shows that one jurisdiction cannot hope to effectively enforce gun restraints. Cities such as Chicago, New York, and Washington have some laws in place, but they are surrounded by areas where gun access is much easier. Chicago is but a bicycle ride from the border with Indiana, where gun purchase laws are much more relaxed. Nevertheless, even within these cities, gun ownership is associated with a higher likelihood of death by gunfire. Whether that is cause-and-effect or the reverse (simply the result of people in greater danger of gun violence being more likely to own guns) is uncertain.
In the last analysis, evidence suggests that – whatever the circumstance – those who live by the gun are more likely to die by the gun.
[Note: “Guns, Deaths, and Myths, Part 4” is now available. Find it here.]