Armed and safer

Bears sometimes make the case for firearms in Alaska, but Alaska is in a world alone/Craig Medred photo

News analysis

A national survey of American gun owners conducted by a business professor at liberal Georgetown University is suggesting that the oft-repeated conclusion that a firearm makes your home more dangerous might be based on a flawed premise as to firearms use.

“Owning Guns Puts People in Your Home at Greater Risk of Being Killed, New Study Shows,” Time magazine headlined only months ago above a story written by a Stanford University professor of law and health policy involved in a California study which concluded that “people living in homes with firearms have higher risks for dying by homicide.”

Professor David Studdert wrote that the results of the study clashed “with a classic narrative promulgated by gun rights groups: firearm owners use their weapon to turn away or overpower a threatening intruder, thereby protecting home and hearth. We did not detect even a hint of such protective benefits. If anything, our results suggest that cohabitants of handgun owners were more likely to be killed by strangers, although that result did not reach statistical significance.”

Studdert and his colleagues, however, looked only at firearm homicides, and the results of the 2021 National Firearms Survey conducted by Professor William English at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business suggest that is a lousy way to determine the effectiveness of firearms used for self-defense, mainly because it ignores all the time’s firearms are used to deter threats or stop crimes without anyone getting killed.

English’s survey of how Americans actually use firearms came out about the same time as Studdert’s study but was ignored by the mainstream media. It has only of late begun to bubble to the surface as Congress resumes consideration of new controls on firearms ownership.

Reason magazine, a Libertarian publication, picked up on the survey last week, but largely for its finding as to how many Americans now own semi-automatic rifles and how common the use of 10-round or greater magazines for lawful use. 

The survey is more interesting for what it reveals about how Americans use firearms for self-defense.

Mutually assured injury

Almost a third of the 16,708 gun owners among the 54,000 adults surveyed said they had used a firearm for self-defense, English reported, but “in most cases (81.9 percent) the gun (was) not fired.”

“Given that 31.1 percent of firearms owners have used a firearm in self-defense, this implies that approximately 25.3 million adult Americans have defended themselves with a firearm,” he wrote in the study. “Answers to the (survey’s) frequency question suggest that these gun owners have been involved in a total of approximately 50 million defensive incidents. Assuming that defensive uses of firearms are distributed roughly equally across years, this suggests at least 1.67 million defensive uses of firearms per year in which firearms owners have defended themselves or their property through the discharge, display, or mention of a firearm (excluding military service, police work, or work as a security guard).”

Most of these incidents, nearly 80 percent, involved people protecting their homes or property. Thirty-one percent of those involved said they managed to defend themselves merely by warning that they were armed, but more than half said they displayed a firearm to frighten someone else away.

This use of firearms “suggests that firearms have a powerful deterrent effect on crime, which, in most cases, does not depend on a gun actually being fired or an aggressor being injured,” English concluded.

The use of firearms for self-defense was highest among Native Americans and blacks with 47.7 percent of the former and 44.3 percent of the latter reporting they used a gun to protect themselves, their family, or their property. The numbers would appear to generally track conditions in low-income neighborhoods where crime is more prevalent.

The Pew Research Center in April found 35 percent of low-income blacks live in what they consider bad neighborhoods.

“When asked in an open-ended question to identify the most important issue in the community they live in, the top issue was violence or crime (17 percent),” the Pew researchers reported. “This includes black Americans who listed specific issues such as drug activity, shootings, or theft; but also those who simply listed ‘violence’ or ‘crime’ as the most pressing issues in their communities.”

Those sorts of neighborhood problems would encourage reasonable people to arm themselves for self-protection and would tend to make it more common to need to use a firearm for self-defense.

While almost half of black Americans reported being forced to use a firearm to defend themselves at some point, the survey found slightly less than 30 percent of white Americans and just over a quarter of Asian Americans saying they had at some point used a firearm for that reason.

Whites in the U.S. tend to concentrate in middle- and upper-income neighborhoods because they can afford to do so. The sort of gang-related gunfights too often reported in some parts of low-income Chicago are unheard of in those communities. 

Poverty and/or gross income inequality have been linked to higher homicide rates around the globe, as reported by researchers in China who concluded that in that country  “poverty is the mother of crime. And many American Indian/Alaska Natives and blacks, unfortunately, live in poverty-stricken areas.

“A close examination of wealth in the U.S. finds evidence of staggering racial disparities,” the Brookings think tank reported in 2020. “At $171,000, the net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family ($17,150) in 2016.”

Old news

English’s survey of who owns firearms in America and how much they use them for self-defense was published on SSRN, the Social Science Research Network, in May, but has gone unreported in the mainstream media. The first mention of the study appears to have been in the Washington Times, a right-leaning mainstream publication, a year ago – before the survey was published on a science website.

SSRN is described as an open-access repository for papers dealing with social sciences, engineering, the humanities, life sciences, applied sciences, health sciences and physical sciences. Open-access means the work is not exposed to peer review by other experts before publication.

Peer review itself has become a subject of considerable debate in recent years with researchers in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings three years ago warning that it can in some cases inject more bias into studies. There has been a lot of discussion of the subject ever since.

When COPE, the Committee on Publication Ethics, last fall polled its members on what they most wanted to discuss “bias in peer review was voted the topic of most interest.” The subsequent forum appears to have come to no real conclusion, which is probably to be expected given that bias is influenced by so many factors: peer pressure, economic pressure, individual desires for success or attention, and more.

The firearms owners surveyed by English, for instance, were almost certainly biased by their own conclusions that a gun helped them protect themselves. This would make them inherently more inclined to attribute to the firearm some value in helping to end a confrontation with someone else, and the confrontation could well have been one that would have ended the same way without the presence of the gun.

That’s a big part of the problem of research into the value of firearms for self-defense. There’s really no way to know if an unfired firearm did or didn’t protect someone. Journalist Dan Rather reported a classic example of this in his 1977 book titled “The Camera Never Blinks”.

Rather, then a CBS correspondent, wrote  of a break-in at his home during the Watergate investigations:

“I stepped out of the bedroom on the second floor and shouted into the darkness: ‘I don’t know who you are or what you want, but if you don’t get the hell out of here I’m going to blow your ass off,’ he wrote there. ‘And if you don’t believe me, listen to this.’

“With that I rammed a shell into the chamber of a shotgun. There is no mistaking that sound. Within seconds the intruders, or whatever they were, had fled.”

The chambering of a shell in a pump shotgun creates a very distinct ka-chunk, ka-chunk sound familiar to most people who know firearms, but there is no way of knowing if it was this sound or the shout that sent intruders fleeing from Rather’s home.

Rather has now, 46 years later, become something of an advocate for gun control, but he is today an old, rich (estimated net worth $70 million) guy far-removed from his blue-collar roots in Texas, and there is a definite class element to views on guns in America.

Cultural divide

The Republican party is today home to most of the nation’s blue-collar workers, according to Bloomberg researchers, and Pew Research last year reported a massive split between Republicans and Democrats on the issue of gun control.

Eighty percent of “Republicans and Republican-leaning independents” told Pew that guns laws are fine as they are or should be less strict (27 percent of those polled) versus “a large majority of Democrats and Democratic leaners (81 percent) say(ing) gun laws should be stricter, though this share has declined slightly since 2019 (down from 86 percent).”

All of this comes against a backdrop of highly publicized mass shootings at a time when firearms ownership in the U.S. has steadily shifted away from being an issue about hunters needing guns to put food on the table to being an issue about self-defense.

The pro-gun crowd argues the best way to stop a mass shooter is to have someone nearby who is armed and can stop him with a bullet as soon as the shooting starts. The anti-gun crowd argues that increased gun ownership just means more dead (see the Stanford research above), and the best solution is to get certain kinds of guns out of the hands of Americans.

The evidence to show the latter would do much is, however, slim to non-existent.

The especially deadly guns argument has focused on so-called “assault-style rifles,” semi-automatics with large magazines. True assault rifles, which can fire fully automatically like a machine gun, are not available to the general public. The National Firearms Act of 1934 required their registration and restricted ownership.

Assault-style rifles, meanwhile, are involved in a tiny number of American homicides. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reports rifles, of which assault-style rifles are a subset, could be identified in less than 3 percent of the country’s 13,927 homicides in 2019, the last year for which complete data are available.

The leading weapons the federal agency identified as involved in homicides were handguns, responsible for 6,368 murders; knives and other cutting instruments, 1,476 homicides; hands, feet and fists, 500 homicides; and blunt objects, 397 homicides. 

Rifles, of which assault-style rifles were some part, followed at 364 homicides.

FBI data also indicates few people in the U.S. are killed by complete strangers. Most are killed by people they knew or had met. Yet, the greatest fear of many in the country is some nameless, faceless, unknown shooter.

This fear seems especially prevalent among middle- and upper-income, white women who face the lowest risk of homicide in the country, and who when murdered are almost always the victims of a partner.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) puts the homicide rate for non-Hispanic white women at 1.5 per 100,000 and says 93.5 percent of those homicides are committed by a current or former “intimate partner.” The general rate for homicides of non-Hispanic white women is equal to the homicide rate for Iceland, which is considered a very safe country, and lower than that of Finland.

A real killer

According to data from the Governors Highway Safety Association, a white woman in this country has a nearly 37 times greater chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident, where there is a white death rate of 55.2 per 100,000 than of being murdered by anyone, and yet people nonchalantly get into motor vehicles every day and regularly drive distracted which has been shown to dramatically increase the risks of running into something or someone.

The CDC now reports that “nine people are killed every day in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver,” meaning that about every 12 days distracted drivers kill more people than the 103 the FBI reported dead in “active shooters” incidents in all of last year. 

“Active shooter” is how the FBI defines the gunman or rare gunwoman who goes on a public shooting spree with the intent of randomly killing other others. There are so few of these shootings that “even PBS last year described them as “rare.”

The University of California-Davis calculates that mass shootings account for 0.2 percent of firearm deaths in this country.

Despite their rarity, the latest discussion of gun control has focused on how to stop these deaths (Americans, being really bad at risk assessment, seem to have far less concern for distracted driving deaths) by banning assault-style rifles and/or high-volume magazines, actions which appear to many to be an easy solution.

Two Minnesota professors who studied mass killers back into the 1960s wrote a book titled “The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic” that suggests the solution probably isn’t this easy and that the best solution might be constant vigilance on everyone’s part.

They reached the latter conclusion after discovering that nearly all mass shooters told someone of their plans in advance as did the 18-year-old who invaded a Uvalde, Tex., school where he killed 19 children and two teachers in May. 

Part of the problem in stopping these shooters comes from the way Americans view those who commit the crime, one of those professors,  James Densley from Metro State University, told Politico after Uvalde.

“If we explain this problem as pure evil or other labels like terrorist attack or hate crime, we feel better because it makes it seem like we’ve found the motive and solved the puzzle,” he said. “But we haven’t solved anything. We’ve just explained the problem away. What this really problematic terminology does is prevent us from recognizing that mass shooters are us. This is hard for people to relate to because these individuals have done horrific, monstrous things. But three days earlier, that school shooter was somebody’s son, grandson, neighbor, colleague or classmate. We have to recognize them as the troubled human being earlier if we want to intervene before they become the monster,” he said. 

The book Densley wrote in cooperation with Jillian Peterson from Hamline University basically concluded most mass shooters are suicidal people with a grudge who want to take as many people as possible to the grave with them. Stopping such kamikazes can be extremely difficult as the U.S. learned during World War II.

In the interview with Politico, Peterson said some of what has been done to date appears to have made little difference.

“Post-Columbine,” she said,  “there’s been this real focus on hardening schools – metal detectors, armed officers, teaching our kids to run and hide. The shift I’m starting to see, at least here in Minnesota, is that people are realizing hardening doesn’t work. Over 90 percent of the time, school shooters target their own school. These are insiders, not outsiders.”

Hardening schools was a classic, simplistic solution, and simplistic solutions often don’t work as the country infamously learned when it tried to solve its alcohol problem with Prohibition. The Progressive cure turned out to be worse than the problem.

But complex solutions usually require a social buy-in leading to cooperation from the citizenry, and many in the country today see it as the job of government to order Americans how to act instead of finding ways to get them to work together in the interest of the common good.

On several levels, this might be the biggest cost of the country’s ongoing culture war that see views not only split over gun control but other major social issues.











11 replies »

  1. Forgive me for simplifying this, but it seems clear to me that if we eliminated 3% of the population we’d stop 90% of all gun crimes. Well, crimes in general.

  2. In his great book, “Everybody Lies,” Seth Stephens-Davidowitz points out that relying on data gained from polls, or direct questioning of people, is only going to get you information that the people give you and most of it will be bullshit. One third of gun owners have used their firearms in self defense??? C’mon. That blew this whole essay for me.

  3. Mr. Medred ,
    This is one of your most informative articles.
    I think to reduce mass shootings we need to improve support of family ties and improve economic stability of families.
    Financial stress is one of the largest factors that breaks families apart. It keeps the parents working and to strained to pay appropriate attention to children.
    The degradation of our dollar by the fed is not helping. There are untold numbers of areas to improve but focusing on industry and and American made products would be a helpful start imo

    • Leo , what makes you think that?
      How many breadwinners did you help throw in prison that damaged the family unit that led to neglected children are you responsible for ?
      “Just my duty”

      • what are you even talking about? I was making the same point as Jim Inak. I am a gun owner,I was not surveyed. Everyone I know probably owns a gun. I do not know anyone of them who has used a gun in defense.
        Without knowing more about how the survey was conducted I think the sample size is too small to correlate to the entire country and the results could be easily skewed. Since native americans are aproximately 2% of the US population you are looking at a sample group of around 300. Did English survey 6 people in every state?

      • Leo: The study was linked in the story, but in case you missed it, here it is:

        the study oultines how it was conducted.

        i am, like you, skeptical of the results. people lie a lot and they are even more prone to exaggeration. i can imagine the latter being a bigger problem than the former with people who simply had a gun with them during an encounter claiming they told someone they were armed, and someone who told someone they were armed upping their story to the level of showing the gun.

        that you were not sampled is irrelevant. i wasn’t either. i have used a firearm to defend myself. i know others who have. i also have a fair number of friends who don’t own firearms, which is weird to me.

      • Leo,
        I have used a firearm to defend myself against humans 5 times to recent memory . No shots fired except once as a warning. Most of the men who im closely associated with have also utilized a firearm as deterant against violence by its presence . Either through visual representation or verbal declaration. One man I know had to shoot several people and killed one when being ganged up on . You and your Freinds have been lucky and according to the survey are the 2/3 of Americans who haven’t yet used a firearm for self defense.
        Are you a Leo ? A law enforcement officer?
        If so how have you avoided using your firearm for self defense? Or does your handle stand for some thing else?

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