In the Crossfire, Four


Shortly after the tragedy at Sandy Hook, I vowed to become more educated on gun issues.  This is the fourth in a series of posts documenting my education.   You can find links to all of the posts here.  I chose the title because those of us taking a moderate position seem to be exactly that, caught between the rhetoric of the gun rights and gun control extremes.

When the subject of the use of guns for self-defense comes up, two things are certain:  gun rights advocates will say, Guns save lives; and those favoring a more restrictive gun policy will say, A gun kept for self-defense is more likely to kill or injure the owner than an intruder.   Both will cite statistics … sometimes, even the same statistics.   These are issues that I would not even consider if it weren’t for the current debate on gun control … my choice not to have guns in my home has been based on common sense.   Yes, I know, sense is neither common or guaranteed to be correct.  So, here we go.

On one level, saying, Guns save lives, seems like a no brainer.  In this nation of gun owners, there are certainly instances when an individual uses a firearm to prevent a violent crime … or a crime that could turn violent … against self or family.  That is indeed part of the problem.  When someone prevents a break-in by brandishing a gun, how likely is it that the crime would have escalated into a homicide … and who would be the killer, the intruder or the gun owner?  Of course, the real issue is how many lives do guns save?   And do they save more than they cost?   At the center of the argument is the Defensive Gun Use, a statistic so critical that it has its own acronym, DGU.  According to ABCNews, the number of DGUs per year falls somewhere between 108,000 and 2.5 million annually.  Not surprisingly, those on opposite ends of the gun rights debate choose to focus on different reports.  To their credit, the pro-gun website, GunCite, identifies all of the fourteen studies before focusing on one by Dr. Gary Kleck’s figure of 2 million annually (and including several defenses by Dr. Kleck of his figures).  The number we all want, of course, is the percentage of DGUs that actually save lives, a figure that is missing in action.  What we have instead is a war of words … and reports … about whose statistics are correct and how to interpret whichever you choose.  Kleck offers that, there are hundreds of thousands of DGUs each year in which defenders would claim, if asked, to have saved a life, it is not possible to directly count the number of DGUs that actually did save a life.  I find the find the notion that without DGUs, the number of homicides would increase by more than a factor of 10 (14,612 to hundreds of thousands) ludicrous.

So, OK, how about the possibility that a gun owner … or his family … are killed during a DGU?   The study gun control advocates like to quote is one by Kellerman and Reay, Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor for Homicide in the Home from the New England Journal of Medicine, that calculated that there were 43 murders, suicides or accidental deaths for every justifiable defensive homicide in cases where a gun was kept in the home.  Although widely quoted, this metric is suspect.  GunCite uses Kellerman’s methodology to show that there are 99 murders, suicides or accidental deaths for every justifiable defensive homicide in case where no gun is involved.  It seems to me that Kellerman’s kill ratio misses the point … the question I’m interested in is not the ratio of bad deaths to good deaths … it’s the number of lives lost versus lives saved.  Which takes me back to the murky world of DGUs, where no one’s telling how many lives are actually saved.

So, I end up just about where I started.   It’s obvious that guns take innocent lives, sometimes in horrifying ways.  But I also believe that guns save lives, in addition to preventing non-lethal assaults on owners and their families.  If I believe the DGU statistics, that happens a lot … but in sixty-eight years, I’ve never known anyone who’d say they saved a life with a gun.  That may reflect that I’m not a gun-guy and don’t hear such talk … or it may reflect that I’ve lived in relatively safe places.  As horrible as Sandy Hook was, places like Newtown are astoundingly safe statistically.  In most places, the odds that a gun will be needed to prevent a violent assault are very small.  So, why not own a gun just in case?  There is the other side of that probability coin that gun rights people prefer to minimize.  There is a probability that your gun will lead to the death of you or a family member. The most probable mode would be suicide, which is particularly unsettling, because gun safes or gun locks, used to prevent accidental deaths, are not a deterrent.  The same can be said about homicide by the gun owner, although this is very unlikely in most cases.  The point is, each of us has to weigh the odds in deciding whether to own a gun or not … and the specifics of those odds are unavailable.  However, Time magazine quotes Gary Kleck, as saying, The vast majority of the population lives in low-crime neighborhoods and has virtually no need for a gun for defensive reasons.  A tiny fraction has a great deal of reason to get anything it can get that might help reduce its victimization*.

So, after a lot of reading (some of it very boring), I’m comfortable with my decision not to have guns in our home.  But I’m not about to make that decision for anyone else, even if I think their logic is faulty.  But nothing I read dissuaded me from my opinion** that a more restrictive gun policy is prudent.  Still, there’s that Second Amendment.  To what degree does our constitution allow the government to restrict gun ownership?  I’ll look at that next Saturday, then mercifully, I’ll be done.

I will approve all comments offered respectfully and intelligently.  Others will be dumped as spam.

* I was unable to find the source of this quote.  The closest I could find was in a 1998 article by Kleck, What Are the Risks and Benefits of Keeping a Gun in the Home?In light of the flaws and weak associations of case-control research, currently available data do not provide a sound empirical basis for recommending to the average American that he or she not keep a gun in the home.

** It’s time to outlaw possession of assault or military-style weapons meant for warfare and for high-capacity clips that make no sense as self-protection. It’s time to tighten standards for gun possession. Gun rights folk talk about only criminals having guns but crimes like Sandy Hook are more often committed by the mentally or emotionally debilitated and there certainly can be more control of access for the potentially unstable.  Sadly, I think only more extreme security measures at the schools can keep them from being a target of choice.

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One Comment on “In the Crossfire, Four”

  1. cherperz Says:

    Very interesting as always. As in all issues, statistics are thrown around to support or refute someone’s viewpoint. One of the problems is statistics by their very nature are unreliable. I consider most “statistics” as accurate as fairy tales. Even if the statistic of “how many lives were saved” would have been included in the report, I am not sure I could or would believe it to be true.

    What I find interesting in all debates in our country today is the decreasing “middle of the road” kind of logic vs. the very staunch “pro” and the very unyielding “anti” . We increasingly become more polarized and uncompromising. AND there are a lot of people out there with big mouths and minimal common sense….yeah…there’s that too.

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