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Guns and the Ordinary Citizen

Some advocates of gun prohibition concede that it will not disarm criminals, but nevertheless they favor it in the belief that disarming ordinary citizens would in itself be good. Their belief seems to rely heavily on newspaper accounts of suicidal or outlandishly careless gun owners shooting themselves or loved ones. Such advocates can reel off newspaper stories of children or adults killing themselves in foolish gun accidents (one headline: "2 Year-old Boy Shoots Friend, 5") or shooting each other in moments of temporary frenzy.


In using argument by anecdote, the advocates are aided by the media, which sensationalize violence. The sensationalism and selectivity of the press lead readers to false conclusions. One poll showed that people believe homicide takes more lives annually than diabetes, stomach cancer, or stroke; in fact, strokes alone take 10 times as many lives as homicides.[24]
Even in the war of anecdotes, however, it is not at all clear that the gun control advocates have the advantage. Every month the National Rifle Association's magazines feature a section called "The Armed Citizen," which collects newspaper clippings of citizens successfully defending themselves against crime. For example, one story tells of a man in a wheelchair who had been beaten and robbed during five break-ins in two months; when the man heard someone prying at his window with a hatchet, he fired a shotgun, wounding the burglar and driving him away.[25]
Anecdotes rarely settle policy disputes, though. A coolheaded review of the facts debunks the scare tactics of the gun control advocates.

Some people with firsthand experience blame guns for domestic homicides. Said the chief of the homicide section of the Chicago Police Department, "There was a domestic fight. A gun was there. And then somebody was dead. If you have described one, you have described them all."[26] Sociologist R. P. Narlock, though, believes that "the mere availability of weapons lethal enough to produce a human mortality bears no major relationship to the frequency with which this act is completed."[27]


Guns do not turn ordinary citizens into murderers. Significantly, fewer than one gun owner in 3,000 commits homicide; and that one killer is far from a typical gun owner. Studies have found two-thirds to four-fifths of homicide offenders have prior arrest records, frequently for violent felonies.[28] A study by the pro-control Police Foundation of domestic homicides in Kansas City in 1977 revealed that in 85 percent of homicides among family members, the police had been called in before to break up violence.[29] In half the cases, the police had been called in five or more times. Thus, the average person who kills a family member is not a non-violent solid citizen who reaches for a weapon in a moment of temporary insanity. Instead, he has a past record of illegal violence and trouble with the law. Such people on the fringes of society are unlikely to be affected by gun control laws. Indeed, since many killers already had felony convictions, it was already illegal for them to own a gun, but they found one anyway.
Of all gun homicide victims, 81 percent are relatives or acquaintances of the killer.[30] As one might expect of the wives, companions, and business associates (e.g. drug dealers and loansharks) of violent felons, the victims are no paragons of society. In a study of the victims of near-fatal domestic shootings and stabbings, 78 percent of the victims volunteered a history of hard-drug use, and 16 percent admitted using heroin the day of the incident.[31] Many of the handgun homicide victims might well have been handgun killers, had the conflict turned out a

little differently.


Finally, many of the domestic killings with guns involve self-defense. In Detroit, for example, 75 percent of wives who shot and killed their husbands were not prosecuted, because the wives were legally defending themselves or their children against murderous assault.[32] When a gun is fired (or brandished) for legal self-defense in a home, the criminal attacker is much more likely to be a relative or acquaintance committing aggravated assault, rather than a total stranger committing a burglary.
The "domestic homicide" prong of the gun control argument demands that we take guns away from law-abiding citizens to reduce the incidence of felons committing crimes against each other. Not only is such a policy impossible to implement, it is morally flawed. To protect a woman who chooses to share a bed and a rap sheet with a criminal, it is unfair to disarm law abiding women and men and make them easier targets for the criminal's rapes and robberies.
It is often alleged that guns cause huge numbers of fatal accidents, far outweighing the minimal gain from whatever anticrime effects they may have. For example, former U.S. Senate candidate Mark Green (D-N.Y.) warned that "people with guns in their homes for protection are six times more likely to die of gunfire due to accidental discharge than those without them."[33]Of course, that makes sense; after all, people who own swimming pools are more likely to die in drowning accidents.
The actual number of people who die in home handgun accidents, though, is quite small. Despite press headlines such as "Pregnant Woman Killed by Own Gun While Making Bed," the actual death toll is somewhat lower than implied by the press. Each year roughly 7,000 people commit suicide with handguns and 300 or fewer people die in handgun accidents.[34] People who want to commit suicide can find many alternatives, and even pro-control experts agree that gun control has little impact on the suicide rate. Japan, for example, has strict gun control and a suicide rate twice the U.S. level. Americans have a high rate of suicide by shooting for the same reason that Norwegians have a high rate of suicide by drowning; guns are an important symbol in one culture, water in the other.[35]
If a U.S. gun prohibition was actually effective, it could save the 300 or so handgun victims and 1,400 or so long-gun accident victims each year. Even one death is too many, but guns account for only 2 percent of accidental deaths annually.[36]
Guns are dangerous, but hardly as dangerous as gun control advocates contend. Three times as many people are accidentally killed by fire as by firearms.[37] The number of people who die in gun accidents is about one-third the number who die by drowning.[38] Although newspapers leave a contrary impression, bicycle accidents kill many more children than do gun accidents. The average motor vehicle is 12 times more likely to cause a death than the average firearm.[39] Further, people involved in gun accidents are not typical gun owners but self-destructive individuals who are also "disproportionately involved in other accidents, violent crime and heavy drinking."[40]
Moreover, there is little correlation between the number of guns and the accident rate. The per capita death rate from firearms accidents has declined by a third in the last two decades, while the firearms supply has risen over 300 percent. In part this is because handguns have replaced many long guns as home protection weapons, and handgun accidents are considerably less likely to cause death than long-gun accidents. Handguns are also more difficult for a toddler to accidentally discharge than are long guns.[42]
The risks, therefore, of gun ownership by ordinary citizens are quite low. Accidents can be avoided by buying a trigger lock and not cleaning a gun while it is loaded. Unless the gun owner is already a violent thug, he is very unlikely to kill a relative in a moment of passion. If someone in the house is intent on suicide, he will kill himself by whatever means are at hand.
Gun control advocates like to cite a recent article in the New Enqland Journal of Medicine that argues that for every intruder killed by a gun, 43 other people die as a result of gunshot wounds incurred in the home.[43] (Again, most of them are suicides; many of the rest are assaultive family members killed in legitimate self-defense.) However, counting the number of criminal deaths is a bizarre method of measuring anticrime utility; no one evaluates police efficacy by tallying the number of criminals killed. Defensive use of a gun is far more likely to involve scaring away an attacker by brandishing the gun, or by firing it without causing death. Even if the numbers of criminal deaths were the proper measure of anticrime efficacy, citizens acting with full legal justification kill at least 30 percent more criminals than do the police.[44]
On the whole, citizens are more successful gun users than are the police. When police shoot, they are 5.5 times more likely to hit an innocent person than are civilian shooters.[45]Moreover, civilians use guns effectively against criminals. If a robbery victim does not defend himself, the robbery will succeed 88 percent of the time, and the victim will be injured 25 percent of the time. If the victim resists with a gun, the robbery "success" rate falls to 30 percent, and the victim injury rate falls to 17 percent. No other response to a robbery--from using a knife, to shouting for help, to fleeing--produces such a low rate of victim injury and robbery success.[46] In short, virtually all Americans who use guns do so responsibly and effectively, notwithstanding the anxieties of gun control advocates.



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