By Dave Kopel, of the Independence Institute
January 31, 2001 11:10 a.m. National Review Online. More by Kopel on public health and guns.
Perhaps the most enduring factoid of the gun prohibition movement is that a person with a gun in the home is 43 times as likely to shoot someone in the family as to shoot a criminal. This "43 times" figure is the all-time favorite factoid of the gun-prohibition lobby. It's not really true, but it does tell us a lot about the gun-prohibition mindset.
The source of the 43-to-1 ratio is a study of firearm deaths in Seattle homes, conducted by doctors Arthur L. Kellermann and Donald T. Reay ("Protection or Peril?: An Analysis of Firearm-Related Deaths in the Home," New England Journal of Medicine, 1986). Kellerman and Reay totaled up the numbers of firearms murders, suicides, and fatal accidents, and then compared that number to the number of firearm deaths that were classified as justifiable homicides. The ratio of murder, suicide, and accidental death to the justifiable homicides was 43 to 1.
This is what the anti-gun lobbies call "scientific" proof that people (except government employees and security guards) should not have guns.
Of the gun deaths in the home, the vast majority are suicides. In the 43-to-1 figure, suicides account for nearly all the 43 unjustifiable deaths.
Counting a gun suicide as part of the increased risk of having a gun in the home is appropriate only if the presence of a gun facilitates a "successful" suicide that would not otherwise occur. But most research suggests that guns do not cause suicide.
In the book Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America, Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck analyzed suicide data for every America city with a population more than 100,000, and found no evidence that any form of gun control (including handgun prohibition) had an effect on the total suicide rate. Gun control did sometimes reduce gun suicide, but not overall suicide.
Notably, Japan, which prohibits handguns and rifles entirely, and regulates long guns very severely, has a suicide rate of more than twice the U.S. level. Many of the northern and central European nations also have very high suicide rates to accompany their strict gun laws. (Of course, if you have any suspicion that anybody in your home might be suicidal, it would hardly be a mistake for you to ensure that they do not have ready access to guns, tranquilizers, or other potentially lethal items.)
Putting aside the suicides, the Kellermann/Reay figures show 2.39 accidental or criminal deaths by firearm (in the home) for every justifiable fatal shooting. Now, 2 to 1 is a lot less dramatic than 43 to 1, but we still have more unjustifiable gun deaths than justifiable gun deaths in the home.
But just as many other people who would commit suicide with a gun would use an equally lethal method if guns are unavailable. Many of the people who kill themselves in firearm accidents may also be bent on destruction, regardless of the means. One study of gun-accident victims found that they were "disproportionately involved in other accidents, violent crime, and heavy drinking." (Philip Cook, "The Role of Firearms in Violent Crime: An Interpretative Review of the Literature," in Criminal Violence).
Or, as another researcher put it, "The psychological profile of the accident-prone suggests the same kind of aggressiveness shown by most murderers." (Roger Lane, "On the Social Meaning of Homicide Trends in America," in Violence in America, Vol. I, 1989.)
Without guns, many accident victims might well find some other way to kill themselves "accidentally," such as by reckless driving.
So by counting accidents and suicides, the 43-to-1 factoid ends up including a very large number of fatalities that would have occurred anyway, even if there were no gun in the home.
Now, how about the self-defense homicides, which Kellermann and Reay found to be so rare? Well, the reason that they found such a low total was that they excluded many cases of lawful self-defense. Kellermann and Reay did not count in the self-defense total of any of the cases where a person who had shot an attacker was acquitted on grounds of self-defense, or cases where a conviction was reversed on appeal on grounds related to self-defense. Yet 40% of women who appeal their murder convictions have the conviction reversed on appeal. ("Fighting Back," Time, Jan. 18, 1993.)
In short, the 43-to-1 figure is based on the totally implausible assumption that all the people who die in gun suicides and gun accidents would not kill themselves with something else if guns were unavailable. The figure is also based on a drastic undercount of the number of lawful self-defense homicides.
Moreover, counting dead criminals to measure the efficacy of civilian handgun ownership is ridiculous. Do we measure the efficacy of our police forces by counting how many people the police lawfully kill every year? The benefits of the police — and of home handgun ownership — are not measured by the number of dead criminals, but by the number of crimes prevented. Simplistic counting of corpses tells us nothing about the real safety value of gun ownership for protection.
Finally, Kellermann and Reay ignore the most important factor of all in assessing the risks of gun ownership: whose home the gun is in. You don't need a medical researcher to tell you that guns can be misused when in the homes of persons with mental illness related to violence; or in the homes of persons prone to self-destructive, reckless behavior; or in the homes of persons with arrest records for violent felonies; or in the homes where the police have had to intervene to deal with domestic violence. These are the homes from which the vast majority of handgun fatalities come.
To study these high-risk homes and to jump to conclusions about the general population is illogical. We know that possession of an automobile by an alcoholic who is prone to drunk driving may pose a serious health risk. But proof that automobiles in the hands of alcoholics may be risky doesn't prove that autos in the hands of non-alcoholics are risky. Yet the famous Seattle 43-to-1 figure is based on lumping the homes of violent felons, alcoholics, and other disturbed people in with the population as a whole. The study fails to distinguish between the large risks of guns in the hands of dangerous people, with the tiny risks (and large benefits) of guns in the hands of ordinary people.
But then again, treating ordinary people according to standards that would be appropriate for criminals and the violently insane is what the gun control movement is all about.