Guns: Excellent Protection Against Imaginary Dangers
In my column for CNN, I argue that it may not make sense for everyone to own a gun:
Do guns make us safer?
It's an article of faith among many gun owners that yes they do.
Last week, I presented in this space some evidence of the dangers of gun ownership: the elevated risks of accident and suicide in households that own guns. I pointed to a paradox: More Americans support gun rights, even as fewer Americans own guns. I explained this paradox with data that suggested many Americans hold false ideas about the prevalence of crime -- and wrongly look to gun ownership for self-defense.
Over the following seven days, I heard from many angry gun-rights supporters.
They argued that gun ownership is necessary for self-protection. They narrated stories of how their guns had saved them or their loved ones in armed confrontations.
And of course that must sometimes be true. The question is: How often is it true? And how do the benefits of widespread gun ownership compare with the measurable harms in higher rates of accident, suicide and crime?
Government figures from the National Survey of Criminal Victimization suggest 100,000 uses a year of guns in self-defense against crime, the vast majority of these uses being the display of weapons to deter or dissuade.
There are some problems with these government numbers, beginning with the fact that they are based on data from the early 1990s, when crime rates were much higher than they are today. The number of criminal attempts has declined 30% to 40% since then, and one would expect the number of occasions for self-defense to decline correspondingly.
For gun advocates, however, the main problem with the government estimate is that it is not nearly high enough to support their case that private gun ownership is the best way to stop crime. Many of them prefer another statistic, this from a study published in 1995 arguing that Americans use guns in self-defense some 2.5 million times a year, or once every 13 seconds. A Google search finds more than 1 million citations of this study posted online.
You can read the study here.
The trouble is that this claim of 2.5 million defensive gun uses is manifestly flawed and misleading.