Writing for a politics blog is weird. Yr Dok Zoom had just finished saving an earlier version of this piece Wednesday night when he opened a beer and decided to look at Twitter before heading to bed. That wasn’t such a great idea, in terms of sleeping well. And so we shall reframe what had just been an interesting bit of research into a direct reply to the geniuses who know, deep in their hearts, that when two or more are gathered in God’s name, at least one must be carrying a gun, and then mass shootings would be even rarer than they actually are.
But no, the numbers don’t seem to point to that, not at all: A study released Wednesday by gun safety advocates the Violence Policy Center (VPC) suggests that the value of guns for self-defense is greatly exaggerated, leading many on the right to reply with careful statistical analyses of their own, mostly saying “Oh yeah? You’re lying! You want to take our guns!” The study, Firearm Justifiable Homicides and Non-Fatal Self-Defense Gun Use, found that according to FBI crime statistics, in 2012 (the most recent year for complete stats), “there were only 259 justifiable homicides involving a private citizen using a firearm. That same year, there were 8,342 criminal firearm homicides.”
Nobody Called Gun Owners Murderers (Just Some Of ‘Em!)
When the survey was released, a lot of criticism was aimed (hurr hurr) at one of the press release’s math bits:
In 2012, for every justifiable homicide in the United States involving a firearm, guns were used in 32 criminal homicides. This ratio does not include the tens of thousands of lives taken in suicides or unintentional shootings.
But that’s not fair, say pro-gun people — it’s just not true that gun owners are 32 times more likely to murder someone than to defend themselves. Which would be a legitimate complaint if the study were claiming that about individual gun owners, but it’s not, it really isn’t. It’s comparing the ratio of offensive to defensive homicides, and that’s all. Feel free to correct anyone who says the study is claiming that average gun owners are likely to become murderers. It’s merely saying they’re just not very likely to become heroes, either.
Gun-humpers also attacked the study as irrelevant nonsense, since it compared justifiable homicides by responsible gun owners with criminal homicides by criminals, who by definition are bad guys with guns. This is indeed a weakness of the study, since it failed to calibrate the moral content of each type of homicide. But it is true that the study made no attempt to discern the origin of the guns used, so, sure, let’s concede that a fairly high percentage of the criminal homicides may have been committed with illegally obtained guns — and then add, so what? Even if there are a lot of gangbangers banging away in gangs, the stats still don’t support the notion that guns are likely to keep you especially safe from crime. Plus, today we had another reminder that in very rare cases, a “responsible gun owner” is just one act of murder away from jumping into that other category.
In fact, in terms of who’s getting killed in justifiable homicides, the study also found that “35.5 percent of persons killed in a firearm justifiable homicide were known to the shooter,” while 51.4 percent were strangers — so in only about half of the justified shootings were people blowing away unknown assailants. And of course, since the VPC study is focused on homicides only, it sets aside the over 20,000 suicides and 546 fatal unintentional shootings in 2012, though it does mention them in a footnote.
Not That Many Rambos, Sorry
Given gun-humpers’ obsession with self-defense — whether lethal or nonlethal — the study’s findings on non-lethal defensive uses of guns, based on the Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), were actually more surprising, finding that between 2007 and 2011, “[intended] victims of violent crimes engaged in self-protective behavior with a firearm in only 0.8 percent of attempted and completed incidents.” That’s based on a total of only 235,700 defensive uses of firearms in the five-year period, a far cry from the NRA’s highly dubious claim of up to 2.5 million defensive uses of firearms every year. And yes, the study’s number is probably low, since it covers only crimes that were actually reported to police, and it’s likely that a lot of people don’t report minor crimes that were prevented by waving a gun. But it’s also highly unlikely that the under-reporting is off by a million or more incidents a year. So from a purely statistical standpoint, the likelihood that someone in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church could have blown away alleged shooter Dylann Roof before he finished his attack is fairly low. In theory, those chances would go way up if every single church meeting in every single church had at least one member carrying a gun. Of course, the number of accidental shootings would go up too, but that’s a small price to pay for safety.
What About Defending Your Castle?
The statistics on use of guns to prevent property crimes are also worth mentioning the next time your batshit crazy uncle starts going on about all the guns he has stashed to protect against a home invasion. For one thing, the vast majority of property crimes — 85.6 percent — occur when the victim isn’t present. (If this fact encourages your crazy uncle to barricade himself inside his house at all times, tell him you’ll miss him at Thanksgiving and pour yourself an extra glass of wine.) And only .1 percent of victims of property crimes threatened the criminal with a firearm — that’s 103,000 defensive uses in five years. As the study notes, that’s hardly a drop in the bucket compared to Justice Department estimates that an “average of 232,400 guns were stolen each year from U.S. households from 2005 to 2010.” So yes, if you have a gun in your house, it really is more likely to be stolen while you’re away than used by you to go Charles Bronson on a home invader. Your friendly neighborhood gang thanks you for the contribution.
But What Does The NRA Think?
Needless to say, the National Rifle Association is not at all impressed by the VPC study. NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker called the study “rubbish” and then made “ptooey, ptooey” sounds to express her utter contempt for it. Baker said the study “fails to note that only a fraction of defensive firearm homicides are reported to the FBI and the study doesn’t account for the many crimes deterred by a firearm that do not result in a homicide.” Also, too, the study didn’t account for polling that shows that “most Americans believe exercising their constitutional right to self-protection makes them safer,” a perception that is surely every bit as important as the much lower statistics on actual uses of guns for self-protection. Heck, the commenters on the Daily Caller and Breitbart alone are pretty sure they’ve prevented hundreds of crimes each just by owning their bangsticks.
All in all, the study is a pretty interesting read, although we actually have to agree with the NRA that the FBI’s crime statistics aren’t necessarily the most reliable, largely since they rely on local police departments’ often-flawed reporting (see for instance, the 2013 New York Times story on how deadly firearm accidents involving children are badly under-counted). It would be great to have much more accurate, uniform statistics on firearms use, but the NRA has done everything it can to block federal funding for such research, since of course such research would only be used as an excuse to seize everybody’s guns.