Chapter 4. Self-Defense Use of Guns
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Chapter 4  Self-Defense Use of Guns There is little or no need for a gun for self-protection [for most Americans] because there’s so little risk of crime. People don’t believe it, but it’s true. You just can’t convince most Americans they’re not at serious risk. —Gary Kleck The previous chapters highlighted some of the costs guns impose on society. But guns also provide some safety benefits. Guns may be used to thwart criminal acts, and awareness of their presence may deter individuals from attempting to commit crimes. But how common is self-defense gun use, and how much benefit do guns really provide for our society? This chapter describes the scientific evidence available on the role of firearms in deterring crime and thwarting criminals, discusses the frequency of self-defense gun use and whether such incidents are usually socially beneficial, and considers the evidence concerning whether armed resistance against attackers makes good sense. The Myth and Reality of Deterrence Given the claims of the gun lobby, it is perhaps surprising that there is in fact little credible evidence that guns deter crime. Criminologist Gary Kleck (1988) claims that publicized police programs to train citizens in gun use in Orlando (to prevent rape) and in Kansas City (to prevent robbery) led to reductions in crime by changing prospective criminals’ awareness of gun ownership among potential victims. However, a careful analysis of the data found no evidence that crime rates changed in either location after the training (McDowall, Lizotte, and Wiersema 1991). The deterrent effects of civilian 64 self-defense use of guns 65 gun ownership on burglary rates were also supposedly shown by the experiences of Morton Grove, Illinois (after it banned handguns), and Kennesaw, Georgia (after it required that firearms be kept in all homes) (Kleck 1988). Again, a careful analysis of the data did not show that guns reduced crime (McDowall, Wiersema, and Loftin 1989). Instead, in Morton Grove, the banning of handguns was followed by a large and statistically significant decrease in burglary reports (McDowall, Lizotte, and Wiersema 1991). The fact that rural areas in the United States have more guns and less crime than urban areas has sometimes been claimed as evidence of the deterrent that firearms represent (e.g., Polsby and Kates 1998). The comparison, of course, is inappropriate. Cities in high-income countries generally experience more crime than rural areas, whatever the levels of gun ownership. A more valid comparison is between cities, between states, or between regions. One study found a negative association between rates of gun ownership and crime rates (more guns, less crime) (Lott 1998a). However, in that study, gun ownership data came from election exit polls conducted in 1988 and 1996. These data on gun ownership levels are unreliable. According to the polling source, Voter News Service, the data cannot be used as the author uses them— to determine either state-level gun ownership levels or changes in gun ownership rates—for three reasons: (1) the survey sampled only actual voters, a minority of the adult population; (2) the gun ownership question changed between the two periods; and (3) the sample size was far too small for reliable estimates. In only fourteen states were there more than one hundred respondents to the 1996 poll, and for one such state, Illinois, the polls indicated, nonsensically, that personal gun ownership more than doubled between 1988 and 1996, from 17 to 36 percent of the adult population. Overall, the data from these exit polls indicate that gun ownership rates in the United States increased an incredible 50 percent during those eight years. Yet all other surveys of the general population show either no change or a decrease in the percentage of Americans who personally own firearms (Kleck 1997b). Analyses of guns and crime using the Voter News Service data are meaningless. No other study finds that crime is lower in cities, states, or regions where there are more guns. Instead, the evidence indicates that where there are more guns, while there are no more robberies, there are more gun robberies and more robbery homicides (Cook 1987). Most studies find that where there are more guns, there are significantly more gun homicides and total homicides (Ohsfeldt and Morrisey 1992; Hepburn and Hemenway 2004). A widely cited proponent of the supposed deterrent effect of guns has claimed that when gun prevalence is high, burglars seek out unoccupied dwellings to avoid being shot (Kleck 1988, 1997b). Yet the evidence comes...