Possessing a gun makes you less safe not more safe
For many gun rights advocates, one of the most frequent arguments used to justify their need for possessing guns is the argument of self-defense. The argument basically states that guns make us safer by protecting us and that in the absence of a firearm, we are vulnerable to predatory criminals who are intent on invading our homes, or vulnerable to a government that will suddenly decide to disarm and annihilate us when it inexplicably turns tyrannical tomorrow. However, the argument for self-protection is seldom subjected to scrutiny. Do guns really make us safer or do they increase the risk that we will become victimized by gun violence?
The evidence suggests that on average, having a gun actually increases the likelihood that a person will be injured or killed, rather than that it will be used to protect that individual from harm. If you own a gun, the most likely person you are to shoot is yourself. The next most likely person you are to shoot is a close family member. Homes with guns are a dozen times more likely to have household members or guests killed or injured by the weapon than by an intruder.The odds are much greater that the gun will be used against you or a loved one than that it will be used against an armed assailant or an intruder. Firearms are more often discharged in a homicide, suicide or an accident, than in self-defense.
Owning a gun increases your risk of falling victim to a gun accident, a suicide or a homicide. By practicing safe gun handling you can reduce the likelihood of an accident, and of course if you choose not to take your own life you can prevent yourself from becoming a suicide statistic. However, you have little control over how other household members may handle the gun unless you lock it in a gun safe. However, if your primary reason for owning the gun is to have it easily accessible in an emergency, the gun safe may undermine your rationale for possessing the gun in the first place.
In this country gun violence is a daily occurrence. Eighty-five Americans are shot and killed on an average day. Sixty-two percent of those who are killed are the victims of self-inflicted wounds from committing suicide. Most adolescent suicides are committed by youths at home who used the family gun obtained from home. States with weaker gun laws and higher rates of household gun ownership have higher rates of gun suicide and higher overall suicide rates. Although many gun control opponents have argued against counting suicides by firearms as gun-related deaths, because the suicide victim can substitute another form of suicide, Harvard researchers have found that fatality rates for suicide attempts with a gun are over ninety percent while rates for cutting, piercing, and drug overdoses (the other most common methods used to attempt suicide) are under five percent.
Thus, one of the most effective ways to prevent a depressed teen from killing himself (or for that matter, from killing others) is to make sure he does not have easy access to a gun. Although this will not guarantee his safety, it will make it much more likely that he does not succeed in taking his life.
Although Americans may fear the random stranger or the potential street thug more than friends or family, that fear is misplaced. Statistically the threat of being killed is much greater from someone who is welcome in your home than from an unwanted intruder. Eighty percent of homicides in the United States are committed by a family member, a friend or an acquaintance of the victim. Female murder victims are more likely to be murdered in the home than male victims and most female victims are killed by a spouse, an unmarried intimate partner, or a close relative. Lethal domestic assaults are nearly three times more likely in a household where a gun is present, and studies have shown no significant protective effect for having a gun in the home.
Male victims are more likely than females to be shot outside the home. While many men may carry guns for personal protection, a University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine study found that people who possess a gun are about 450 percent more likely to be shot in an aggravated assault or firearms homicide than individuals who do not possess a gun.
Three Case Studies
Adam Lanza’s mother had five guns in her home, including a military style AR-15 rifle. She probably felt the guns made her safer. Whether she was a “doomsday prepper” as some media outlets have reported, or just a suburban wife who wanted guns to protect her from would be burglars, her greatest threat came from within the home, not from outside. Even allowing for the fact that she also may have feared her own son, the unmistakable conclusion is that whomever she was afraid of, her five guns did not make her or the fellow residents of Newtown safer. Instead her lethal arsenal was used to unleash unspeakable carnage on the children of a nearby elementary school. She and her son Adam, who committed the slaughter, were also of course casualties of those weapons.
Perhaps her case was an anomaly however. Or then again, perhaps it was not. Another gun enthusiast, Keith Ratliff, a firearms expert, was surrounded by guns on January 3rd when he was shot and killed. Despite his skill and his personal arsenal he was unable to defend himself. His attacker, whom he probably knew, had the element of surprise in his favor. Unlike Adam Lanza’s mother, Ratliff was not killed by his own gun, nor is there is evidence to suggest that Ratliff was irresponsible in how he handled his guns. We do not know yet how exactly he was killed, but what we do know is that his personal arsenal and his shooting prowess were not sufficient to prevent him from being murdered. The guns may have provided him with an illusion of safety, but even with all his skill and experience he was unable to defend himself.
Too often, gun rights advocates argue they need guns for protection from frightening strangers, but they fail to acknowledge the risk of being shot by their own family with guns used in their household. Gun rights advocate and pistol-packing soccer mom, Meleanie Hain, became famous (or infamous depending upon your perspective) after carrying a loaded gun to her five-year-old daughter’s soccer practice. She became a prime example of a gun advocate with misplaced fear. For all her concerns about protecting herself or her child at soccer games, it was her husband, a parole officer, who ended up murdering her and killing himself in their own home. No doubt both she and her husband considered themselves both to be responsible gun owners prior to the murder suicide incident.
The right of gun ownership carries responsibility
Now, to be clear, there is no question that some gun owners have successfully used guns to defend themselves or their property from murder, assault, or theft. It is also clear that no society can eliminate all risks without severely curtailing personal freedoms. For this reason, very few people would advocate laws designed to take away an individual’s right to possess a gun for home safety, personal protection or legitimate sporting purposes. Each person’s individual circumstances are different, and for some people, carrying a firearm may be a good choice.
However, gun owners should not delude themselves into thinking that owning a gun is a decision that reduces their risk of being killed, because they trust their judgment, competence or expertise in handling firearms. Any individual who is absent minded or accident prone, has a volatile temper or is depressed should be very wary of keeping guns in the home.
In addition, anybody who has young children needs to be cautious that they do not leave loaded guns in an area where the children can access them. Families with teenage children who have a history of depression or other mental health concerns also must exercise extra caution. Most importantly, homes where domestic violence or contentious arguments are a reality, should consider being gun-free because guns and domestic violence are a lethal combination. Owning a gun entails a significant degree of risk and any realistic appraisal of the efficacy of keeping or carrying a gun, should involve an individual weighing those risks carefully. While statistics cannot determine the best course of action for your own life or that of your family, bear in mind that the weight of statistical evidence does not support the notion that carrying a gun will make you safer. The evidence tends to suggest the opposite proposition. So if you feel you must have a gun, please exercise your right responsibly and do your best to not put you, your family or your neighbors in harm’s way.