Many people own guns for personal protection or self defense, assuming that a gun gives them an advantage against anyone who might do them harm. This is quite possibly the greatest gun illusion of all. When you dig into the nitty-gritty of real-life situations, a gun as a tool for self-defense is about as useful as a squirt gun is for putting out a forest fire. Don’t believe us? Take a look for yourself.
How Guns are used
To illustrate this, let’s take a look at how people end up using their guns. These percentages are based on death statistics for 2000, involving 28,663 firearm related deaths. Here’s how guns were used that year:
- 57.9% suicide . . . 16, 586 deaths that year.
- 37.7% homicide . . . 10, 801 deaths that year
- 2.7% whoopsees, I didn’t mean to kill you, my bad . . . 776 deaths that year.
- 1.7% undetermined; legal intervention/police shooting/other . . . 500 deaths that year.
(Source: Hahn et al., 2003)
The numbers are pretty similar year after year. Here are the statistics for 2009:
1. Suicide: 18,735
2. Homicides: 11,493
3. Accidents: 554
4. Legal interventions: 333
5. Unknown: 232
(Source: Congressional Research Service; USA Today, 12-27-2012, p. 9A)
In 2011 it was 19,766 suicides, 11,101 homicides, 851 accidents, and 445 other/unknown. (Scherer, 2013) In 2013 there were 32,383 murders and suicides in the U.S., fewer than 300 of which were deemed justifiable. (Esquire, Dec. 2015, p. 161) In 2014 there were 21,386 gun suicides, 11,008 homicides, 464 legal intervention/war cases, 461 unintentional, and 275 undetermined. (Palazzolo & Peterson, 2017) Going all the way back to 1993, you get similar numbers: , 18,940 suicides, 18,253 homicides, 1,521 accidents, and 882 other/unknown. (ibid)
Everytown for Gun Safety put together a 5-year average based on data from 2012 through 2016, and came up with the following numbers for yearly averages:
- 21,637 suicides
- 12,246 homicides
- 500 unintentional
- 479 law enforcement & other
- 279 undetermined.
No matter how you slice it up, at no time in human history has a gun come even remotely close to providing self-protection to the same degree that it costs in terms of gun tragedy.
The last column consists of cases where the intent was indeterminable, as well as all police shootings or cases where the shooting couldn’t be proven a crime. This doesn’t mean it was legitimate self-defense, mind you, simply that there were mitigating circumstances or that the shooting was a defense of property.
In other words, based on real world use, the gun in your household is at least 59 times more likely to be used for sinister or tragic purposes than it is to protect you, and that’s assuming all of those 1.7% are legitimate self-defense claims, something we know right off the bat to be untrue. That 1.7% contains the mixed bag statistics, and few, if any, are LEGITIMATE defense of person claims. Harvard University researcher David Hemenway has shown that even among well-publicized studies, the prevalence of guns used in the U.S. for “self-defense” is overestimated by 10-times. (Gelman, 2010) When you further sort things out, the more reasonable statistic is that you’re several hundred times more likely to see a gun used for evil purposes than you are to use it in defense of you or your family, and even that is being kind and giving the benefit of doubt to many dubious self-defense claims. If you account for the over-classification of self defense, based on 2009 numbers, it’s less than one legitimate case of self defense for every 941.35 gun tragedies. I’m no gambler, but if I was, I certainly wouldn’t take those odds.
This organization cannot remember, in all our work tracking stories, a gun being used successfully by a citizen in a legitimate life-death risk to their family. That’s not to say it’s never happened, but such cases are extremely rare. I can recall a case where a citizen murdered a would-be burglar, shooting him without warning as he messed around outside the window. I recall a case where Joe Horn slaughtered two people who were burglarizing his neighbors’ house. He shot them in the back in cold blood as they were fleeing after being repeatedly told by a 911 operator not to confront them at all and stay inside because police were on the way. Another fellow chased a thief down the street and shot him in the back as he was trying to climb a fence. In another especially egregious case, an off-duty police officer in Colorado had an argument with a neighbor, went into his house to retrieve his gun, went out and shot the neighbor in the back from 20 yards away in the middle of the street, claiming self-defense.
What do all these cases have in common? They all had nothing to do with self-defense. Yet these are exactly the type of cases the NRA tries to pass off as self-defense. Statistically, a gun is checked as being used in “self-defense” if it was used against the commission of a felony, but that doesn’t mean the shooter or his family were ever in any real danger. These cases of a gun owner running a burglar down the street and shooting them in the back like a coward are the cases gun advocates brag about as “self-defense.”
Granted, the burglaries or robberies shouldn’t have been committed in the first place. But using a gun to shoot a retreating burglar in the back is hardly a life-threatening situation. It’s legalized homicide, allowing private citizens to be judge, jury and executioner under make-my-day laws. It’s not self-defense. While few would support a law that allowed the death penalty for shoplifting, this is precisely what society is doing when they allow trigger-happy gun owners to kill with impunity whenever someone is engaged in any type of criminal act.
But don’t take our word for it. Craig Steckler, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, says he can remember only “one instance in which someone effectively defended himself” with a firearm during his 21 years as police chief in Freemont, California. Otherwise, “it’s a whole lot of cases of guns being used not in ways they’re designed: kids shooting themselves, gun-cleaning accidents, crimes of passion, that sort of thing.” (Nicas & Jones, 2013) Another first responder tells a similar story: “I’ve served close to 30 years in the fire and emergency service business. During that time, I’ve seen more than my share of shootings and cannot, for the life of me, remember anyone shooting someone to protect life and/or property.
“I do remember a friend’s wife, an accomplished tournament handgun expert, accidentally shooting herself in the leg while investigating a bump in the night. The fire department was awakened one night to find three young people with holes in their heads as a result of some sort of dispute. I remember eight shifts in a row that started or ended with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.” (Letter to USA Today by Michael Kane, 3-26-2012, p. 8A)
It’s a familiar theme. “I’ve been doing this for 35 years, and I just can’t recall one” case of legitimate self-defense, says the sheriff of Scottsboro, Alabama. As if to try and find some tidbit that might justify the guns for protection myth, he adds: “We did have a lady that was in one of our firearms classes. She had a guy try to break into her house. She yelled and said, ‘I’ve got a gun,’ and she opened the door, and he was running away – she fired at him.” (Wenner-Moyer, 2017)
Craig Graydon, chief of the Kennesaw police department in Georgia, says that he cannot remember a time in his 31 years on the job that a resident used a gun in self-defense. It’s a notable admission, considering he is also the police chief of the brain-dead town that became infamous when legislators passed an unconstitutional law REQUIRING all citizens to own a gun for “self protection.” (ibid)
When the danger is real – someone looking for a fight and not a fleeing thief – things tend not to go as well. Either there is a shoot-out, in which case it’s not unusual for both parties to be seriously injured, or the gun is taken away and used against the family. When the threat is real, the gun more commonly ends up a detriment to the family, not an asset. Real life doesn’t play out like scenes from a movie. In real life, the bad guy ends up winning gun battles just as often as the good guy, so you’re not actually any safer.
Study after study repeatedly backs up these observations made by first responders:
A 2015 meta-analysis of 15 different studies found having a gun in the home makes you twice as likely to be murdered. (Wenner-Moyer, 2017)
A 1993 study in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at 444 people killed in 3 different areas of the U.S. – Shelby County, Tennessee; King County, Washington State; and Cuyahoga County, Ohio – and found that having a gun in the home nearly tripled the odds that someone would be killed at home by a family member or intimate acquaintance. (ibid; Kellermann, 1993)
Follow-up studies found that guns at home were 4-times more likely to cause an accidental shooting, 7-times more likely to be used in an assault or homicide, and 11-times more likely to be used for suicide than they were for self-defense. (Wenner-Moyer, 2017)
Melinda Wenner-Moyer sums things up by saying, “More than 30 peer-reviewed studies, focusing on individuals as well as populations, have been published that confirm what Kellermann’s studies suggested: that guns are associated with an increased risk for violence and homicide.” Research also shows that the rates of increased risk go up or down depending on how a gun is stored and what type of gun it is. Having a handgun nearly doubles the risk to your family over having only long guns, and keeping a gun unlocked (+110%) or loaded (+170%) both further increase the odds that you are your loved ones will be injured or killed.
Definitive as these studies are, they actually vastly understate the true risk, because they accept all self-defense classifications as valid (which few are) and because they focus on gun violence in the home, ignoring the homicides and assaults committed by “law-abiding gun owners” against those outside the family. As previously discussed, a look at raw government statistics paints a much bleaker picture: 941.35 gun tragedies for every case of potentially legitimate gun defense. Granted, this data includes things like gang murders (which inflate the homicide rate somewhat, but not by as much as you think), yet it provides a more realistic snapshot of the overall role guns play in society.
So if a gun actually increases a family’s risk of dying in a violent manner, why do people still turn to them for protection? It’s an altogether irrational and baffling decision, but the answer is fairly straightforward: it gives one the illusion of safety and control. When you hold a gun, it makes you feel powerful. You feel like you’re a force to be reckoned with. You feel safer. You feel indestructible. It’s a popular illusion.
Do you remember that moral exercise teachers had us do in school – the one where you must ponder whether or not to flip a switch to divert a runaway train, thus sacrificing one person in order to save the lives of three? The guns-for-protection racket is a twisted version of this morality game, one that works in reverse.
In order to save a single person, anywhere from 500 to 1000 others must die. None of us would take this tradeoff in a morality game. Nobody except perhaps Hitler himself would divert a train so that it squashed 500 people instead of only killing one. Yet this is precisely the tradeoff one makes when they decide to keep loaded weapons around “for protection.”
If you’d rather trade an illusion for your family’s very real safety, (sort of like trading the cow for some magic beans), it’s your right to do so, although we would certainly advocate against it. You can’t argue with the mathematics. Think of it this way: owning a gun for ‘protection’ is like playing Russian roulette with a weapon that has 941 chambers … and 940 of them are loaded, waiting to blow your brains out (or those of your children). Do you want to play, hoping you win the lottery and hit that one empty chamber? If I gave you a loaded weapon with all the chambers but one filled with hollow points, would you take those same odds and stick that gun to your child’s head and pull the trigger, hoping for the best outcome? If not, you shouldn’t own a gun for ‘protection.’ Sure, there is the outside chance that you may get lucky and use it to save the day. But it’s far more likely you’ll end up like most families whose gun is used in a real life situation: screaming as you hold a dead child in your arms, cursing the day you decided to bring a gun into the home.
It’s been particularly scary to watch how concealed weapons applications have spiked in response to publicity about school shootings. The solution to gun crimes? More guns! At least that’s the flawed logic our legislature has come up with. (Rocky Mountain News, 5-17-07) The ultimate prize for utter stupidity has to go to Arizona state senator Karen Johnson, who tried to pass a bill that would allow students in kindergarten and grade school to carry concealed weapons to class. “I feel like our kindergartners are sitting there like sitting ducks,” she decried. (Newsweek, 3-17-2008, p. 27) That’s just what we need – pistols in the hands of 5-year-olds. That should solve the school gun crisis. Oh, if only legislators had a brain.