Those of us talking about guns have been asking the wrong questions.

Rather than asking whether certain gun control laws “work,” that is, keep us safe, I think we should first ask this same question about guns.  Is it actually true, as many seem to think, that putting guns in the hands of well-trained “good guys” provides protection against gun-wielding “bad guys?”

To test the veracity of this belief, I submit that we seek answers to the following questions:

  1. Is there any relationship between high rates of gun ownership and frequency of civilians successfully using guns to stop gun crime?  Is there evidence showing that “criminals” living in states with concealed-carry laws are deterred by the knowledge that they operate amidst an armed citizenry.  (And, here, I wonder not about ownership of hunting rifles but of the types of guns one would carry out and about to public places or have on hand in their homes.)
  2. How many mass murders have been prevented or brought to an end by armed civilian bystanders?

  3. How many people have used guns domestically to defend against armed intruders or to defuse situations of domestic gun violence?

  4. To ascertain the net number of lives saved by guns, we would need to subtract the following from numbers 2 & 3:

a. the number of people accidentally killed by guns (for example, a child who fires a gun while playing with it),

b. the number of times a well-meaning bystander kills the wrong person (either when an armed bystander mistakenly thinks someone in the process of committing a crime…i.e., you think someone is breaking into your neighbor’s house but it is really their drunken teenage son, home late and fumbling with the keys, or when an armed bystander accidentally kills a person caught in the crossfire.)

  1. How many people have been killed by their own guns?

  2. How many people end up using guns originally purchased for self-defense to perpetrate a crime of passion against a close friend or family member?

  3. How many legally-owned guns end up stolen by people who use them to wreak criminal havoc?

Some may reject my reframing on the grounds that I have lumped gun misuse in with proper use.  It is not fair to blame well-trained and conscientious gun-owners for the mistakes of their less attentive peers, they might say.

But this is precisely my point.

Perhaps we love guns for the same reason so many of us feel safer driving our car than riding in a plane.  Even though statistics show a passenger in a car much more likely to die than a passenger in plane, we feel better about driving because we feel like we are in control.  Even when we know the statistics, we dismiss them, because we trust our ability to swerve at the right times, stay awake, and keep our hands off the radio.  We think it equally impossible that a semi-truck stop short in front of us, a distracted mom run a red light, or our brakes fail.

Something similar seems to be going on when we posit guns as the answer to gun violence.  Just like the aviophobic auto-phile, we think we can control the gun that we own: unlike countless others, we can keep our curious child from getting her hands on our gun, we can keep the opportunistic stranger or family member from stealing it, and we can shoot only bad guys.  We would never misfire or mistake an ordinary citizen for an armed menace.

But just like car crashes, guns kill in these ways every day.

So, in answer to the question of whether we can shoot ourselves to safety, what do the numbers say?

8 thoughts

  1. 7. How many legally-owned guns end up stolen by people who use them to wreak criminal havoc?

    You can’t make a gun in your basement. Nearly every gun used in a crime was legally manufactured and legally sold.

      1. No problem.

        Every gun is legally manufactured (and often legally imported into the United States) and then is legally sold to a gun shop. While it is true that some guns are stolen from gun shops or illegally sold from gun shops, the manufacturing of a gun and the original sale of a gun to the gun retailer are legal.

        I think the importance of thinking of guns this way is that it illustrates the way in which the market for civilian guns is the driving cause for much of the gun violence in the United States. Companies wouldn’t manufacture millions of weapons for civilians and gun retailers wouldn’t buy millions of weapons unless they were able to ensure a profitable return. The proliferation of guns in our society has not been accidental. It is the direct result of the creation of giant civilian gun market and an infrastructure to support and continue that gun market.

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