Issue Backgrounder

Number: 99-V
Date: Nov. 9, 1999. Revised, Sept. 14, 2000

Some Frequently Overlooked Facts in Gun Policy Discussions

1. Guns save lives.

People who want to restrict gun ownership often ignore the fact that innocent civilians use guns 2.2 to 2.5 million times a year to defend themselves from criminals intent on burglary, assault, robbery, and murder. Defensive gun use is particularly important for those who live in poorly policed low-income inner-city neighborhoods and in rural areas with no police. For every anecdote in which an improperly used gun hurts someone there are five in which having a gun at hand saves someone from injury or death. 

As Table 1 shows, the number of people killed by firearms is small in comparison to the lives protected. People who own firearms are exceedingly careful with them. Although an estimated 80 million people own guns, accidental firearms deaths are roughly the same as accidental deaths on bicycles (825 in 1998).Claims that thousands of children die from firearms injuries each year are true only if one includes 15-24 year old homicide victims, many of whom have extensive criminal records. Police kill as many as 330 innocent people a year. 

Table 1:Firearms deaths by age. Selected categories, United States, 1998.


All ages

Under 1 year

1-4 years

5-14 years

15-24 years













Homicide or legal shooting












Source: Sherry L. Murphy. July 24, 2000.Deaths:Final Data for 1998.National Center for Health Statistics, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Vital Statistics Reports, 48, 11.Table 19, p. 72. as of 13 September 2000. 


Most "safe storage" proposals can be defeated by 15 year olds and are unlikely to have measurable effects on suicides or homicides in older age groups. On balance, storage mandates  will likely increase deaths and injuries by making guns difficult to use for self-defense.  

2. Taking guns out of the hands of law-abiding people by making them more difficult to get, use, and keep, decreases risks for criminals.

Armed citizens deter crime because criminals, like everyone else, prefer to avoid getting shot. Wright and Rossi's 1986 survey of convicted felons in the United States found its subjects more worried about armed victims than police.[1]In the U.S., where homeowners have guns, fewer than 13% of U.S. burglaries occur when a home is occupied. In England, where police confiscate private guns, 50% do. John R. Lott, author of the most careful study to date on the effect of concealed carry on crime, estimates that adopting concealed carry laws throughout the United States would have prevented about 1,500 murders and 4,000 rapes in 1992 alone.[2]

Between 1977 and 1995 the U.S. averaged about 21 mass public shootings a year. Some of them, like Columbine, were at schools. Law-abiding citizens using guns stopped murderers in control of schools in Pearl, Mississippi, and Edinboro, Pennsylvania.In states that passed concealed carry laws, both the number of shootings, and the number of deaths, declined by more than 80%.Terrorist school shootings stopped in Israel when the Israelis began arming school staff members.

3. Gun-control laws do not reduce undesirable behaviors.

Modern gun control began in 1968 with the Federal Gun Control Act. As the attached graphs shows, there is no obvious relationship between "access to guns" and either homicide or suicide rates. Japan and Sweden, two countries with extremely restrictive gun possession laws, had suicide rates of about 19.2 and 17.6 per 100,000 population in 1986-87.The U.S. rate was 12.8. 

Black markets develop when desirable products are outlawed. This means that licensing, registration, background checks, and outright confiscation tend to be ineffective. Criminals likely to fail background checks in legal markets simply buy their arms in black ones. Though England outlaws almost all private firearms, English criminals can easily rent or buy a gun. Funding for background checks and other limitations on legal possession could be better spent on programs known to reduce crime.

Evidence from England and Australia suggests that armed citizens play an important role in reducing crime. English crime rates skyrocketed as authorities moved to confiscate guns. English assault rates were slightly below U.S. rates in 1981.By 1995 they were 2.3 times higher.[3]Although the U.S. homicide rate still exceeds the English one, and did even before the English began controlling gun possession, the gap has begun to narrow.


[1] James D. Wright and Peter Rossi. 1986.Armed and Considered Dangerous: A Survey of Felons and Their Firearms. New York: Aldine de Gruyter Publishers.

[2] John R. Lott.1998. More Guns, Less Crime Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Patrick A. Langan and David P. Farrington. October 1998.Crime and Justice in the United States and in England and Wales, 1981-96.U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, p. iii.

By Linda Gorman, Senior Fellow, Independence Institute

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