By David Kopel
Los Angeles Times, November 26, 1993, p. B-5. Kopel's amicus brief in District of Columbia v. Heller summarizes the social science about the benefits of defensive gun ownership.
Early one Sunday morning this month, factory worker Arthur Boone was walking home in Brooklyn after shopping in a neighborhood bodega. Carl James, age 15, allegedly came up to Boone, stuck a gun to his head and ordered "Give it up," while 19-year-old Taz Pell began searching through Boone's pockets. So far, a typical Sunday morning in New York.
Boone then pulled out his .44 magnum and shot both robbers dead.
Each of the assailants had police records; one had been arrested for robbery just two weeks earlier. The 41-year-old Boone, who had been mugged twice before and pistol-whipped so severely that he required hospitalization, was promptly arrested on weapons charges.
A few days before, in Chicago, a 16-year-old with a burglary record broke into the home of Bessie Jones, a 92-year-old widow confined to a wheelchair. She was wheeled around and ordered to point out everything of value. When the burglar stepped outside for a moment to confer with his lookout, she reached under a blanket, pulled out a .38 Colt revolver and killed him. Although possession of the revolver was clearly in violation of Chicago's handgun prohibition, the state attorney's office decided not to prosecute.
As the Los Angeles Times proposes national gun control even stricter than the Chicago and New York models, some attention is due to the many millions of Americans who, like Arthur Boone and Bessie Jones, possess firearms for protection.
In all nations that have achieved popular compliance with strict gun-control laws, there has always been one common condition precedent: public safety. That is, before the gun laws were enacted, the public already felt little need to have guns for protection because there was little crime.
Contrast that situation in, say, early-20th-Century Britain with the late-20th-Century United States. Not only does the American government fail to provide effective protection; the government insists it has no legal duty to do so. The courts have concurred, holding that the police have no duty to protect anyone and cannot be held liable, even in cases where the victim was targeted in advance but was denied police protection.
Daryl Gates earned national notoriety for spending the first hours of the Los Angeles riots at a fund-raiser for himself, while riot victims were left to fend for themselves without police assistance. Even on ordinary days, the people of Los Angeles, like the people of every major American city, are for all practical purposes left to take care of themselves. If a criminal attacks, it is almost certain that a police officer will not be there to help. Until this fundamental reality changes, tens of millions of Americans are going to hold onto their guns, no matter what.
But isn't it a fact that guns kept for protection are almost never used? Well, no. In a 1981 survey conducted by pollster Peter A. Hart for the National Alliance Against Violence, 4% of the households polled reported at least one use of a handgun against a person in the previous five years. Even if we assume only one incident per reporting household, that's 645,000 defensive uses of handguns per year. Based on these figures, about 18% of people who owned handguns for protection actually used them for protection.
Canadian criminologist Gary Mauser's research found similar rates of protective uses by Canadian handgun owners despite Canadian laws allowing handgun possession only for sport.
This year, Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck conducted a more in-depth survey. Detailed questioning weeded out respondents who confused merely owning a gun for protection with actually using it. The questions also accounted for persons who had used a gun defensively more than once. The new data show that guns of all types are used defensively between 850,000 and 2.5 million times a year in the United States. Most of the defensive uses involved handguns, and the vast majority of such uses do not involve firing the weapon, but merely brandishing it to scare away an attacker.
The surveys of citizen use of guns for protection are consistent with surveys of criminals. In a National Institute of Justice study of incarcerated felons, 38% said that they had decided not to commit a particular crime out of fear that the victim might be armed.
America has much more violent crime than other industrial nations, yet, oddly, America has a lower rate of burglary of occupied residences than do nations that prohibit gun ownership for protection. The best explanation is that only in America do burglars face of risk of getting shot that is as large as their risk of getting arrested.
As Florida law-enforcement officials have noted, one of the important reasons for foreign tourists being singled out for robbery is that in Florida, licensed, trained citizens (including American visitors) can obtain permits to carry a concealed handgun for protection. But in New York City and Los Angeles (and the rest of the country if the anti-gun lobby gets its way), gun-control laws put everyone in the same position as the tourists in Florida -- government-certified defenseless prey.
A rational gun-control policy needs to focus on reducing the crimes that inflict grievous harm while increasing the citizens' ability to protect against such crimes. Most gun-control proposals offer little prospect of reducing criminal use but pose a substantial threat to lawful defensive use.
The implicit theory of the gun-control movement -- that most Americans are too incompetent or mentally unstable to use a gun for defensive purposes -- simply is not borne out by the facts. Learning how to shoot well is easier than learning how to type. After 40 hours in a combat pistol class, a person will have the skills necessary to stop the vast majority of attackers (by putting two shots into the chest within 1 1/2 seconds). Forty hours of handgun training, by the way, is more than many American police officers receive.
One problem -- perhaps the major problem -- in achieving a rational debate on this issue is the news media, which tend to broadcast uncritically any "expert findings" that support gun control. Typical was the recent "news" that a study in the New England Journal of Medicine had found that owning a gun increases a person's risk of being murdered by 2.7 times. The author, a prominent epidemiologist, had taken a set of homicide victims, identified some of their socioeconomic and behavioral variables and matched them to a control group of non-victims.
The very same data that "proved" the risk of gun ownership also "proved" that renting a home, rather than owning it, increased the homicide risk by 4.4. Does this mean that when your apartment goes co-op, and you own it instead of renting it, your risk of being murdered falls dramatically? Of course not. Instead, renters may be more likely to live in a rough neighborhood or unstable circumstances, which puts them in a higher risk category. Similarly, people at risk of being assaulted might simply be more likely to own guns than people in safer circumstances. Getting rid of the gun might not make the renter any safer than buying out the landlord.
Most significantly, the study made no effort to investigate the 99% of protective uses of guns that do not involve a fatality. The folks who got murdered are, after all, the folks for whom protection did not work. A study that ignores survivors, the hundreds of thousands of people who use guns for protection each year, can't say much about the overall protective effect of gun ownership.
Despite the limitations of the study, almost every news report treated the 2.7 figure unquestionably, as a scientific fact. Many academic criminologists thought the study was worthless, but the only dissent reported was from a researcher for the National Rifle Assn.
Other published factoids purporting to show the dangers of gun ownership are similarly vacuous. If the media spent one-tenth as much effort looking into the truth behind these claims as they spend investigating the conflicting stories about President Clinton's haircuts, the quality of the gun-control debate would improve considerably.
It's true that in some homes, such as those of alcoholics, the mentally ill or ex-felons, the presence of a gun does substantially increase the risk of a homicide. But here, too, the "facts" can be twisted to the gun lobby's favor: The male felon killed by his girlfriend is counted as the victim of a "tragic domestic homicide," not the perpetrator of vicious abuse. But most households are not violence-prone; rather, most gun owners' concern is about violence directed against them from the outside. They know, intuitively, that the government will not protect them from criminal attack. Arthur Boone and Bessie Jones correctly understood this, and they have the support of the tens of millions of other Americans who own guns for protection.