01 July 2008

Why Own A Gun?

Most people can legally own a gun. Does that mean it is wise to do so? Today's Denver Post offers facts that you give you pause before doing so.

Suicides accounted for about 55 percent of the nation's nearly 31,000 firearm deaths in 2005, the most recent year for which statistics are available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. . . . Gun-related suicides have outnumbered firearm homicides and accidents for 20 of the past 25 years. In 2005, homicides accounted for 40 percent of gun deaths. Accidents accounted for 2.6 percent. The remaining 2 percent included legal killings, such as when police do the shooting, and cases that involve undetermined intent.

A gun in your home increases your risk of dying from suicide of homicide:

Public-health researchers have concluded that in homes where guns are present, the likelihood that someone in the home will die from suicide or homicide is much greater.

Studies have also shown that homes in which a suicide occurred were three to five times as likely to have a gun present as households that did not experience a suicide, even after accounting for other risk factors. . . .

One public-health study found that suicide and homicide rates in the district dropped after the ban was adopted. . . .

More than 90 percent of suicide attempts using guns are successful, while the success rate for jumping from high places was 34 percent. The success rate for intentional drug overdose was 2 percent, the brief said, citing studies.

Deaths, of course, don't tell the whole story of the costs and benefits of owning a gun.

On one hand, many other misues of firearms don't cause death. Aggravated assaults with a firearm, robberies with a firearm, extortion with a firearm, kidnapping with a firearm, burglaries with a firearm, illegal menancing incidents, and other firearm related crimes aren't captured by the figure. There were about 477,000 non-fatal firearm related violent crimes in 2005 (a classification that appears to exclude menancing with firearm apart from another crime). Neither are intentional self-harm incidents that don't cause death, something that the statistics above indicate happen about 1,815 times a year.

Use of a firearm in a crime hurts both the crime victim, and the person who used it who almost universally faces serious, normal life ending, criminal charges for doing so if caught, and the odds of being caught at some point in a career of armed crime are high.

Simple possession of a gun in the wrong place at the wrong time can also be a basis for criminal liability, sometimes petty, but sometimes severe. A good quick layman's summary of Colorado's most important gun control laws is found here. For example, if you make it your habit to carry a firearm, and then accidentally bring it with you to pick up your children on school grounds, you could face a felony prosecution that could have immense consquences for you, even if you manage to eventually win a plea bargain or obtain an aquittal or dismissal of the charges. Bringing the gun with you into a post office is similarly a crime.

The threshold for criminal liability for disorderly conduct or menacing can likewise be quite low. For example, one commits the crime if disorderly conduct, a class 2 misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine if one "intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly . . . [n]ot being a peace officer, displays a deadly weapon, displays any article used or fashioned in a manner to cause a person to reasonably believe that the article is a deadly weapon, or represents verbally or otherwise that he or she is armed with a deadly weapon in a public place in a manner calculated to alarm."

On the other hand, the statistics about firearms deaths don't capture legitimate uses of firearms for self-defense that merely injure the person shot or are limited to brandishing or pointing the gun at the threatening person. The data on how many crimes are prevented by non-lethal uses of firearms is poor in quality and varies greatly from one source to another. Upper bound survey based estimates put the number of cases as high as a million, but the actual number is probably lower. The number of cases where a firearm is actually fired in self-defense is probably much, much lower.

The statistics also don't capture ues of firearms for legitimate means other than self-defense against criminals, like hunting, defense against animals, and target shooting for pleasure. There are relatively good hunting statistics available. As of 2006:

*12.5 million people 16 years old and older enjoyed hunting a variety of animals within the United States. They hunted 220 million days and took 185 million trips. . . .

* An estimated 10.7 million hunters pursued big game, such as deer and elk, on 164 million days.

* There were 4.8 million hunters of small game including squirrels and rabbits. They hunted small game on 52 million days . . .

* 2.3 million hunted migratory birds such as doves or waterfowl

* 1.1 million hunted other animals such as woodchucks and raccoons

The vast majority of legal hunting is done with shotguns, rifles and bows, while exceedingly little legal hunting is done with handguns.

Further the statistics don't break out incidents between people who use firearms professionally, like law enforcement officers, ordinary citizen's who own firearms legally, and persons who are illegally in possesion of firearms.

Law enforcement officers account for something more than half of justified killings with firearms, and it wouldn't be unreasonable to guess also make up disproportionate shares, although perhaps somewhat smaller, of justified injuries caused by firearms and justified brandishing of firearms in self-defense or defense of others.

It is also fair to suppose that a large share of homicides are committed by people who aren't legally allowed to own guns, that homicides committed by ordinary citizens who legally own guns (or their family members) disproportionately impact family members and people known to the gun owner, and that suicides with firearms are disproportionately committed by ordinary citizens and members of their families (relative to law enforcement and people who possess guns illegally).

Bottom line: While it is legal to own a handgun for the purpose of self-defense and keep it in your home; the risk that you will face criminal violence while at home must be dramatically higher than average for this to be a sensible choice weighing only the safety of yourself and your family. In you live in a crime ridden pocket of lawlessness, the risks of having a firearm in your home may be outweighed by the benefits. But for most of us, owning a firearm is little more than emotion driven stupidity.


Anonymous said...

good point. if you hate your life, are emotionally unstable, or just a generally depressed person, then perhaps YOU should not own a firearm. in fact, you probably should refrain from even typing the word "firearm." but for the rest of us sane, happy, law-abiding americans, we'll keep our firearms, and you can keep your "emotion driven stupidity." deal? cheers! now go out to the park, get some fresh air, and try to have some fun!

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

I recognize that for some people the risks of having a firearm in the home exceed the benefits.

But the numbers aren't lying. Predicting the propensity of oneself or a family member to commit suicide to any useful degree of accuracy is not at all easy, nor is the predicting the propensity of a family member to kill some member of the family. Most people who try to commit suicide and fail once never do so again.

The basic problem is that people are more or less hardwired to overestimate odds in their favor when they appear to be in control, and underestimate the odds in their favor when they are not. So people underestimate the likelihood that they will feel an urge to commit suicide in the future, while overestimating the risk that a stranger will try to kill them. Private gun ownership is largely a product of bad information compounded by natural flaws in how people subjectively estimate risk.

One of the main differences between liberals and conservatives is that liberals believe that legislating to prevent or discourage people from making choices that are objective bad to thwart naturally flawed thinking is appropriate, while conservatives are happy to let people make mistakes as a consequence of their own irrationality.

Anonymous said...

andrew, correct me if i'm wrong, but your premise here is that you can reduce total suicides by over 25,000/year if you remove (legislate, ban, etc.) firearms from those homes, right? i just wanted to establish that before we get rolling here...

that being said, we're agreed. the risks for some people may out way the benefits to them for owning a firearm. however, that can be said about any activity. let me make an example by analogy. say you want to own an automobile and when i discover your desire, i alert you that your chances of killing yourself in a drunk driving accident are exponentially greater if you drive an automobile. (we can pull statistics to show this is true - if you do not drive, your chances of killing yourself due to your drunk driving are zero, whereas if you do drive there is a very, very small chance that you may possibly make the bad decision of driving while intoxicated, and kill yourself). that's true and my statistics don't lie... that is unless they are wholly irrelevant to your situation. for instance, let's say you don't drink. at all - be it social choice, religious doctrine, or perhaps you're allergic to alcohol. most statistics are just this side of meaningless. you know the old saying, "numbers don't lie, but liars use numbers." that holds because we can bend statistics to say nearly anything that we desire them to say. if someone is sane and respects their own life - they're not going to commit suicide. period. and therefore the suicide statistics aren't applicable to them. taking their right to self-defense (regardless of your subjective view of its legitimacy or likelihood of need to defend their themselves or their property) away from them is tyrannical and an act i would expect from a government similar to the left's perspective of bush's regime.

yes, if you took all of the firearms away from all of the citizens, then the suicides from firearms would likely decrease. however, do you suppose that the total suicides would decrease or that these sanity-lacking individuals would find another tool to complete their act - say a rope, knife, tylenol pm overdosing, running their car in an enclosed garage, etc? of course they would. they're insane. the problem with suicides isn't firearms, it's the person willing to end their own life. if we really care about the lives of suicidal people, then we'd be better off addressing the root problem of why, rather than just taking one of the substitutable tools away. because when we take firearms away from them, we don't help them. in fact, we actually hurt the sane citizens who would use firearms in lawful self defense... you know like the physically abused divorced woman whose ex-husband is a dangerous raging lunatic who stops by his ex-house after getting all liquored up. personally, i think the woman has a right to defend herself against that drunken nutjob who has a physical advantage.

bottom line is you're correct in your statement: "liberals believe that legislating to prevent or discourage people from making choices that are objective bad to thwart naturally flawed thinking is appropriate, while conservatives are happy to let people make mistakes as a consequence of their own irrationality." i'm obviously to the right of you in the political spectrum. but i disagree that this is a left and right issue; i see it as an up or down issue. it's a matter of how much control you think the government should have versus how much freedom an individual should have. i believe in individual rights and personal responsibility (up). i happen to think we need to have the freedom to make good decisions and to make bad decisions, because that's how we learn and become more experienced people who are able to make better choices (yes suicide is a bad decision that you can't exactly learn from [though others can], but as we previously discussed, taking away firearms isn't going to solve that problem - it's much more complex than taking away firearms. if the person didn't use a firearm, they would use another tool - and we can't very well legislate away EVERY tool that could be used for suicide, or we'd have to ban cars, OTC prescriptions, jump ropes, pens, buildings over 1 story, and even water). bigger government is not the solution; bigger government is the problem. living in a perpetual nanny state doesn't create strong individuals - it breeds irresponsible, state-dependent collectivists. i have a fundamental problem with anyone advocating the fascist stripping of my personal right to defend myself because someone else is not sane enough to handle theirs. unalienable rights are just that: unalienable. instead of using nannyism legislation to steal my rights, i'd prefer to see you actually show some empathy and attempt to get to the core of why someone else abused theirs.