Gun study highlights common problems in analyzing gun benefits

The Hill has posted a short article highlighting a recent study on gun deaths in the United States researched by the Violence Policy Center (VPC).  The Hill summarizes:

According to the study, gun owners committed 259 justifiable homicides compared to 8,342 criminal homicides in 2012, the most recent year data was available.

That means gun owners are 32 times more likely to kill someone without cause than to act in self-defense, the study reasoned.

The above assertion is that substantially more lives are lost than saved as a result of gun ownership and gun owners are thus more likely to kill someone as a result.  Such a simplistic conclusion can hardly be reached from the highlighted data. Their comparison is like comparing the U.S. dollar to the now defunct Zimbabwean currency. If I had 100 million Zimbabwean dollars and you only had 10 U.S. dollars, without any other context, it would appear that I was significantly better off. However there is no comparison – the 10 US dollars are substantially more valuable. (The current exchange rate is 175 quadrillion to one! Not to brag but I’m easily a quadrillion there).

What The Hill reported and the VPC demonstrated with absolute certainty is that 8,342 is greater than 259. Without any other context those numbers are largely meaningless, and the cited comparison and subsequent conclusion are unsupported.

I am not endeavoring to write a complete rebuttal of the study, though there are significant problems. Many have addressed the issue more broadly. You may find some fantastic examples at the links here, here and here. And a fantastic overview of the costs and consequences of gun control here.

My major qualms with the study arise from the lack of context the data lacks or ignores as to the overall value of self-defense provided by gun ownership. This raw comparison does not paint the entire picture, nor does the article (nor the study) consider some of the basic safety benefits from gun ownership.

First, consider a home security system.  It does not have to be the fanciest, it only needs to increase the ability to discover a potential criminal, either by identification or police response. A security system first, before detecting, deters. It is not by accident that those little signs are placed in yards (some misleadingly). The primary benefit of a security system lies in an ability to deter an intruder before detecting, residents prefer that a potential criminal or intruder never enter the premise.

This analogy may be extended and still apply, imagine that instead of the signs in the yard a street has an alarm system in one out of every four homes. If this is the only knowledge possessed by a potential criminal, he knows that he stands a one in four chance of being detected.  In the neighborhood with the signs in every yard, the criminal is likely to move to the homes without signs.  Without the yard signs he must gamble, this may deter or it may not, but the risk has changed. As the risk increases so does the deterrence. Three options remain, move to another area, desist, or play the odds.  Either way, before there is even a need for detection, deterrence has occurred.

In the United States there are approximately 300 million guns in private ownership, quite a figure considering the population hovers around 320 million. Gun ownership is at an historic high. Gun distribution, however, is more difficult to determine, gun sales are one indicator, but it remains difficult to track who has how many guns and where they are most concentrated.

Despite the inadequate information the security system analogy appropriately demonstrates the potential deterrence of crime from widespread gun ownership. To get an idea that this is actually happening, a data comparison is useful.  Looking at similar countries indicates a lower violent crime rate per capita.  For a short summary, I am posting the information Sam Harris used on his gun FAQ page. You can find additional information here, and at the previously provided links.

Incidents in the year 2010 per 100,000 population

U.S.  4.8
UK (includes Northern Ireland)  1.2
Australia 1.0
Sweden 1.0

U.S.  27.3
UK (England and Wales)  28.8
Australia 88.4
Sweden   63.5

U.S.  250.9
U.K. (England and Wales)  664.4
Australia   766
Sweden   936.6
Scotland 1449.7
Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)

Note: UNODC data and those of the Australian government do not agree. For Australian rates of Assault and Rape, I have relied on the report issued by the Australian Institute of Criminology

This is not a complete analysis, and this comparison is subject to some pitfalls. However it is a snapshot of some of the best data available.  As many have noted, with some dispute, that the homicide rate is higher in the U.S. comparatively, while other violent crimes are significantly lower in the U.S. when compared with gun controlled countries.

Another important comparison may be Switzerland, which has a high gun to population ratio and relatively low crime.  This comparison is not perfect, nor is it the end of the gun debate. But it does highlight the fact that there is some crime deterrence associated with the legal right to own a gun for self-defense without having to actually use a firearm in self-defense.  A fact entirely unacknowledged by the study and the report.

This data begins to illustrate the second point.  The article did not factor in the amount of crime prevented with firearms only those who died “justifiably.” Excluding the lives saved both of criminals and victims is an unacceptable omission. This isn’t to say that all those who have used a gun for self-defense were at risk of death or serious bodily injury, nor does it mean as much for the criminals (though they were likely at greater risk when confronted with a loaded gun in their criminal attempt). At least some have been deterred from crime where the perpetrator did not die. The closest the article from The Hill reached in addressing this contextual counterpoint was a response statement from the NRA. It read, “[the] VPC fails to note that only a fraction of defensive firearm homicides are reported to the FBI and the study doesn’t account for the many crimes deterred by a firearm that do not result in a homicide.”

The VPC study itself claimed that some 338,700 had been protected due to firearm possession.  Others have put this number much higher.  Either way, by the studies own admission there is some direct evidence that violent crime has been prevented and by extension at least some lives saved.  The Hill‘s omission, even of the VPC’s data, left a quick read terribly misleading.

It certainly went unnoticed by The Hill and the Violence Policy Center (VPC) that the comparison between gun deaths in self-defense and those wrongfully committed can be countered by two statistical adjustments in order to justify ownership. Either fewer people must die as victims of gun violence (a goal many on both side genuinely embrace believe it or not) or more people must kill in self-defense.  This article and study appear to suggest that if more die by the gun in self-defense (a net loss to human life, and a threat to the the concept of justice) then gun ownership is justified. This borders insanity, and illustrates why, though the study provides some useful information, it fails to paint the whole picture.

My third and final critique regarding the claims made by the VPC and echoed by The Hill, is the utter uselessness and complete fallaciousness of the conclusion that “gun owners are 32 times more likely to kill someone without cause than to act in self-defense.” This makes no distinction between legal and illegal gun ownership, and makes an absurd equivocation between those who use guns for legitimate legal purposes and those who use them to perpetuate crime.  Should we follow this reasoning to its fullest we can associate a myriad of commonalities between violent criminals and law abiding citizens in order to restrict individual rights. I hear tattoos are rather popular in prison, and that many convicted felons are required to wear orange. It follows that those with tattoos or subject to a orange clothing mandate (such as road workers) must all be convicts. Perhaps there is merit in some of the points made in the study, but this absurdity detracts significantly.  This article sadly treats gun ownership as a contributor to criminal behavior, which it is not.

I think it important to further recognize that, despite hysteria over gun related crimes and deaths, overall incidents of violent criminal behavior are trending down (see chart below).  Even as the total number of privately owned guns increases. (There is debate over the distribution of gun ownership, consider opposing views here and here). Another telling gun statistic is the increase in the number of concealed carry permits issued, a measure that unlike gun sales is a closer one-to-one ratio and more likely to illustrate the number of individual gun owners.  Background checks for concealed permits went from 11.2 to 21.1 million between 2007 and 2013.”

FBI graph detailing recent trends in violent crimes-


(This chart was taken from the FBI website the page details the Uniform Crime Reports, you may access this and the related methodology here.)

Admittedly, these trends are subject to a multitude of variables. Thus it  unjustifiably stretches the data to conclude by these figures alone that guns are responsible for the decrease in crime. However, the assertion that justification for the prohibition of guns rest on the comparison of homicides perpetrated by guns versus self-defense killing is completely unfounded.  Instead, the trend is that crime decreases even as people continue to carry guns on their person or keep them at home. If the likelihood of violent crime or murder actually was determined by gun ownership, this figure would look quite different.

James C. Devereaux is an attorney and freedom fanatic. Questions, complaints and hysterics can be sent to or follow him on twitter @jcdevereaux1 .

**When, I began this article it was mere days before the tragedy in Charleston. As I post it, I would like to express my sincere and deepest condolences to those who have suffered at the hands of a determined murderer.

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