Does personal ownership of guns really offer better personal protection?
The main reason Americans own guns is, apparently, for protection, yet, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Vermont point out in a new study, little is actually known about who uses guns in self-defense, and in what circumstances.
David Hemenway and Sara Solnick recently published one of the few studies to properly analyze data on self-defense in North America, drawing from self-reports of victims from the USA National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS).
The NCVS collects information on nonfatal personal crimes (rape or sexual assault, robbery, aggravated and simple assault and personal larceny) and household property crimes (burglary, motor vehicle theft, and other theft), both reported and not reported to police.
Conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau for the Bureau of Justice Statistics, respondents are asked about victimizations experienced during the prior six months. Data is obtained from nearly 160,000 individuals which are weighted to be nationally representative.
The current study focused on a five year period, 2007–2011. To examine self-defense gun use, the study, published in the academic journal Preventive Medicine, examined only incidents that involved some degree of personal contact between the offender and the victim—events during which a self-protective action was possible.
Examples include all assaults (both sexual and non-sexual), robberies, in-person verbal threats and purse snatching, as well as a fraction of burglaries and other thefts.
Perhaps the first key finding is that there are far more criminal usages of guns, than self-defense gun deployments.
This study, entitled, ‘The epidemiology of self-defense gun use: Evidence from the National Crime Victimization Surveys 2007–2011,” found that self-defense gun use is a rare event.
Guns are used by victims in less than 1% of crimes in which there is personal contact between the perpetrator and victim, and about 1% in cases of robbery and (non-sexual) assault. There were no reported cases of self-defense gun use in more than 300 cases of sexual assault.
There was also little evidence that using a gun in self-defense reduces injury. Slightly more than 4% of victims were injured during or after a self-defense gun use—the same percentage as were injured during or after taking all other protective actions.
The large majority of crime victims who are hurt are injured before they take any action.
Where self-defense gun use stands out compared to other forms of self-protection is the low rate of injury that occurs to gun users before their protective action. Any explanation for this finding must currently be speculative, the authors point out.
Gun users might be more vigilant, wary and aware than other victims, and are therefore possibly able to respond more rapidly to threats. Another possibility is that incidents where guns are used are different; maybe they are more likely the result of mutual hostility such as escalating arguments. Such quarrels may end in verbal aggression or physical assaults where the victim is less likely to be taken completely by surprise.
The authors of this study, David Hemenway and Sara Solnick, quote previous research, finding that reported self-defense gun use usually occurs in escalating hostile interactions.
This new study found that victims who used a firearm in self-defense were not less likely to receive an injury during the entire event compared all other contact crime victims.
Yet the data did suggest that using a weapon in self-defense may reduce the likelihood of losing property during the commission of crime. However, it is not clear that using a gun is better or worse than using other weapons.
The authors quote previous studies using NCVS data for the decade 1992–2001 where 27,595 personal contact crimes reported, and where the victim similarly used a gun in self-defense in less than 0.9% of the incidents. Among the 1,119 sexual assaults reported in that survey, in only one did the victim report using a gun.
Again, that previous survey found there were no significant differences in the likelihood of being injured during or after a self-defense gun use compared to being injured during or after taking other forms of protective action.
However that study did find that self-defense gun use was associated with lower rates of property loss than most other forms of protective action.
If the main reason North Americans believe in owning a firearm is for self-protection then they may need to be aware that the actual deployment of such a weapon during a crime as a protective act is, in fact, very rare—even in a society which is so awash with armaments.
The evidence is that guns feature much more in the commission of crimes than in personal defense. Even when they are actually used as an act of personal protection – the evidence is not at all strong that they are of that much use.
Part of the reasons for these findings may lie in better understanding the micro-psychology of such criminal incidents in terms of how they actually occur and escalate, combined with the possibility of accessing a gun in such circumstances.
This appears very different to what Hollywood films depict, and maybe there’s a clue as to the North American affection for guns.
This attachment now appears founded on a fantasy about how they really get used.
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen are joint podcast editors for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now have a free app on iTunes and Google Play store entitled ‘Raj Persaud in conversation’, which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world.
Man with gun photo available from Shutterstock