Fear / Firearms / Media / Personal Defense

Investigating the New York Times’ Dangerous Gun Myths

In response to testimony given before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence by Gayle Trotter of the Independent Women’s Forum (described by the Times as “a right-wing public policy group that provides pseudofeminist support for extreme positions that are in fact dangerous to women”), the New York Times editorialized, “The idea that guns are essential to home defense and women’s safety is a myth. It should not be allowed to block the new gun controls that the country so obviously needs” (“Dangerous Gun Myths,” 2 February 2013).

They cited several pieces of research to back up this claim. I decided to research the research for myself. First, the Times editorial declared: “But there is a more fundamental problem with the idea that guns actually protect the hearth and home. Guns rarely get used that way. In the 1990s, a team headed by Arthur Kellermann of Emory University looked at all injuries involving guns kept in the home in Memphis, Seattle and Galveston, Tex. They found that these weapons were fired far more often in accidents, criminal assaults, homicides or suicide attempts than in self-defense. For every instance in which a gun in the home was shot in self-defense, there were seven criminal assaults or homicides, four accidental shootings, and 11 attempted or successful suicides.”

Having looked at the research (described more fully below), I conclude that the Times accurately represents what Kellermann and his team found. BUT it is also important to note that one cannot easily generalize from this particular case sample to the general population, even of the three cities studied.

Kellerman is not speaking to the overall likelihood or rate of being assaulted, accidentally shooting yourself, or attempting suicide, but the likelihood of these outcomes relative to using firearms for legitimate self-defense in the home. This skews the data considerably because very few of the 626 individuals who were shot in someone’s residence (as opposed to on the street, in a car, etc.) were shot by someone engaged in legitimate self-defense in their home, just 7 cases or 1.1 percent. This is the denominator for Kellerman’s ratios of 4 (accidents), 7 (assaults), and 11 (suicides). Kellerman did not find that the average gun owner is four times more likely to be involved in an accidental shooting or seven times more likely to be the victim of a criminal assault  or 11 times more likely to be the victim of an attempted or successful suicide than a non-gun owner.

This is perhaps the most interesting finding from this study for me: how few self-defense shootings by civilians there were. Looking at the broader study, of the 1,475 codeable cases identified as assaults (criminal or justifiable self-defense), there were only 21 justifiable shootings by civilians (1.4%) and 13 by police (0.9%). There are many different lessons that can be drawn from this. For example, that many people who own firearms are ill-prepared to use them and ill-equipped to use them well. Also, those who are well-trained in defensive firearm use do not deploy their weapons carelessly. I learned in my own defensive handgun course that deterrence and avoidance are the true victories when it comes to self-defense. As soon as you draw and fire your weapon, you have lost in a sense. So, a low number of actual self-defense shootings is a good thing.

I also note that we could rearrange Kellermann’s data to tell a different story about relative risks in relation to keeping guns in the home. As I discuss more below, about 30 out of 1,500 gunshot victims in the broader study (see also “Injuries Due to Firearms in Three Cities,” cited below) were shot in their own home by their own gun. So, gunshot victims were 50 times more likely to be shot outside their own home and/or by someone else’s gun. Looked at this way, the risk of keeping a gun in one’s home seems not as great.

Also, Kellerman’s study begins with those who were victims of gunshot wounds and examines the circumstances of their deaths. But gunshot victims are not a representative sample even of the three cities studied because the risk of gunshot injury is not equally distributed through the entire population. We see this reported in another article published based on this same data. In “Injuries Due to Firearms in Three Cities,” Kellermann  and his team report that the incidence rate of assaults by means of firearms is 15.6/100,000 for non-Hispanic whites, 42.8 for Hispanics, 49.9 for Asians, and 308.3 for blacks.

Kellerman notes case-control studies that address this issue, and I will examine those in more detail in a later post.

CITATION

The study cited is: Kellermann, Arthur L., Grant Somes, Frederick Rivara, Roberta K. Lee, Joyce G. Banton, 1998. “Injuries and Deaths Due to Firearms in the Home.” Journal of Trauma-Injury Infection & Critical Care 45/2 (August):263-267.

RESEARCH QUESTION

Kellermann and his collaborators (hereafter “Kellermann”) note that many people own guns, many of those for purposes of self-defense. But whether the benefits of gun ownership for self-defense outweigh the risks that the gun could be used in an unintentional shooting, criminal assault, or suicide attempt is unclear. This study attempts to clarify the relative risks and benefits of keeping guns in the home.

METHODOLOGY

Detailed methodology is found in another article: Kellermann, Arthur L., Frederick P. Rivaro, Roberta K. Lee, Joyce G. Banton, Philip Cummings, Bela B. Hackman, and Grant Somes. 1996. “Injuries Due to Firearms in Three Cities.” New England Journal of Medicine 335 (19):1438-44.

Between November 1992 and May 1994, in Galveston (TX), Memphis (TN), and Seattle (WA), researchers identified cases in which “an injury resulting from the discharge of a powder firearm that was severe enough to prompt emergency medical attention. Threats with a firearm, discharge without injury, and injuries due to the use of a firearm as a club were excluded” (p. 1438). Cases and associated data were primarily obtained from police reports, EMS departments (9-1-1), hospital emergency departments and trauma centers, and medical examiners’ records.

Yellow Flag: The fact that cases of threats with a firearm and discharge without injury are excluded from this analysis might mask some of the usefulness of keeping a gun in one’s home for self-defense purposes. Anecdotally I know many people ward off attackers by brandishing their firearms or by firing warning shots not intended to hit their attackers. Unfortunately, I do not know how frequent an occurrence this is through the entire population. Scholarship on “defensive gun uses” (DGUs) is as fraught as on guns and crime.

In any event, this method yielded 1,915 cases of gunshot injury. Approximately one-third (626) occurred in or near a residence – defined as “the immediate yard and driveway of single-unit dwellings. Detached structures, outbuildings, and more distant property were not considered part of the home. Common areas of multi-unit dwellings, such as hallways, lobbies, and parking lots, were excluded as well.”

Red Flag: It is important to note that “in or near a residence” here means that the shooting could have taken place “in the home of the victim, the shooter, or a third party.” This would seem to undermine the comparison the authors want to make between risks to ourselves of keeping guns versus the possibility of using a gun in our home for self-defense. If I go to someone else’s house and they have a gun and shoot me with it, my keeping a gun in my own home for self-defense really has nothing to do with increasing my risk of being shot (unless it is somehow correlated with increasing the likelihood of hanging out with people who might be likely to shoot me). Kellermann reports that 196 of the 626 cases (31%) took place in the home of the shooter or a third party. Without the raw data, it is not possible to reanalyze the data looking only at the 430 cases which actually speak to the problem Kellermann identifies at the outset of the paper.

Implication of Yellow and Red Flags: What is really of interest, to me at least, is the likelihood of using a gun kept in one’s own home for self-defense (whether the gun is brandished, a warning shot is fired, or the attacker is hit with a bullet) relative to the likelihood of being harmed by that same gun accidentally, in an assault, or in a suicide attempt. That offers a better assessment of the relative rewards and risks of keeping a gun in one’s own home for self-defense. Unfortunately, the relative risks presented in Kellermann’s article do not speak to this specifically.

(Note: The only case in which I might want to know something about being injured by someone else’s gun in my own home is if my drawing a gun made the attacker use his gun when he otherwise would not have. Though I do not doubt this happens, this would be a difficult scenario to track systematically.)

FINDINGS

The part of Kellermann’s findings cited by the New York Times (and many others) is from the table reproduced below. As the table shows, of the 626 shootings that occurred in someone’s residence, 2.1 percent of them (13) were deemed legally justifiable, include 10 by citizens. Of those 10, 7 took place with a gun kept in the residence.

These 7 cases, then, become the baseline for Kellermann’s calculation of the “rate ratio” for other circumstances. For each of the 7 cases of justifiable self-defense using a gun kept in the home, how many cases are there of other (negative) outcomes. In summary, there are 30 unintentional shootings (4.3 times the number of self-defense shootings), 49 criminal assaults or homicides (7 times as many), and 79 attempted or completed suicides (11.3 times as many).

Kellerman 3 Cities Data Table

The New York Times, then, has accurately conveyed the findings of Kellermann’s study. It does appear that there are very few instances of self-defense shootings in residences as a portion of all shootings that take place. People considering keeping firearms in their home should bear in mind that they are very unlikely to use their firearm in self-defense. They should be particularly wary of unintentional shootings, especially of themselves (46 of 54 instances of unintentional shootings in this study were self-inflicted), and also of the risk that the gun could be used in a suicide attempt.

With respect to keeping guns in the home and assault, there are some other ways of looking at the data that tell a slightly different story than Kellerman’s when it comes to making risk assessments. In only 11.5 percent of the cases (n=49) was the gun used kept in the residence where the shooting occurred. But nearly 40 percent of assaults took place in the residence of a third party (31%) or in the shooter’s residence (8%). So, how many of the 49 assaults that took place in the victim’s own home with the victim’s own gun? Kellermann does not say, but certainly less than 49. If we use 61% – the proportion of assault victims shot in their own homes – then there are perhaps more like 30 people in this category. This brings Kellerman’s rate ratio down from 7.0 to 4.3 – the same as the ratio of unintentional shootings to justifiable self-defense shootings.

So, it is possible that only 30 out of 425 assault victims – 7 percent – were assaulted in their own homes using their own guns. Or looked at another way, these individuals were 14 times more likely to be shot in someone else’s home or with someone else’s gun in their own home than they were to be shot in their own home with their own gun (425 divided by 30). If we consider all 1,496 cases of assault identified by Kellermann (see “Injuries Due to Firearms in Three Cities”), individuals who were shot in an assault were 50 times more likely to be shot in some circumstance other than their own home with their own gun.

There is absolutely a risk involved in keeping a weapon in one’s home. Kellerman is right here. But that risk is not evenly distributed through the entire population. This particular study begins with those who were shot, but people who get shot are not a random sample of the population, as I note above with respect to race. The same would be true of social class. And drug use. And criminal record. And so on.

Thus, this study only speaks to the cases in which a gun injury has occurred. It doesn’t say anything about the many millions of homes in which there are guns but no one gets shot. After all, most automobile accidents involve people who own cars, but we do not simply conclude that car ownership causes car crashes. No strong causal inferences can be made between presence of a gun and these negative outcomes based on this study. Kellerman himself recognizes this when he concludes, “controlled studies are needed to determine the strength and direction of any association between gun ownership and adverse outcomes such as death, nonfatal injury, or victimization by crime.” Of course, he goes further in saying, “Every case-control study conducted to date has identified a link between gun ownership and an increased risk of suicide or homicide.” Therefore, it is to these case-control studies that I turn next.

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7 thoughts on “Investigating the New York Times’ Dangerous Gun Myths

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