At an academic conference, where people often discuss their “work-in-progress,” you hear a range of presentations. Some are good, some are bad, and some just leave you scratching your head. This presentation at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in November 2013 was the latter sort.
“Gun Ownership and Risky Behavior,” Matthew R. Hassett, Jonathan A. Cooper, and Shannon W. Phaneuf, all of Department of Criminology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania
The authors of this paper are trying to understand the relationship between gun ownership and engaging in risky behavior more generally. Are gun owners more likely to engage in (other?) risky behaviors? Or perhaps gun ownership is an indicator of risk-aversion – like buying insurance or a fire extinguisher?
A methodological problem in trying to answer this question is how to measure “risky behavior”? What constitutes risky behavior, and what surveys have asked questions about people engaging in risky behavior? Also, what risky behaviors do enough of the population do to make large scale statistical analysis possible?
The authors approach the problem by using (1) engaging in unsafe sex and (2) cheating on one’s spouse as their indicators of risky behavior.
Unfortunately the authors did not hand out copies of their statistical tables, and so I don’t have details on the full models they ran (or information about the source of their data, though given the variables they used it would seem to be the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey).
I did note the following major finding, which is really the only reason I am reporting on this paper: RIFLE owners (but not HANDGUN or SHOTGUN owners) are LESS likely to report committing adultery than others American adults, controlling for a host of demographic variables.
Although interesting on its face, what does this finding really mean?
Beyond not necessarily buying the authors’ proxies for risky behavior, I strongly question their decision to distinguish those who own rifles from other gun owners. Perhaps they mean to distinguish hunters from other gun owners? But then the AR-15 style rifle is the most popular rifle in America, and many people who own them do not hunt. Also, people hunt with shotguns. So, the basis for this distinction is not clear.
If they had simply run their statistical models by distinguishing gun owners from non-owners, and found an inverse relationship between gun ownership and adultery, that would be more interesting and more amenable to straightforward analysis.
More generally, there seems to be a problem in some research on guns that arises when people are not familiar with guns and gun ownership “on the ground” (“phenomenologically” in academic parlance). People who don’t understand how guns work, why people own guns, what people do with their guns, and so on.
As a result, we still don’t know what the relationship is between gun ownership and risky behavior. What we have here is a finding in search of an explanation.