One of the most controversial and confusing topics when it comes to guns is the issue of risk.
The determination of risk is central to the public health approach to (gun) violence, going back to Arthur Kellermann’s influential and controversial work such as “Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor for Homicide in the Home.” I have dealt with this previously. The data and methods can be problematic, and so the conclusions cannot be taken at face value. Suffice it to say that risk in the public health perspective is understood as the likelihood of a particular negative outcome occurring in some study population, and risk factors are those things that increase likelihood of that negative outcome.
For example, taking Kellerman’s findings at face value for the sake of argument (but see my assessment), the risk of being a homicide victim is 2.7 times higher if a gun or guns are kept in the home, but it is 5.7 times higher if a household member used illicit drugs, 4.4 times higher if any household member had been in a fight in the home, and 4.4 times higher in a rented home.
Since my closest encounter with crime came when I was living in a rented apartment, this latter finding has plenty of resonance with me. But as a social scientist I also recognize that, as a statistical average, this likelihood does not apply to any particular person in the population of interest, including myself.
How any particular individual does and should assess risk is much more subjective, as I was reminded while re-reading Chapter 2 of Jennifer Carlson’s book, Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline for my Sociology of Guns seminar.
In chapter 2, and throughout her book, Carlson pays attention to the symbolic motives for carrying a gun – as an affirmation of personal dignity and citizenship. But she also recognizes the instrumental motive for carrying a gun – as a means of self-protection. (It is interesting to note that scholars have found this rationale applies to both legal and illegal gun carry.)
Focusing as she does on Southeastern Michigan (Detroit, Flint, and the surrounding areas), Carlson is examining the frontiers of economic decline and social decay in America, and the threat of criminal violence which accompanies it. In terms of assessing the risk posed by criminal violence, Carlson observes, “While crime could happen to anyone, crime rates are structured by race, class, gender, and geography. Who you are, where you live, how much money you make, your race, your gender: all of these have a huge impact on your likelihood of becoming a victim (as well as how and where)” (p. 50).
But those objective realities do not simply translate into subjective perceptions. Carlson continues, “crime rates do not necessarily map onto how people experience crime: a murder or mugging that happens on one’s block or that happens to a close friend or relative, especially if this experience is reinforced by television and other media reports suggesting that crime rates are high or increasing, is likely to have a bigger impact on one’s experience of crime than reading aggregate crime rates for a state, a city, or even a neighborhood. Furthermore, gun carriers do not stay put in one neighborhood, city, or even region but rather navigate through varying contexts of crime and insecurity” (p. 51).
I can relate. I lowered my risk of being a crime victim by moving out of my rented apartment and buying a home in a low crime area of my city, as depicted below.
But even here, my risk of being a crime victim is not ZERO, and the consequences of being a crime victim can be quite high. This is a very difficult situation for making rational risk-assessments. Even the most sophisticated risk scientists have difficulty drawing behavioral conclusions in situations which are characterized as “low odds, high stakes.”
The more sophisticated members of the self-defense gun culture I follow – trainers like Massad Ayoob, Tom Givens, and Rob Pincus, media figures like Michael Bane and Tom Gresham, podcasters like Bob Mayne and the team at Polite Society – all recognize that the likelihood of needing to use a gun in self-defense is very small. But the downside consequence of needing a gun and not having one is large. This is what I have previously called the self-defense gun ownership version of Pascal’s Wager: It’s better to own a gun and not need it, than to need a gun and not own it.
Of course, along with this part of the risk-assessment must be some consideration of the downside risks of having guns around: negligent discharges, unauthorized uses, having your gun taken and used against you.
Which only makes the process of assessing risk in the decision to carry a gun more complicated, complexity that is captured in Carlson’s portrait of gun carriers today much better than in the statistical averages favored by public health scholars.