A Tale of Two Studies

Violence Policy CenterJuliet Lapidos at Taking Note reported yesterday on Defensive Gun Use. In it, she wrote about a new study from the Violence Policy Center (VPC) that counters the claim by the NRA that there are over 2 million defensive uses of guns every year. The VPC finds that there are less than 70,000.

The NRA number (actually 2.4 million) comes from a 1995 journal article by Gary Kleck & Marc Gertz, “Armed Resistance to Crime: the Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defense with a Gun.” Here are the basics: it is based on 5,000 telephone surveys. And that seems reasonably solid. On the other hand, Kleck seems to have an ax to grind. We see this on this faculty page and his Wikipedia page. The Wikipedia page is a good example of why we can’t have nice things when it comes to gun research. The page presents criticism of the study with an almost point by point refutation of these criticisms. Then there is a whole long section on Kleck’s responses to the criticisms. I tend to think (as I’ve seen elsewhere on Wikipedia) that the NRA crowd is gaming the page.

The main problem with the study seems to be that it has sampling bias. All the other similar studies have found the number to be more in the range of one million. A good example of this is found in Table 1 of the paper where respondents are asked how likely their use of a gun was to have stopped a murder. Of the respondents, 15.7% said “almost certainly would have.” That means without these defensive gun uses, there would have been almost 400,000 murders in any given year. If we include “probably would have,” the number goes up to almost three-quart million. This is not credible. This is not even close to credible. And I have to add that the gun nuts I’ve known, have been paranoid and highly likely to think there are threats everywhere when they are usually nowhere.

In fairness, however, Kleck and Gertz admit that their number is is likely an upper limit. But that doesn’t stop Kleck from going around the country calling for more guns (I heard him in a debate about 10 years ago). Nor does it stop him from claiming on his faculty page, “Other recent research has found that higher general gun ownership rates reduce homicide rates, probably because the violence-reducing effects of guns among noncriminal victims and prospective victims outweigh the violence-increasing effects of guns among criminals.”

The biggest refutation of Kleck and Gertz was done by David Hemenway of Harvard in his book, Private Guns, Public Health. If you are interested in the subject, you ought to read it. I’ve requested it, but who knows when I’ll get it.

The VPC research paper (pdf) is based upon the National Crime Victimization Survey which has data going back to 1973. They looked at the data from 2007 through 2011. Using these data, they find their very small number of defensive gun uses. But they back this up with an interesting statistic. In the period they studied, there were 1,031 justifiable homicides. There were 45,328 criminal homicides in that time. That’s 2.2% justified homicides. Given the roughly 9,000 criminal homicides each year, what are the odds there are huge numbers of murders stopped by just waving a gun around?

Let me be clear: I don’t accept the 2.4 million number at all. But I’m not convinced about the 70,000 number either. I think that the mere presence of a gun can prevent crime—especially property crime. I’d like to see more studies on this stuff. In general, I don’t think a well armed society is a safe or polite society. But I am open to discussion. Because I’m a liberal. And I think that is one of the worst things about political debate: conservatives are not open to discussion. In fact, my experience with conservatives is that they think if they can just explain what they think, I (and everyone else) will agree with them. Normally, they find that I do not because they have not thought very deeply about their opinions. And then they go off and don’t talk to me again, for the same reasons that Christian fundamentalists don’t talk to me twice: I erode their certainty.

But here’s the thing. It used to be reported that 40% of all gun purchases in America are made without background checks. I heard that this is an old number and that now it is only 20%. I haven’t checked, but I assume the 20% number is correct. I don’t go around quoting the 40% number because I am no longer think it is right. The truth matters to me. And it ought to matter to everyone. But if I’ve learned anything over the last couple of years, it is that the truth only seems to matter to liberals—be it in politics or religion.

Are we as a society safer because of all of our guns? I don’t think so, but I don’t know. The problem is that the pro-gun crowd is certain, and I doubt that a mountain of evidence would ever convince them.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

3 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Studies

  1. The gun policy debate illustrates that we are not a nation of "centrists." We are a nation with a liberal majority, whose policies are pushed ever-rightward by a right-wing fringe that is disproportionately well-funded. (It’s also better-organized, not all of which can be blamed on the better funding; but that’s another story.)

    Because a "centrist" solution to the debate would be simple; ban handguns. Shotguns are far more effective for home defense (and less lethal); handguns are essentially useless for game hunting. It would not be a perfect liberal solution, as both rifles and shotguns could be used for suicide/domestic violence and (to a lesser extent) crimes like convenience-store robberies. It would obviously not be a perfect right-wing solution. It would be in the center, and drastically reduce gun violence without infringing on self-defense or hunting rights.

    (Yes, handguns would still be out there, but ammo would be difficult to manufacture on the black-market, and I doubt most criminals do a good job cleaning/maintaining their guns.)

    Of course such a proposal would have zero chance of being adopted. But I think it illustrates a flaw in liberal strategy you and many others have noted. Since we are more willing to compromise (we believe even those opposed to us have a part to play in a democratic society; many right-wingers don’t feel that way about us), we set the opening bar for negotiation firmly in the "middle ground." Meaning that compromise legislation, when passed, swings rightward.

    Perhaps this is why social movements are so important; they are run by people intensely passionate about issues and therefore more willing to start their demands from a "what would our ideal goal be" position. Take, say, marriage equality. I support it, but I’d be content to compromise (for now) on legal rights for LGBT couples which are equivalent to marriage in every way save the name. Since the movement isn’t led by people like me, but by the LGBT community itself, they’re fighting for full equality, and now many on the right are starting THEIR negotiating position from a "civil union" standpoint. The "center" for once is moving leftward.

    Would the same approach work for gun control, economic reform, anti-war and environmental movements? I don’t know. However for any such approach to work the movement in question has to be led by a large group of people deeply concerned with the issue. Environmentalists seem to be adding members to their ranks along these lines. And you never know what will motivate a huge growth in a movement (gay-rights was largely about "leave us alone," not full equality, before the AIDS epidemic really politicized many more people.)

    This is a simplistic explanation, but I think there’s some truth to it.

  2. @JMF – Absolutely. I think it is a big part of our political problems. I thought that Jonathan Chait wrote something really good this morning, "When you combine [gerrymandering] with [the undemocratic nature of the senate], you hand a small rural minority overwhelming power." That’s a huge issue. The second of those has been one of my arguments against the filibuster: the senate is already a haven for the minority; why is it necessary to give the minority even more power?

    But there is no doubt that we liberals need to push the debate leftward.

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