The following article is a chapter in the new paperback edition of Stopping Power: Why 70 Million Americans Own Guns. It is posted for entertainment purposes only and may not be crossposted to any other website, datafile base, conference, news group, or email list, without written permission of the author.
Copyright © 1999 by J. Neil Schulman. All rights reserved.
Been watching TV recently? Or picked up a magazine? You've probably seen a TV spot with Ed Asner ("Lou Grant") speaking in somber tones, or a full-page ad in Time or The National Enquirer, warning you about gun violence. This campaign is being run by a group calling itself Cease Fire, and they're trying to convince you that keeping a gun at home is more likely to cause harm to you or to someone in your family than it's likely to protect you from a criminal who invades your home.
Ed Asner tells you about a young boy who "accidentally" shoots his brother with a handgun he's been playing with. Of course Asner doesn't mention that, according to the National Safety Council, firearms accidents account for only 3 percent of accidental deaths for children aged 14 or under -- far fewer deaths than those due to auto accidents, drownings, or fires.
Cease Fire's ads claim that a gun kept in the home increases the chance of a homicide in that home by three times. Of course they never mention that, according to the 1993 National Self Defense Survey conducted by criminologists at Florida State University, 1.7 million times each year a gun kept in the home protects an American family from a criminal intruder. That's 216 times more often than a gun kept in the home takes the life of a an innocent resident of that home.
That's the whole trick which advocates of banning guns use to convince the public that guns are too dangerous to keep around. They just choose what they think will scare you the most. They never tell you what Paul Harvey calls "the rest of the story."
Statistics are funny things. They tell you only what you ask them about. Suppose you wanted to convince people that guns are too dangerous to keep in their houses. You'd look at death statistics until you noticed that while lots of Americans who commit suicide at home do it with a gun, very few criminals who break into houses are killed with guns. So you'd take these suicides and just for good luck throw in the occasional accidental gun death and family murder which uses a gun, and -- lo and behold! -- you have a "study" by Dr. Arthur Kellermann published in the June 12, 1986 New England Journal of Medicine which says that a gun kept in the home for protection is 43 times as likely to kill a family member than to kill a burglar. By the time the news media are done with their spin-doctoring, pundits tell us that a gun kept in the home is 43 times as likely to murder a family member than to protect you from a burglar.
I'm not exaggerating. A few weeks ago I participated in a TV news discussion of gun control with Molly Selvin, who sits on the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times, and Sandy Cooney of Handgun Control, Inc. Molly Selvin misquoted that Kellermann article in precisely that way.
Of course Molly Selvin probably never read Kellermann's article closely enough to discover that 37 of those 43 non- burglars are those Americans who used a gun to kill themselves. She undoubtedly is also unaware that five separate studies of suicide show that people who are determined to kill themselves just choose another way to die if their first choice isn't available. In a study by Rich et al reported in the March, 1990 issue of The American Journal of Psychiatry, Canadians who wanted to commit suicide but found guns harder to come by due to recent gun control instead jumped off bridges. The unavailability of guns was statistically irrelevant. Further, in Japan it's almost impossible for anyone to get hold of a gun, yet twice as many Japanese kill themselves than Americans.
Cease Fire's campaign doesn't tell you that in the overwhelming majority of cases where a gun is used in defense against a criminal, the gun is never even fired, much less is used to shoot or kill the criminal. So if you're only counting up the criminals killed by guns for your comparison, as did Kellermann, you're leaving out all the criminals who didn't complete their intended crime -- burglary, rape, or even a serial murder -- because the criminal's intended victim had a gun and was prepared to use it in defense.
The funny thing about the people who tell you these statistics is that even when you prove to them that their statistics are deceitful, they still refuse to believe it. So, when two criminologists at Florida State University released the results that the National Self Defense Survey had determined 2.45 million private gun defenses in America during the preceding year (the 1.7 million is just those that occurred in or around the gun-defender's own home), gun-ban advocates did everything they could to attack the results.
In that same TV news show with Molly Selvin and me, Handgun Control, Inc.'s, Sandy Cooney called the National Self Defense Survey "obscene" and threw ad hominem slurs at its lead researcher, professor of criminology, Dr. Gary Kleck. Mind you, since Kleck is an impartial social scientist with no links to gun advocates or manufacturers -- in fact he's a liberal Democrat -- it appears that Kleck's only sin is doing research which produces results that challenges the gun-control agenda of Handgun Control, Inc., and Cease Fire.
On that program opposite me, when I argued defensive-gun-use statistics from the National Self Defense Survey, Cooney charged that Kleck, the lead criminologist who designed the study, had kept changing his figures. That is simply wrong. Kleck had previously only analyzed the results of a dozen surveys conducted by others including Democratic Party pollsters and Time magazine. This had already produced estimates of a million gun defenses per year. Kleck included his analysis in his book Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America (Aldine de Gruyter, 1991). When Kleck analyzed the data from the National Self Defense Survey, he found that the number of yearly gun-defenses was simply higher than previously reported due to the incompleteness of each of the previous surveys, none of which attempted to quantify gun defenses comprehensively.
Cooney also charged that the results of the National Self Defense Survey had never been peer-reviewed. But it was my fault that he believed that. In 1993 when the survey was first conducted, I convinced Gary Kleck to give me preliminary results of the survey in a newspaper interview I did with him, because his previous analysis was being widely quoted in other news articles. Dr. Kleck generously allowed me to include some of these figures in my interview with him in the September 19, 1993 Orange County Register [*] and these preliminary results, drawn from my interview, were widely quoted, including in testimony before the House Subcommittee on Crime in March, 1995. Because of the slowness of the academic publishing and peer- review process, the formal report on the survey titled "Armed Resistance to Crime: The Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defense with a Gun" by Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz, was only just published in Northwestern University Law School's Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Volume 86, Number 1, Summer, 1995 issue ... and it wasn't actually printed until December, 1995. If that's not tediously slow enough for you, I spoke to Dr. Kleck today, January 3, 1996 ... and he still hasn't received his personal copy in the mail.
But the foremost criminologist in the country, Dr. Marvin Wolfgang -- who has been a consistent advocate of banning guns -- wrote in that issue of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology that the National Self Defense Survey was indeed conducted properly and that he (Wolfgang) must revise his opinions on the common usefulness of firearms in defense accordingly.
That, Mr. Cooney, is called "peer review."
Because I was one of the first laymen to discuss the results of the National Self Defense Survey with Dr. Kleck, and consequently have been thinking about these results for longer than other writers, every once in a while I've been calling Dr. Kleck and asking for other comparisons between the criminal uses of guns and their defensive uses. Usually, Dr. Kleck would either tell me the figures were in his book Point Blank, or he told me that nobody had studied the particular question I was asking and, to the best of his knowledge, nobody knew the answer.
Today I did somewhat better. I said to Dr. Kleck, "We're always being told by gun-ban advocates that the majority of homicides in this country are committed with guns. Has anybody looked at the percentage of justifiable homicides committed with guns ... that is, a number which tells us how often guns are legitimately used by a private individual to kill a criminal in self-defense as opposed to other types of weapons?"
It turned out that these figures were available. At my request, Dr. Kleck today took them out of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's "Supplementary Homicide Reports public use tapes," distributed by the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, National Archive of Criminal Justice Data, P.O. Box 1248, Ann Arbor, MI 48106-1248.
According to Dr. Kleck's analysis of this FBI data reporting civilian (non-police) justifiable homicides in the United States between 1976 and 1991, 87.3 percent of justifiable homicides are accomplished using a gun. Of those justifiable homicides where the type of gun was recorded, 78.6 percent of these justifiable homicides was conducted with a handgun.
Compare this with homicides in general (65.1 percent use a gun) or other-than-justifiable civilian homicides, where only 64.7 percent of the homicides involved the use of a gun.
So here's a brand new sound bite for you, courtesy of my question today to Dr. Kleck, and his analysis of FBI statistics:
"Almost nine out of ten times that Americans had to kill a criminal in defense, they used a gun. And that's about 25 percent more often than guns are the weapon of choice for a murder."
Got all that, Ed Asner? "Lou Grant" always told the truth. You may not be a newspaperman, but you played one on TV. I'm eagerly awaiting the TV spots in which you do what newspapers do when they learn they've made a mistake: issue a retraction and inform the American people that you didn't tell them the whole story.
[*]Reprinted in STOPPING POWER: Why 70 Million Americans Own Guns by J. Neil Schulman (Synapse-Centurion, 1994).