the most enduring factoid of the gun prohibition movement is that
a person with a gun in the home is 43 times as likely to shoot someone
in the family
to shoot a criminal. This "43 times" figure is the all-time favorite
factoid of the gun-prohibition lobby. It's not really true, but
it does tell us a lot about the gun-prohibition mindset.
The source of the 43-to-1 ratio is a study of firearm deaths in
Seattle homes, conducted by doctors Arthur L. Kellermann and Donald
T. Reay ("Protection or Peril?: An Analysis of Firearm-Related Deaths
in the Home," New England Journal of Medicine, 1986). Kellerman
and Reay totaled up the numbers of firearms murders, suicides, and
fatal accidents, and then compared that number to the number of
firearm deaths that were classified as justifiable homicides. The
ratio of murder, suicide, and accidental death to the justifiable
homicides was 43 to 1.
This is what the anti-gun lobbies call "scientific" proof that people
(except government employees and security guards) should not have
Of the gun deaths in the home, the vast majority are suicides. In
the 43-to-1 figure, suicides account for nearly all the 43
Counting a gun suicide as part of the increased risk of having a
gun in the home is appropriate only if the presence of a gun facilitates
a "successful" suicide that would not otherwise occur. But most
research suggests that guns do not cause suicide.
In the book Point
Blank: Guns and Violence in America, Florida State University
criminologist Gary Kleck analyzed suicide data for every America
city with a population more than 100,000, and found no evidence
that any form of gun control (including handgun prohibition) had
an effect on the total suicide rate. Gun control did sometimes reduce
gun suicide, but not overall suicide.
Notably, Japan, which prohibits handguns and rifles entirely, and
regulates long guns very severely, has a
rate of more than twice the U.S. level. Many of the northern and
central European nations also have very high
suicide rates to accompany their strict gun laws. (Of course, if
you have any suspicion that anybody in your home might be suicidal,
it would hardly be a mistake for you to ensure that they do not
have ready access to guns, tranquilizers, or other potentially lethal
which prohibits handguns, has a suicide rate of more than
twice the U.S. level.
Putting aside the suicides, the Kellermann/Reay figures show 2.39
accidental or criminal deaths by firearm (in the home) for every
justifiable fatal shooting. Now, 2 to 1 is a lot less dramatic than
43 to 1, but we still have more unjustifiable gun deaths than justifiable
gun deaths in the home.
But just as many other people who would commit suicide with a gun
would use an equally lethal method if guns are unavailable. Many
of the people who kill themselves in firearm accidents may also
be bent on destruction, regardless of the means. One study of gun-accident
victims found that they were "disproportionately involved in other
accidents, violent crime, and heavy drinking." (Philip Cook, "The
Role of Firearms in Violent Crime: An Interpretative Review of the
Literature," in Criminal Violence).
Or, as another researcher put it, "The psychological profile of
the accident-prone suggests the same kind of aggressiveness shown
by most murderers." (Roger Lane, "On the Social Meaning of Homicide
Trends in America," in Violence in America, Vol. I, 1989.)
Without guns, many accident victims might well find some other way
to kill themselves "accidentally," such as by reckless driving.
So by counting accidents and suicides, the 43-to-1 factoid ends
up including a very large number of fatalities that would have occurred
anyway, even if there were no gun in the home.
Now, how about the self-defense homicides, which Kellermann and
Reay found to be so rare? Well, the reason that they found such
a low total was that they excluded many cases of lawful self-defense.
Kellermann and Reay did not count in the self-defense total of any
of the cases where a person who had shot an attacker was acquitted
on grounds of self-defense, or cases where a conviction was reversed
on appeal on grounds related to self-defense. Yet 40% of women who
appeal their murder convictions have the conviction reversed on
appeal. ("Fighting Back," Time, Jan. 18, 1993.)
In short, the 43-to-1 figure is based on the totally implausible
assumption that all the people who die in gun suicides and gun accidents
would not kill themselves with something else if guns were unavailable.
The figure is also based on a drastic undercount of the number of
lawful self-defense homicides.
Moreover, counting dead criminals to measure the efficacy of civilian
handgun ownership is ridiculous. Do we measure the efficacy of our
police forces by counting how many people the police lawfully kill
every year? The benefits of the police and of home handgun
ownership are not measured by the number of dead criminals,
but by the number of crimes prevented. Simplistic counting of corpses
tells us nothing about the real safety value of gun ownership for
Finally, Kellermann and Reay ignore the most important factor of
all in assessing the risks of gun ownership: whose home the gun
is in. You don't need a medical researcher to tell you that guns
can be misused when in the homes of persons with mental illness
related to violence; or in the homes of persons prone to self-destructive,
reckless behavior; or in the homes of persons with arrest records
for violent felonies; or in the homes where the police have had
to intervene to deal with domestic violence. These are the homes
from which the vast majority of handgun fatalities come.
To study these high-risk homes and to jump to conclusions about
the general population is illogical. We know that possession of
an automobile by an alcoholic who is prone to drunk driving may
pose a serious health risk. But proof that automobiles in the hands
of alcoholics may be risky doesn't prove that autos in the hands
of non-alcoholics are risky. Yet the famous Seattle 43-to-1 figure
is based on lumping the homes of violent felons, alcoholics, and
other disturbed people in with the population as a whole. The study
fails to distinguish between the large risks of guns in the hands
of dangerous people, with the tiny risks (and large benefits) of
guns in the hands of ordinary people.
But then again, treating ordinary people according to standards
that would be appropriate for criminals and the violently insane
is what the gun control movement is all about.