In the wake of the ongoing discussion of gun rights and gun control, I thought I would take a different perspective on the issue and consider what alternatives are available for self-protection if you choose NOT to own a gun. This is not intended to be an argument against owning a gun; it is simply an analysis of statistics regarding gun ownership and a critical discussion of the effectiveness of other options- besides owning a gun- for self-protection.
There is no doubt that owning a gun increases one’s feeling of security. A gun is a powerful weapon that, when used effectively, can serve as a means of self-defense against many different types of crimes. However, gun-ownership may not always be the most effective means of self-protection. Luckily, most of us have never been in a life-or-death situation and thus, have not had to respond to one. For many, it is a comforting thought that if we were faced with a life-threatening situation, we would be able to rely on a gun to protect ourselves and potentially save our own life or the lives of our loved ones. However, in these types of unforeseen emergency situations, things don’t tend to go as planned; our brain and body do not always respond as we expect (due to the physiological and psychological reactions to situations of immediate threat, i.e. the “fight or flight response”). As a victim of a violent crime involving a weapon, I will use my own personal experience as anecdotal evidence throughout this piece; I can certainly say that in my experience, I was not prepared to be assaulted and would never have had time to reach for a gun, even if I had one loaded and ready to go. Before my brain had the time to register what was happening, my body was already reacting; before I realized I was being attacked with a box cutter, my attacker had already restrained my arms, preventing me from reaching for anything at all. Having a gun would not have helped me in this situation; later, I will explain what did help me. But this phenomenon is not uncommon; in fact, most people without extensive training (i.e. much, much more than the minimum required for gun ownership or possession of concealed weapons permits) in the use of guns for self-protection fail to act properly (with regards to using their gun) in situations of extreme distress. Even citizens given supplemental training (i.e. above and beyond the minimum required training that most people go through) in the use of guns for self-defense purposes are unlikely to be able to effectively use a gun for self-defense purposes when an emergency situation presents itself (see http://abcnews.go.com/2020/video?id=7312565 for an interesting little experiment). Being in possession of a gun during an assault does not always work out the way we think it will. In fact, the results of a case-control epidemiological study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that having a gun during the commission of an assault actually increased the odds of being shot by 4.46-5.45 times compared to the odds of a person not in possession of a gun. In sum, guns may give some people a false sense of security, leading them to believe that possessing a gun will ostensibly protect them from being victimized. While guns have certainly prevented crimes from occurring, they can also make the owner more vulnerable for several reasons. First, as discussed, they can inflate one’s perception of personal security. Secondly, and related to the notion of the false sense of security, carrying a gun may increase the likelihood of engaging in aggressive behavior such as road rage. The mental security of carrying a gun may provoke some gun-owners to act more aggressively and put themselves in more dangerous situations than they would if they were not carrying a gun.
In addition to these two factors (i.e. false sense of security; propensity for increased aggression), guns can be – and are -used against the owner more than we might want to believe. One study reported that individuals with guns in the home are significantly more likely to report having been threatened or violently confronted with a gun than to report having used a gun for self-defense purposes. Many studies have investigated this issue; I will highlight a few with interesting findings and implications for making a personal decision about owning a gun.
In one study by Grassel, Wintemute, Wright, & Romero (2003), researchers investigated the association between mortality from violent/firearm related death and previous handgun purchase in a sample of 213,466 death records. Using a case-control study design, researchers defined a “case” as a person who was killed in a violent or firearm-related death; for the controls, they excluded people who died from any cause of death that could be associated with the exposure of interest (which was the purchase of a firearm). As such, the main outcome variable was the exposure odds ratio, or the odds of having purchased a gun before death among cases (firearm-related or violent causes of deaths) relative to controls (not firearm-related or violent causes of death). Some of the most interesting findings? Twenty-two percent of deaths among handgun purchasers were firearm related compared to only 1.1% of deaths among non-purchasers. Further, although handgun purchasers made up only 0.5% of the sample, they accounted for 14.2% of gun suicides. Among women, the associations between purchasing a handgun and dying in a violent or gun-related death were even stronger than among men, with an adjusted odds ratios of 73.2 for any gun-related death- meaning that for women, the odds of dying from any gun-related death among gun-purchasers were 73.2 times the odds of non-purchasers.
That was one way of analyzing the associations between owning a gun and dying from a firearm-related cause of death; however, there are many other appropriate study designs that provide a different perspective and tell us even more about these relationships. For example, in a study published in the premier epidemiological journal in the world (Am. J. Epidemiology), Dahlberg, Ikeda, & Kresnow (2004) used a nationwide mortality follow-back survey to investigate whether or not having a firearm in the home increases or decreases the risk of violent death in the home, and whether this varies based on factors such as storage practices, type of gun, or number of guns within the home. The authors present many findings, but the most interesting are as follows: after adjusting for demographic characteristics and other possible confounding variables, individuals living with a gun in the home had 1.9 times the odds of dying from homicide in the home compared to those living without a gun in the home. For females, younger individuals (<45 years old), and members of a racial/ethnic minority group, the odds were even greater. For males, the odds of committing suicide by firearm among those living with a gun in the home were 10.4 times the odds of those without a gun in the home. In sum, the findings from this study indicate that having a gun in the own is an independent risk factor for death by firearm-related homicide and suicide; additionally, certain factors such as gender and age may increase this risk.
In addition to studies investigating homicide and suicide risk, other researchers have examined gun ownership as a risk factor for unintentional gunshot death (Wiebe, 2003). Using a matched case-control design, Wiebe calculated relative risk ratios and found that individuals living with a gun in the home were 3.7 times as likely to die from unintentional gunshot wounds than individuals without a gun in the home. So, in addition to the associations between homicide and suicide, owning a gun is also associated with increased risk of unintentional gun injury. This is particularly true for households with children; perhaps this should not be surprising, given the findings of one experiment in which 48% of 8-12 year old boys pulled the trigger of a gun they found while playing.
Finally, in a review of case-control design studies analyzing the risk of firearm-related death among gun-owners vs. non-owners, the authors of a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Cummings & Koepsell, 1998) came to the following conclusion: “Based on the evidence currently available, it appears that gun ownership is associated with a net increase in the risk of death for a typical individual. Clinicians might advise their patients accordingly.” In sum, the evidence from the large body of literature on this topic is not always conclusive, as we are unable to establish causal relationships; however, there is more evidence for the risks of gun ownership than there is evidence for the benefits of gun ownership. Although there are limitations to some of the studies, and even studies showing contradictory findings, the general trend in the body of literature leads one to conclude that gun ownership is at the very best not useful, and at the very worst harmful. In essence, gun ownership is very far from being an evidence-based method of self-defense.
So, if owning a gun is not shown to increase our self-defense capabilities, what other methods are there? First, there are other self-defense “weapons” that carry much less risk than a gun but are still effective in emergency situations. Remember- the goal is to get away and get to safety, or to get the attacker to flee; the goal is not to engage with the attacker. When I was attacked, my mind was focused only on escaping; I was not thinking of how to attack my attacker, but rather how to defend myself and remove myself from the danger. Unfortunately, at the time I was not carrying pepper-spray. However, pepper-spray (and other similar products) can be incredibly effective in emergency situations. They temporarily blind the person, so even if he/she has a gun, their ability to aim and hit their target is greatly reduced. Personal alarms are also great deterrents; most criminals do not want to be caught, and loud noises attract attention- which is enough to scare away many criminals. These are also much safer alternatives than weapons, as they cannot be used against you. In the home, security systems, outdoor and motion-sensor lighting, and even owning a dog are effective mechanisms to deter criminals before the crime even occurs.
However, some of the most effective self-defense strategies cannot be purchased or carried; they must be learned and practiced through physical and mental training and preparation. Self-defense training includes psychological and physical methods of escaping dangerous situations, as well as preventing them in the first place. Being aware of your surroundings, being aware of local crime sprees and “hot spots”, knowing your neighbors, and being able to recognize potential signs of danger are important practices for everyone. Learning how to disarm a person, incapacitate an attacker, and escape from any type of physical restraint are all crucial skills for everyone. Even if you carry a gun, how will it help you if your arms are pinned behind your back and you can’t move or reach for that gun? What if your attacker, while your arms were pinned behind your back, took your gun? Would you have the skills to disarm him/her? These types of skills were what got me out of danger; I was able to respond to a situation that I was unprepared for by forcing my attacker to fall to the ground with me, and in the split-second when he let go of one of my arms to break his fall, I recognized my opportunity and took it; at this point, he had to choose between securing his grasp on me, and securing his grasp on the weapon. Before he could restrain me again, I focused on breaking his hold of my arm; I barely noticed that he was cutting me with a box cutter the entire time, because the fight-or-flight mechanism was so strong. I knew basic self-defense skills, and I relied on these to twist away from my attacker. I never would have had the chance to use a gun.
I am not arguing against responsible gun ownership; I am simply presenting the perspective that responsible gun ownership is not an evidence-based means of self-defense. I can completely understand why someone would want to own a gun; even knowing these statistics, our brain likes to trick us and tell us that we will all be that one person who uses a gun to defend our family or home. Just like when we hear about a shark attack at a particular beach- even though we know the odds are against it, many people would hesitate to enter that water because they fear they will be that one person in a million. It’s human nature. All I want to get across is that gun ownership is not a foolproof nor evidence-based method of self-defense, particularly in the home.
The best metaphor I can think of is a diet product that has not been shown to significantly increase weight-loss but has been shown to induce weight gain in some people… would you consider this an effective diet product?