Does Owning a Gun Increase or Decrease Safety? Science Answers

ResearchBlogging.orgGuns have always been thought of as a means to protect oneself from harm. Considering they can be instantly lethal, they make other self-defense routes like martial arts appear to some people as a total waste of time. But is it true that guns keep increase safety? No, I’m not comparing a gun to martial arts; I’m comparing owning a gun vs. not owning a gun. Which is the statistically safer option?

Let’s cut to the chase. In 1998, a paper from the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded “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.” A 2004 study from the American Journal of Epidemiology said:

Data from a US mortality follow-back survey were analyzed to determine whether having a firearm in the home increases the risk of a violent death in the home [. . .]. Those persons with guns in the home were at greater risk than those without guns in the home of dying from a homicide in the home [. . .].

Results show that regardless of storage practice, type of gun, or number of firearms in the home, having a gun in the home was associated with an increased risk of firearm homicide and firearm suicide in the home.

The American Journal of Public Health published an article in 2009, which said:

After adjustment, individuals in possession of a gun were 4.46 (P < .05) times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not in possession. Among gun assaults where the victim had at least some chance to resist, this adjusted odds ratio increased to 5.45 (P < .05).

Conclusions. On average, guns did not protect those who possessed them from being shot in an assault. Although successful defensive gun uses occur each year, the probability of success may be low for civilian gun users in urban areas. Such users should reconsider their possession of guns or, at least, understand that regular possession necessitates careful safety countermeasures.

[December 20 Update 1: A 1993 study used an international perspective. “The present study, based on a sample of eighteen countries, confirms the results of previous work based on the 14 countries surveyed during the first International Crime Survey. Substantial correlations were found between gun ownership and gun-related as well as total suicide and homicide rates.” Another 1993 study said “Positive correlations were obtained between the rates of household gun ownership and the national rates of homicide and suicide as well as the proportions of homicides and suicides committed with a gun.“]

[December 20 Update 2: A 2001 study suggests that guns decrease safety for women much more than men. “This research updates and extends former research conducted on this issue, based on the surveys of 1989 and 1992. [. . .] The results show strong correlations between the presence of guns in the home and suicide committed with a gun, rates of gun-related homicide that involved female victims, and gun-related assault. [. . .] The study concluded that guns in the home were an important risk factor in suicide with guns, as well as a threat to women, especially female partners; whereas, guns’ role in homicide of male victims and street crime (such as robbery) were much less prominent. Also, the usual focus on handguns may lead to underestimates of the role of other types of guns.”]

One article published in 2011 by the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine (which isn’t indexed by PubMed) had several damning things to say. The article, written by David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health, summarized the scientific literature on benefits and detriments of keeping a gun at home. He writes:

For most contemporary Americans, scientific studies indicate that the health risk of a gun in the home is greater than the benefit. The evidence is overwhelming for the fact that a gun in the home is a risk factor for completed suicide and that gun accidents are most likely to occur in homes with guns. There is compelling evidence that a gun in the home is a risk factor for intimidation and for killing women in their homes.

On the benefit side, there are fewer studies, and there is no credible evidence of a deterrent effect of firearms or that a gun in the home reduces the likelihood or severity of injury during an altercation or break-in. Thus, groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics urge parents not to have guns in the home.

Regarding the statement about killing women, it appears that there is a gender differences at work. “Whereas most men are murdered away from home,” wrote Hemenway, “most children, older adults, and women are murdered at home.” Women tended to be murdered by a spouse or a close relative, and “the increased risk of homicide from having a gun in the home was attributable to these homicides.” Lethal assaults were 2.7 times more likely to occur if a gun was present, suggesting that the idea of guns being used for protection is evidently mostly a myth.

It seems that in pretty much every case, the presence of guns positively correlates with injury or death. The US homicide rates for people between the ages of 15-24 are 14 times higher than those in most other industrialized nations. Children aged 5-14 are 11 times more likely to be killed unintentionally from shooting. Places with the highest gun ownership also saw the highest rates of these types.

“Most of the women were murdered by a spouse, a lover, or a close relative, and the increased risk for homicide from having a gun in the home was attributable to these homicides.” In the case of battered women, lethal assaults were 2.7 times more likely to occur if a gun was present in the house; no protective effect of the gun was found.

Regarding the results of the article, ArsTechnia had this to say:

That’s the bad news. In the limited scope of the review, the primary positive effect assigned to guns is deterrence, and, more specifically, deterrence against violence. Although, “Results suggest that self-defense gun use may be the best method for preventing property loss,” this doesn’t count from a public health perspective.

And that’s only the start of the problems; as the National Academies of Science noted in a report quoted by the author, “self-defense is an ambiguous term.” As Hemenway himself puts it, “Unlike deaths or woundings, where the definitions are clear and one needs to only count the bodies, what constitutes a self-defense gun use and whether it was successful may depend on who is telling the story.”

Indeed, as with every study, there are certainly limitations with all of these. For  example, if an abused spouse uses a gun as self-defense on their abusive partner, it’s certainly possible that this would be counted as gun-related violence when really it should be considered self-defense. But in the context of the complete research literature, it seems pretty clear that keeping a gun in the house decreases safety significantly.


Dahlberg, L. L., Ikeda, R. M., & Kresnow, M. (2004). Guns in the Home and Risk of a Violent Death in the Home: Findings from a National Study American Journal of Epidemiology, 160 (10), 929-936 DOI: 10.1093/aje/kwh309

Branas, C. C., Richmond, T. S., Culhane, D. P., Ten Have, T. R., & Wiebe, D. J (2009). Investigating the Link Between Gun Possession and Gun Assault American Journal of Public Health, 10 (11), 2034-2040 DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2008.143099

Hemenway, D. (2011). Risks and Benefits of a Gun in the Home
American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 5 (6), 502-511 DOI: 10.1177/1559827610396294

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23 Responses to Does Owning a Gun Increase or Decrease Safety? Science Answers

  1. Jason says:

    How did the studies account for enviroment? It seems likely that people in unsafe neighborhoods are more like to buy a gun for self defense but at the same time are more likely to be shot in a dangerous neighborhood. Do gun owners have a higher suicide rate or do they become gun owners for the purpose of suicide? Are abused spouses more likely to purchase a gun?

    • six8ten says:

      I was wondering the same thing: did the studies take environment into account?
      Also, I see there is one mention of “gun users in urban areas”. Were all homes with guns included, or just urban areas?

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  3. danh says:

    The study is deeply flawed, having a gun will not make any impact on safety or health, it is entirely up to the people who are responsible for the weapon, just like anything else.

    It is equivalent to saying that the United States has more traffic fatalities and so cars are extremely dangerous and a public health hazard. (it is because more people own cars and use cars to commute longer distances than in many other nations. )

    Guns are pervasive in the US and you don’t know who is carrying one or where they have them and that is the primary source of deterrence of crime. Guns are easier to kill someone with than a knife or blunt object.

    There are further aspects to owning firearms that many people do not take into account, for instance, places like North Korea could not exist if their population had not been disarmed first; I will agree to put down my assault rifle when the governments of the world retire all of their weapons. It is easy to believe that the same would never happen in a western nation or Japan, but every country is one generation away from being North Korea given the right circumstances, and that is the primary reason to stay armed. Governments are run by people who can be erratic and dangerous and guns don’t kill people any more than your car kills people.

    Anything that flawed people are put in control of, will become dangerous and destructive according to their flaws.

    In short, explaining everything with statistics is not good science, especially if the data used does not take real world circumstances into account, especially about human behavior.

    • Peter says:

      I’m sure Nancy Lanza agrees with you that gun ownership makes everyone safer.

      • BD says:

        By far the most not useful comment ever. She is a product of her environment and is partly responsible for her son. She knew he was unAdult /liberal acting and should have protected him from himself; never mind her from him. Even if she locked her guns from him knowing this, that psychopath would have run those kids down in the school yard with her car, knowing what we know now. These unhelpful pithy comments is why one cannot have adult conversations with (libs?). Funny how 1/3 shooting deaths at the hands of police are bystanders. This just means that numbers don’t matter in politically motivated action like gun bans. 400+ kids in Chicago were killed by guns last year, 1zee 2 zee – in a supposed gun-banned city. Protecting people from stupid people is impossible – except in liberal minds. I would suggest changing the constitution legally. That will backfire as most “good intentions” will.

    • Ryo says:

      Hi danh! Thanks a lot for your comment, and sorry for the late reply.
      There are a few problems with your argument that I wanted to mention briefly.

      I’ll just start from the top. You said “The study is deeply flawed.” Sorry but… which study? Were you referring to the 1998 study? The 2004 one? 2009? 2011? Because I’m sure you weren’t referring to either of the studies from 1993 or the other from 2001, since I updated those more recently. And… just how are they flawed? Please specify.
      And note: There will never be a study – ever – that doesn’t have its limitations. The question is just what are the limitations? And that’s what I’m asking you.

      Also, the problem with your analogies for cars and guns is simple: The function of a car is to get from point A to B – . The function of a gun is to kill someone. That’s why guns are made, and that’s why guns are used. Obviously I’m not saying that everyone who owns a gun wants to kill people, but guns are made for that purpose, and that’s the function they serve. (Hopefully you’re not going to argue that people hunt with assault rifles…) So the two are not equal.

      “Guns are pervasive in the US and you don’t know who is carrying one or where they have them and that is the primary source of deterrence of crime. Guns are easier to kill someone with than a knife or blunt object.”
      If the possibility of owning a gun is such a fantastic deterrence of crime, why is the crime rate so much lower here in Japan? Or Germany? Or Canada? Or… I could go on, really.

      For someone who argues about data not taking human behavior into account, you sure don’t seem to acknowledge the many complex facets of gun consumption. It’s not just the cliche movie scenario of “we gotta get the bad guys.”
      Check out this article, and tell me if you think the whole “good guy vs. bad guy” dynamic is actually accurate or not: What Does a Week of Gun Violence Look Like in America?

    • Joe Lammers says:

      As far as I can tell, none of the studies looked at alcoholism, illegal drug use, or past criminal behaviors. There are over 300 million guns in private hands in the United States, so obviously the vast majority of gun owners never commit any violent act. There is almost definitely a fundamental difference between homes in which violence occurs and homes in which it doesn’t that has nothing to do with gun ownership.

    • John H says:

      Cars ARE extremely dangerous and a public health hazard, and I would further assert that the benefits do NOT outweigh the risks for the vast majority of people (most people live in cities, and urban transit has cheaper, more efficient from an energy standpoint, and more convenient alternatives to personal automobiles), just like with guns. Sadly, I get even less traction on my advocacy in favor of severely restricting car ownership and operation than gun control advocates get for guns, though we should also note that cars and the license to operate them are currently restricted FAR more heavily than guns.

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  7. BD says:

    There have been real studies out of the Univ of Chicago that refute all the AMA studies.

    • Ryo says:

      Hi BD, thanks for the comment.
      There may be studies to support the other side (I’m currently working on an article aggregating studies that suggest this) but I’m so far unimpressed with what I have found. But me saying “I am unimpressed” doesn’t really mean anything, and neither does “there have been studies…”
      If you know of studies that refute any of the ones I have describe above, send the links here. Otherwise, just saying that they exist is totally meaningless. Prove me wrong, BD. I’ll look at whatever you give me.

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  10. DB says:

    I’m not a gun owner, and I don’t like guns. So, I want to be upfront about that. In all fairness, though, and in the interest of having a clearer picture of the danger of owning a gun, I’d love to see a study that looked at only legal gun owners and their likelihood of being shot. By definition, if you shoot somebody, the act itself is probably criminal. But I would imagine a large percentage of those being shot are, or have been, engaged in other criminal activities as well. I would suspect that you are still far more likely to be shot if you own a gun legally than if you don’t own a gun at all. But I would like to see some hard numbers on it, since legal vs illegal gun ownership is at the heart of the debate.

    • Ryo says:

      Hi DB. Thanks for the comment!
      But I’m going to have to disagree with you. The legality of guns is not at the heart of the debate at all. If you’d like some numbers, consider this: In a 30 year period (1982-2012), there have been at least 62 mass shootings in the U.S. Forty nine of those were by killers who had obtained guns legally. Put another way: Out of the total of 142 guns that were owned by the killers, more than three quarters were obtained legally. See Mother Jones for more.

      Gun violence is a complex issue, but the legality of the guns used to kill people is not significant. As Make Wealth History mentions regarding the argument that guns used in crimes are usually obtained illegally: “This isn’t an argument, it’s simply said in ignorance, but even if it were true it would be a good reason for more gun control, not less. As it happens, it’s not true.”

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  12. Josh says:

    Thank you for compiling these studies. I am hoping that more research is conducted, since almost all the instances of someone using a firearm to defend themselves or others is anecdotal. I don’t like these studies, or rather how they’re used, because they advocate that gun owners are dangerous. I honestly think we should learn from these studies to try to save as many lives as we can without potentially sacrificing anyone who does use a gun to defend themselves. I am also appalled to learn that guns are more likely to be used to intentionally harm a loved one than defend against an intruder. I had always thought the statistic stating a gun is more likely to be used on a family member had more to do with mistaken identity. However, all I can say is that I’d never do something so appalling to another person, and knowing others are willing to do something so terrible to a loved one makes me glad my wife and I both know how to safely operate and handle our firearms.

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  14. Hugh Irwin says:

    It is my understanding that the Kellerman study was biased due to socio-economic factors. Also, please not that defensive uses of privately owned guns is not “anecdotal” but is documented in American newspapers and the house organ of the National Rifle Association, The American Rifleman. Additionally, Prof. Gary Kleck has studied and published his research on the defensive use of guns in America and can provide a counterpoint to your sources. His research speculates that there are millions of safe defensive uses in America every year. Finally, women are only more likely to be the victim of a gun crime when they doubt their ability to confront and defeat a threat. Unfortunately, women frequently require a defensive weapon that gives them the ability to defeat a physically dominant threat. The most convenient and certain weapon is a handgun.

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