Guns 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