Thursday, February 07, 2013

Left Side of the Aisle #94 - Part 6

Guns: They do not make you safer

Okay, guns. One of the most offensive parts, and the most commonly cited part, of the SCOTUS decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, the decision that threw out DC's handgun control law, was that it was the first time the Court had found that the Second Amendment provided for an individual, as opposed to a collective, right to own guns. But in what I think is an even more offensive part, the Court found that a purpose of the Second Amendment was to allow for an individual right to self defense. Now remember, this is what the Amendment says:
A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
But the reactionary majority on the Court ruled that one purpose, one original intent, of that Amendment was to enable you as an individual to have a gun to protect yourself and your particular home from some sort of criminal attack. This was created out of whole cloth. There is nothing in the Amendment, in the record of the debates over its adoption, or in judicial precedent to say that individual self defense was a purpose for it. They made it up.

But that's the argument we get now: Guns are about self-defense. As NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPepe LePew said, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." So that's what we're going to talk about today. How true is that? How really effective are guns at self-defense?

The short answer is, really not very much at all. In fact, guns do not make you safe. Period.

How many times do we have to prove this? These are all studies published in peer-reviewed professional journals:

In 2000, from the "Journal of Trauma": Across high-income nations, more guns equals more gun homicides. This was true even when data from the US is excluded.

2002, the "American Journal of Public Health": Across US states, for every age group, again more guns equals more homicides, even after controlling for poverty and urbanization. The same researchers later repeated their work using statistics from later years and controlling for rates of aggravated assault, robbery, unemployment, urbanization, alcohol consumption, and resource deprivation such as poverty. That one was published in "Social Science and Medicine" in 2007. The results were the same. More guns means more murders.

2004, in "Aggression and Violent Behavior: A Review Journal": A review of the literature showed that "case-control studies, ecological time-series and cross-sectional studies indicate that in homes, cities, states and regions in the US, where there are more guns, both men and women are at higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide."

Also in 2004, published in the "American Journal of Epidemiology": Persons with guns in the home were at greater risk of dying from a homicide in the home than those without guns in the home. They were also at greater risk of dying from a firearm homicide outside the home. Overall, having a gun inside a home tripled the likelihood of homicide. It quintupled the risk of suicide. And this was true regardless of storage practice, type of gun, or number of firearms in the home. Having a gun there was associated with an increased risk of both murder and suicide by gun.

A 2009 study at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that individuals in possession of a gun were 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those who were not packing heat. Among gun assaults where the victim had at least some chance to resist, the likelihood increased to 5.5 times more likely. The right wing gun lovers have tried to mock the study, but it used the same methodology that epidemiologists have historically used to establish links between such things as smoking and lung cancer or drinking and car crashes.

In 2011, a study published in the "American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine" examined previous research on guns. It considered both various risks of having a gun in the home (including accidents, suicide, homicide, and intimidation) and possible benefits (including deterrence and thwarting crimes, that is, self-defense). It found that homes with guns were not safer and did not deter more crime than those without them. In fact, in homes with children or women, the health risks increased and in any event the risks greatly outweighed the actual or perceived benefits.

Finally, just this past October, a report by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found, among other things, that "right-to-carry" gun laws do not reduce violent crime but are associated with up to a nine percent increase in aggravated assaults. Plus, it found that the homicide rate in the US is seven times higher than the average of all other high-income countries because the US firearm homicide rates are 22 times higher.

Oh, but the cry rises, what about the good guy with the gun stopping the bad guy with the gun? What, you'd rather we all be defenseless?

Frankly, the idea that some gun-wielding hero is going to come swooping in like, I dunno, Spiderman or something, whip out their trusty Beretta and take down the evil bandit just before he opens fire on the helpless, unarmed crowd - it's delusional.

Oh, no no no, the manhood-challenged legions come back. What about all the times guns are used in self-defense? What about the 2.5 million times a year when an armed citizen deters or stops an armed criminal?

The number, often promoted by the acolytes of the death lobby, comes from a sloppy study done in the 1990s by two criminologists, a study based entirely on self-reported claims with no way to to determine whether they were true. It has been widely discredited. Not only were there major problems with methodology and wildly inconceivable results - to mention just one, the study concluded that armed citizens kill or wound their attacker with a gun 207,000 times per year, which is more than double the yearly average of the total number of emergency rooms visits for all types of gun-related injuries - not only were there those sorts of problems, but a study published in 2000 in the professional journal "Injury Prevention" found not only that guns are used to threaten and intimidate far more often than they are used in self defense, but that most self-reported "self defense" gun uses may not have been self defense at all and in fact they may well have been illegal.

Around the same time as the lousy study, a survey by the Department of Justice found the number of defensive gun uses to be about 108,000 annually, or a little more than 4% of the figure claimed by the gun nuts - and a figure which, significantly, includes police officers using their weapons in the line of duty.

But just how delusional the notion of the gun-wielding civilian savior is can be seen in an experiment ABC News did back in 2009, in conjunction with the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania police department. It sought to test the ability of ordinary people without specialized crisis training to protect themselves with a gun under stress. Without going into the details - you can find a link below - the results were, in a phrase, repeated failure. In the test situation, not one was able to effectively defend themselves. Life is not like a video game and as much as we all like to imagine ourselves turning into Bruce Willis in Die Hard at such a moment, neither is life like a movie.

Because, as Salon political reporter Alex Seitz-Wald wrote recently,
The truth is that it’s extremely difficult for anyone, let alone a lightly trained and inexperienced civilian, to effectively respond to a shooter. The entire episode can take a matter of seconds and your body is fighting against you: Under extreme stress, reaction time slows, heart rate increases and fine motor skills deteriorate. Police train to build muscle memory that can overcome this reaction, but the training wears off after only a few months if not kept up.
Even trained cops can have trouble. According to a RAND study of the NYPD in 2008, officers involved in gunfights typically hit their intended targets only 18% of the time: They miss four times out of five. In most cases, the study said, the cops involved experienced sensory distortions including tunnel vision and loss of hearing. Afterward, they are sometimes surprised to learn that they had fired their weapons at all.

Which also helps to give the lie to the notion that more armed guards in schools is the answer, at least to school shootings. Consider: Columbine had a police officer stationed there. Taft Union High School in Taft, California, where a shooting took place a couple of weeks ago, normally has an armed guard on campus. Virginia Tech has a whole police department on campus. There was an armed guard at Lone Star College, where a shooting took place just over a week ago. Fort Hood is a military base, for pity's sake. The list is partial.

And then again, obviously not all mass shootings take place at schools. Should we have armed guards at every mall, every movie theater, every house of worship, every health center? And virtually all shootings are not mass shootings. Should we have armed guards on every bus, every train, in every doctor's office? In every apartment building, every office building, on every corner? Just how far are we prepared to go?

The fact is, difficult though it may be to admit, it’s often impossible to stop a shooter no matter how many guns are present. As Seitz-Wald pointed out, John Hinckley managed to nearly kill Ronald Reagan and to permanently disable James Brady despite the fact that they were surrounded by dozens of heavily armed men with the best training imaginable, Secret Service agents who were trained and prepared to literally take the bullet in order to protect the president.

Our safety does not lie in guns. It lies in the absence of guns. And the best way to do that is to make them as hard as possible to get.


This is the ABC News video:

This is the story about the experiment:

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