The Sciences

Gunslinging in America

Does a gun make you safer or increase your likelihood of violent death?

By Fred Guterl and Scott FergusonMay 1, 1996 5:00 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Sam Walker was not your average American gun owner. For one thing, he had no interest whatsoever in hunting. And whereas the average gun owner owns at least three guns, Walker owned only one, a .38-caliber revolver, which friends persuaded him to buy for the sole purpose of protecting himself and his family in their suburban Houston home. Walker didn’t even particularly like guns. He still hadn’t gotten around to acquainting himself with his new weapon when his burglar alarm went off one weekday morning last December. Notified by his security company of the intrusion, Walker rushed home from work, quietly entered the house, took the gun out from the spot where he had left it for safekeeping, and, hearing a noise, moved stealthily up the stairs and opened a closet door. He saw a movement, a figure, and in a split second fired. The smoothly oiled gun worked perfectly, and Walker’s aim was true. A body fell to the floor. It was his 16-year-old daughter. She had cut school that day and had hidden in the closet to avoid her father. It wound up costing her her life.

If Walker’s tragic story argues against the benefits to be gained by gun ownership, consider an incident that happened a month later, across the country in New York City. One weekday morning in January, in front of a Brooklyn government building in broad daylight, Eric Immesberger stopped to give a man directions. Suddenly a second man came out from behind a pillar and knocked Immesberger to the ground. The two men then demanded his wallet and started beating him. Now, it just so happens that Immesberger is an investigator for the Brooklyn district attorney, and, more to the point, he was armed with a 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun. He managed to pull his weapon and shoot one of the robbers in the chest. The other fled. Immesberger was later treated at a hospital for a broken nose.

Which case better represents the reality of owning a gun? It depends, of course, on whom you ask. But one point is indisputable: murder is committed more frequently in the United States than just about anywhere else in the developed world, and guns are its chief instrument. For African American males between the ages of 14 and 25, guns are the leading cause of death. And despite the recent downward blip in the numbers, crimes in the United States are far more likely to lead to death than they are in any other developed country. Every two and a half years, guns kill as many Americans as died in the Vietnam War. The litany of statistics is as deadening as it is depressing. Although few people would argue that cleansing the population of all guns wouldn’t go a long way to trimming the firearms fatality rate, the country’s 230 million guns, shielded by the Second Amendment, seem likely to remain in circulation for a long time.

Lacking a consensus on gun control, lawmakers have in recent years at least tried to put fewer guns in the hands of criminals and more in the hands of law-abiding citizens. The Brady Bill, for instance, seeks to curtail the proliferation of handguns, the weapons of choice for both crime and self-defense, by imposing background checks and a waiting period on new purchases. At the same time, the states are passing laws making it easy for residents to carry concealed handguns. But is arming the citizenry a good way to offset the risk of crime?

In the last decade researchers have focused unprecedented attention on the problem, and authors of some of the more dramatic studies have managed to amass impressively large stacks of press clippings. But science has not been especially helpful here. So far, nobody has been able to marshal convincing evidence for either side of the debate. “The first point that’s obvious in any scientific reading of the field is the extreme paucity of data,” says Franklin Zimring, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley. “What we have is critically flawed—on both sides.” Indeed, the scientific literature on the subject seems to teach very little, except for the tedious fact that it is difficult to say anything rigorously scientific about human behavior—particularly aggression.

What’s obvious by now to most scientists is that assessing the risk of owning a gun is nothing like assessing the risk of smoking cigarettes was 30 or 40 years ago. Back then medical researchers convinced themselves quickly of the cause-and-effect relationship between cigarettes and cancer. Although they had no direct, mechanistic proof, the epidemiological evidence proved the case far beyond any reasonable doubt. With guns, such a link has proved elusive, to say the least. Researchers think that about half of American households possess guns, they’re fairly sure that about two-thirds of these households have handguns, and they believe the proportion of handguns, within the total number of guns of all types, is rising. Their reasoning rests partly on the assumption that most guns bought these days are intended for self-defense; because of their small size, handguns are the overwhelming choice for this purpose. They also assume that the relative number of handguns owned will be reflected in the relative number of firearms deaths caused by handguns—about 60 percent.

Given the magnitude of the violence and the prevalence of the weapons, it is surprising that science has come to the issue of risk only recently. Criminologists have spent several decades exploring the impact of guns on crime and the behavior of criminals, but they have neglected the question of individual risk. When the medical profession got interested in guns in the early 1980s, it made them a public health issue, looking at the risk to the public at large. Emergency room doctors see the associated hazards every day, in the children who die or are wounded by playing with guns, in the successful and unsuccessful teenage suicides, and in countless other gun-related accidents claiming victims of all ages. The doctors concerned themselves not only with unintended firings but also with accidents such as Walker’s, in which the gun itself functions properly in only a narrow mechanical sense and the risk is more clearly seen in retrospect. And this public health perspective spurred renewed interest in studies that test to what degree the presence of guns increases the likelihood of death to their owners. But this approach, of course, focused on gun ownership as a societal issue; it did not assume the point of view of the individual. Doing so would have treated a gun as a consumer product, like a power drill or a lawn mower or a food processor, that carries with it a certain risk of accidental injury or death that must be weighed against its benefits.

Many of these public health studies attracted a great deal of publicity because they seemed to settle the question of risk once and for all. Arthur Kellermann, an emergency room doctor, is perhaps the most prolific and visible of the medical researchers who have tried to quantify the risk of owning a gun. Although he is a southerner who was raised with guns and who likes target shooting, he has nonetheless become a major source of bumper-sticker statistics for gun-control advocates. He insists that he has proved not only that a gun is a poor deterrent to residential crime but that having one actually increases the chance that somebody in your home will be shot and killed. In particular, his studies conclude that gun-owning households, when compared with gunless ones, are almost three times as likely to be the scene of a homicide and almost five times as likely to be the scene of a suicide. “If having a gun in the home was a good deterrent,” Kellermann says, “then we should have seen few guns in the homes of murder victims. But we found the opposite.”

Kellermann’s work has drawn fire from researchers who suspect that his passion for the issue has blinded him to ambiguities in his data. “Kellermann has decided that guns are bad, and he’s out to prove it,” says Yale sociologist Albert Reiss. Although in general criminologists don’t object to Kellermann’s research methods, they part company in their interpretation of his results. His evidence, say critics, is so riddled with uncertainties as to preclude any definitive interpretation.

Upon close inspection, kellermann’s results are much more modest than his dramatic conclusions would indicate. He chose to study guns in the home not only because lots of people buy them for self-defense and keep them in a drawer beside their beds but also because home is a well-defined place that simplifies the task of collecting data. Police homicide records specifically include the location of each incident and the weapon used, and it was a straightforward matter for Kellermann to follow up each case by interviewing surviving family members and friends. The problem was in coming up with a suitable control group against which to draw comparisons. Ideally, you want to pair each victim with a control that differs from the victim only in that one was shot and the other wasn’t. Kellermann devised a clever methodology for doing so. For each victim, he randomly selected one neighbor after another until he found someone who was the same age, sex, and race. Eventually he assembled “matched pairs” for 388 homicide victims.

When he compared the victims with the control group, however, he found that many more factors differentiated the two groups than their victim status. It turned out that the households in which homicides took place were more likely to contain a family member who abused alcohol or drugs and had a history of domestic violence—these factors contributed to the likelihood of homicide independent of the existence of guns.

Kellermann took pains to compensate for these other factors using standard statistical techniques of epidemiology. In essence, he tried to estimate how much each factor, such as alcohol abuse, might have influenced the homicide rate among victims in his study, and then he adjusted his figures accordingly.

What neither Kellermann nor his critics can know for certain is whether this statistical juggling actually uncovers any underlying trends or whether something else is going on that Kellermann hasn’t accounted for. Kellermann himself admits the possibility of some kind of “psychological confounding”—that some intangible factor such as aggression, rather than merely the presence of guns, is influencing the results. Critics also point out that the victims in Kellermann’s study may have gotten guns because they felt themselves to be threatened in some way, which means they might have suffered higher homicide rates even if they hadn’t bothered to arm themselves. “Kellermann has shown that homicide victims are more likely to keep a gun at home, but criminologists have known that for years,” says Gary Kleck, of Florida State University in Tallahassee.

The results of one survey, to find out how often guns are used in self-defense, depict the country’s gun owners as holding back a tidal wave of violence and crime. 

Kellermann’s even more dramatic figures on suicide in the home are especially problematic, mainly because Kellermann relies on the numbers without offering an explanation. “There’s no theory to account for his conclusion,” says Zimring. Suicide is also thought to be prone to substitution—that is, although guns are the preferred instrument of suicide in the United States, a person bent on suicide can easily find a substitute if need be. Since Kellermann’s study focuses on suicides in the home, it doesn’t account for the victim who, lacking a gun, decides instead to jump off a bridge.

Regardless of their personal feelings on guns, criminologists, who tend to look at violence through the lens of police statistics and surveys, are usually more open than doctors to the possibility that a gun can now and then deter a crime. Trouble is, social scientists are poorly equipped to measure events that do not occur—crimes that are averted because the would-be victim had a gun. As a result, criminologists have resorted to surveys to get at this phenomenon. Most recently, Kleck conducted a survey to find out how often gun owners actually use their guns in self-defense. His controversial results depict the country’s gun owners as holding back a tidal wave of violence and crime. He estimates that 2.5 million times each year, somebody somewhere in America uses a gun in self- defense. This figure has become a mantra of the National Rifle Association (with whom Kleck has no affiliation).

Most other criminologists are critical of Kleck’s methods, and almost all of them are incredulous at the results. A big complaint is that he leaves it to his survey respondents to define a “defensive gun use,” so he may have captured incidents that most people would consider trivial. “An awful lot of what some people would call self-defense is, like, somebody asks you for a quarter and you tell them to get lost, but as you walk away you keep your hand on your gun,” says Philip Cook, a Duke University economist. In addition, many incidents that people report as self-defense may in fact be assaults, in which the respondent takes a more active role than he admits. “In many instances, we may only be talking to one side of an argument,” says Zimring.

What this criticism comes down to is that Kleck, like Kellermann and all the other researchers in this field, is guilty of failing to explain what happens when people carry guns, and how possessing one affects their interactions with criminals. As Reiss puts it, “We know very little about how motivation enters into an action.” Zimring likens efforts to understand the deterrent effect of guns to “dancing with clouds.” Kleck himself admits that “the better the research, the more it tends to support the null hypothesis—that gun ownership and control laws have no net effect on violence.”

Even when a seemingly perfect opportunity for a real-life experiment presents itself, as it did recently to criminologist David McDowall, the null hypothesis is often all that a criminologist is left with. Several years ago, Florida, Mississippi, and Oregon adopted “shall issue” laws requiring the states to issue a license to almost anybody who wants to carry a concealed handgun. McDowall saw that the effect of these laws would give him a laboratory in which to test the arms-race hypothesis: he could find out whether criminals, knowing their victims are more likely to be armed with handguns, are more likely to use guns themselves. He could also find out whether citizens, when armed, can deter crime.

After the new laws were passed, permits to carry concealed handguns rose enormously —in Florida the number of licenses soared from 17,000 before the law was passed in 1987 to 141,000 seven years later. After studying five cities, McDowall found that the rate of firearms homicides increased overall by 26 percent. Although this would seem to support the arms-race hypothesis, the results were inconsistent. Whereas McDowall had expected the effects of the liberalized laws to be greatest in Miami, the biggest city in the study and the one with the highest crime rate, the rise in homicides there was too small to be statistically significant. However, McDowall believes his evidence is strong enough to show that armed citizens do not decrease the number of firearms-related deaths.

Despite the frustrating lack of clarity, researchers are universally optimistic that, with time and the accretion of data, insight into the mechanism of violence will come, and with it, a greater consensus on the real risks of guns. For the time being, however, there will remain very little one researcher can say about risk that another researcher cannot refute. Most favor restricting the availability of guns by mandating background checks and waiting periods, which serve to some degree to keep guns out of the hands of “hotheads” and criminals. There is also a consensus that higher homicide rates have everything to do with the preponderance of guns—an obvious inference when considering, say, crime statistics of London and New York. These two cities have similar crime rates, but the homicide rate from burglaries and robberies in gun-rich New York is vastly higher—54 times higher in 1992, according to Zimring. “America doesn’t have a crime problem,” he says, “it has a lethal violence problem. It’s that thin layer of lethal crime that Americans are afraid of.”

Given that purging guns from the population is problematic, would the world be safer if each law-abiding citizen carried a gun? Alessandro Veralli hesitates before answering this question. For most of his adult life, he has carried a concealed handgun almost everywhere he goes, whether it’s out to the movies with his wife or to the local hardware store on a Saturday afternoon. Yet Veralli, a Master Firearms Instructor for the New York City Police Department and an NRA life member, admits that as a civilian he has had very little opportunity to use his gun. If he ever found himself a customer at a liquor store that was being held up, in most cases his training and common sense would tell him to lie low rather than start a shoot-out. If he was out with his wife and a thief demanded his wallet, he would probably hand it over. “In a robbery, there’s not much you can do except maybe shoot at the guy as he’s walking away,” he says. “But what if he shoots back? I’d be putting my wife in danger, and for what?” He carries a gun for the hypothetical extreme case when having it might mean the difference between life and death. “Personally I’d hate to get into a bad situation and think that I might have been able to do something if I had had a gun,” he says.

But should other citizens carry guns? “I’m tempted to say yes,” he says, but then he demurs. “Maybe it makes sense in other parts of the country where they have more space. New York, though, is too crowded. There’s something about all these people being confined in a small space. People can fly off the handle over little things. I don’t think I’d want to see each and every one of them carrying a gun.”

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2023 Kalmbach Media Co.