[Content warning: some discussion of risk factors in suicide]
A central argument for widespread gun ownership is for the protection of the gun owner’s families and themselves in their home. This is not the only argument obviously. Gun rights advocates will also point to
- self-defence outside of their home (in particular in defence of concealed or open carry legislation) and the archetype of the “good guy with a gun”
- hunting both as recreation and as a means of securing food
- as a function of national defence (the “well-regulated militia”)
- and as a deterrent against the abuse of power by the government
However, this notion of gun ownership as a necessary part of home defence is something that has helped fuel gun ownership beyond the stereotypical gun owner. It is something that arms manufacturers have played into with the marketing of handguns. It also works in synchrony with right-wing propaganda about urban violence and media stoking fears of home invasions.
Counter to these arguments is a range of studies looking at the incidents of firearm injuries in the home.
In ongoing arguments on the internet about guns, a series of studies by A.L.Kellerman in the 1990s:
- Kellerman 1993 https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199310073291506
- Kellerman 1996 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8875922/
- Kellerman 1998 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9715182/
These studies used a case-controlled methodology to look at relative factors in gun violence and injuries in the home. These studies have had some intense debates over the years primarily because they were early examples of putting solid numbers to what seems to be an intuitive observation. Home invasions and assaults by strangers with guns are a relatively low risk for most people (but not for everybody), whereas accidents and self-harm are more widely distributed in the population. I’m more likely to hit myself with a hammer than hit a random stranger who’s broken into my house.
Putting numbers to an apparently common-sense conclusion is important because common-sense conclusions can be wrong. Kellerman’s studies appeared to confirm the sensible conclusion that guns increase the chance of the relatively common form of home injuries/fatalities [accidents, suicide, murder by close relatives/partner] rather than the rare examples [homicide by intruders]. These studies in turn led to attempts by gun rights advocates to debunk the figures. Notably, books and articles by John “Mary Rosh” Lott have formed the basis of counter-arguments against the Kellerman studies.
You will still find Kellerman regularly cited by gun rights advocates as a figure whose work has been “debunked”. So when proponents of gun control or gun safety legislation point out the relative dangers of keeping a gun in your house (particularly a loaded gun), the response from supporters of the gun industry will be to point at debunkings of Kellerman or just vague handwaving at Kellerman as a figure who has been debunked.
A child born in 1993 is now approaching their 30’s and may have kids of their own. Time has passed and unsurprisingly research on the topic of the relative dangers of gun ownership didn’t stop with Kellerman. Multiple studies with varying methodologies have followed in the intervening time. For example here is a 2004 national study in the US:
“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 and whether risk varies by storage practice, type of gun, or number of guns 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 (adjusted odds ratio = 1.9, 95% confidence interval: 1.1, 3.4). They were also at greater risk of dying from a firearm homicide, but risk varied by age and whether the person was living with others at the time of death. The risk of dying from a suicide in the home was greater for males in homes with guns than for males without guns in the home (adjusted odds ratio = 10.4, 95% confidence interval: 5.8, 18.9). Persons with guns in the home were also more likely to have died from suicide committed with a firearm than from one committed by using a different method (adjusted odds ratio = 31.1, 95% confidence interval: 19.5, 49.6). 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.”Guns in the Home and Risk of a Violent Death in the Home: Findings from a National Study
Linda L. Dahlberg, Robin M. Ikeda, Marcie-jo Kresnow https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwh309 https://academic.oup.com/aje/article/160/10/929/140858#ref-30
A 2014 meta-analysis of a range of studies arrived at the same broad (common-sense) conclusion:
“Access to firearms is associated with risk for completed suicide and being the victim of homicide.”The Accessibility of Firearms and Risk for Suicide and Homicide Victimization Among Household Members A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis Andrew Anglemyer, PhD, MPH, Tara Horvath, MA, and George Rutherford, MD https://doi.org/10.7326/M13-1301 https://www.acpjournals.org/doi/10.7326/M13-1301?articleid=1814426
There is a get-out clause for the volunteer lobbyists for the gun industry though. The studies above typically draw on cases of gun injury or death. While statistics on such events are not trivial to collect, there is at least something to count. What is much harder to demonstrate are occasions where a gun was used as a deterrent without being fired. We can imagine incidents where a person encounters an intruder in their home but the homeowner has a handgun and successfully frightens the intruder into leaving. We can also imagine that if the homeowner had not had a gun then maybe the homeowner would have been injured or murdered by the intruder! Here we have a much harder arena to collect verifiable figures on. Most (all?) of the methodologies above will capture cases where an intruder was killed or injured with a gun but they won’t necessarily capture cases where an intruder a) was scared away and b) would have harmed the person in the home if they hadn’t been scared away. Let’s call that number N.
If N is really, really large then the relative safety of gun ownership shifts. It won’t change the risk of injury or suicide but it might offset that risk. Except…it won’t. For it to be really large then we would see a comparable rate of death and injury of non-gun owners from intruders that was huge. Instead, we see that homicide in general as a risk increases for gun owners — that’s not directly causal as it is homicide of any kind but arithmetically it shows that NON-gun owners aren’t being killed in huge quantities by random strangers breaking into their house. Put another way, for N to be huge a risk factor in homicide would be NOT owning a gun. It simply isn’t.
Interestingly, when the topic shifts from “debunkings” of Kellerman, the volunteer lobby for the gun industry are likely to be dismissive of the deterrent effect of gun ownership. The idea that simply brandishing a gun by itself is sufficient self-defence is appealing for the numbers argument but if it were true then having an unloaded gun that you didn’t know how to use would itself would increase your safety. Heck, a non-functional but plausible-looking gun would work. There’s no money in that though and fake guns don’t sell bullets or encourage participation in broader gun culture.
Don’t take my word for it though. I’m a British leftist living in Australia and those are two countries that make gun rights people figuratively turn purple on the internet. Instead, listen to somebody who knows something about guns:
“So to stop somebody, there are two main ways to do it, psychologically or physiologically. Now when I say psychologically, that means the bad guy quits because he decides to, as in “OH CRAP! He’s got a gun! Run!” Or if you shoot them with a non-fatal wound, and they say “Damn, that hurt. I’m done.” But you don’t control the brain waves of the critter attacking you. You might get lucky and get a bad guy that will just quit, the kind of guy that if he wanted to work hard for a living, would get a job. Victim with gun = work. On the other hand, you might get some really crazy, evil, whackadoo, who ain’t gonna stop, no matter what. And that guy, you’re going to have to shoot. A lot. “https://monsterhunternation.com/2007/09/20/carbine-vs-shotgun-vs-pistol-for-home-defense/
The psychological home defence is a matter of luck and a notable expert on guns advises that you don’t rely on it. However, if N (see above) was large then the psychological use of guns to protect the home would be far and away the most likely scenario.
In truth, nobody really believes that N is large. International comparisons have their own problems but homicide is, if anything, much less in comparable nations than the US.