There have been some research studies on the role of firearms in the incidence of suicide and homicide. Not surprisingly, the gun figures prominently as a favored tool for killing. We will not need to dispute the results of the studies here, but we will take a critical look at some of the interpretations. What the data says and what people say it means are often two different things.
First, let’s look at the obvious. There are plenty of police and other professionals who handle loaded guns all the time in the course of their jobs and private lives. They are not genetically superior to the rest of us, and there’s no reason why a private citizen with a clean record who’s willing to learn cannot acquire the same level of safety and competency with firearms. That’s true for the vast majority of the people, and the people know it.
Yet there have been claims that having a gun in your home automatically puts you at risk of suicide and homicide, and you are actually safer without a gun. Suicide and homicide are intentional acts, not accidents, so this is a very provocative claim: it means you’re fooling yourself if you think having a gun makes you safer. What evidence is there that supports this, and how can some “study” tell you what the risk is of having a gun in your home?
It can’t. And this is an important thing to keep in mind: the research deals with averages, not how the risk is actually distributed among individual homes. In the studies, the American people are divided into arbitrary groups that have nothing in common except for guns: people who live in homes with guns, or “GIHPs” (gun-in-home-persons) and “non-GIHPs.” The finding then is that GIHPs have, on average, a higher rate of suicide and homicide.
If you have a gun in your home, congratulations, you’re a GIHP! Does that mean that you’re at risk of suicide and/or homicide? For the vast majority of people, the answer is no. Only a small minority of GIHPs are actually at risk, and the resulting averages only indicate that there are some people who are more at risk if there are guns around. In other words, for a small minority of people, access to guns increases the risk of suicide and homicide.
It’s like how car owners are, on average, more likely to drive drunk than people who don’t own cars, since non-car owners are less likely to be behind the wheel of a car in the first place. But this does not mean having a car puts you at risk of driving drunk – as with guns and violence, only a small minority of car owners are at risk of drunk driving. Similarly, people with golf clubs in the home have a higher incidence of golf-ball-to-the-head injuries than people don’t have golf clubs. But it’s not the thing, the object, that does it; it’s all on how you use it.
Which brings us to a trivial but essential point: a gun, like any inanimate object, cannot cause anything, good or bad, to happen. It cannot by itself cause risk or affect your safety one way or the other. Trying to prove that it can is logically impossible. It is always a matter of human behavior.
At the same time this does not mean we have to be satisfied with the old slogan, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” and just leave it at that. What the data does tell us is that there are some people who are at greater risk if there are guns accessible. These are people who live in troubled homes where suicide and homicide are real possibilities. This is where we should focus our attention, on those in need, if we want to reduce “gun violence.”
Unfortunately what we often find in the media is an attempt to smear all GIHPs – and by extension all gun owners – by trying to project the average risk onto all GIHPs as if all were equally at risk, making each gun owner equally to blame for the bad behavior of a minority of GIHPs. In this way gun ownership itself can be considered a form of risky behavior. Very convenient, but false, and like all forms of propaganda it eventually backfires. People don’t like being told they’re too incompetent to handle guns when they damn well know better.
This false conclusion is due to a faulty interpretation of data known as an ecological fallacy, which occurs where an analysis of group data is used to draw conclusions about an individual. The actual researchers who do the studies are usually careful to point out the limitations of their results, including avoiding the ecological fallacy, but academic scruples are tossed to the winds when political agendas are at the forefront.
For example, one of the most widely cited recent studies (which is actually a synthesis of a number of previous studies on the subject), in Annals of Internal Medicine, The Accessibility of Firearms and Risk for Suicide and Homicide Victimization Among Household Members, found that “Access to firearms is associated with risk for completed suicide and being the victim of homicide.” Notice how it says firearm access is associated with risk – as we’ve noted, a gun doesn’t cause homicide any more than a car causes you to drive drunk. Among the limitations the authors cited was that diverse “populations of varying risks were synthesized to estimate pooled odds of death” [emphasis added]. Since the risk is variable among GIHPs (some are at much higher risk than the rest) one cannot apply the results to individuals without falling prey to the ecological fallacy, which assumes there is no variation, so that all GIHPs are at equal risk.
Yet here is a sampling of news reports on this study that do exactly that:
The Daily Beast – “A new meta-analysis of gun research unequivocally reveals that proximity to a lethal weapon creates a greater likelihood of bodily harm and death.”
Time – “Those who have access to guns two to three times more likely to die from suicide or murder.”
Examiner – “If you own a gun, the most likely person you are to shoot is yourself. The next most likely person you are to shoot is a close family member.”
Notice that as a consequence of accepting the ecological fallacy, in which the mere presence of a gun increases everyone’s risk by an equal amount, one must conclude that the gun causes violence. There’s no getting around this. If the gun is there, it increases your risk, period. And this fervent belief is exactly what we see in these and other “news” sources.
Perhaps the most fanciful notion along these lines is the so-called weapons effect, where “the mere presence of weapons increases aggression.” But guns don’t cause people to commit crimes any more than short skirts cause men to commit rape. Whatever people might see or watch, whatever behavior they may engage in, and whatever feelings that might evoke, it does not absolve anyone of personal responsibility.
Rather than target the small minority of people at risk with guns, propagandists make gun ownership itself the target: the general public is being told it cannot trust itself with guns, and everybody would be better off – would be safer – without them. Hence, the “Guns make you less safe” refrain, which has become a mantra in some circles.
The thing is, propaganda like this ultimately backfires on the users. The American people are naturally suspicious of those who try to tell us we can’t be trusted to have guns any more, that only the government can handle such power responsibly. This is contrary to the founding principles. And using falsehoods such as the ecological fallacy to advance an agenda only serves to discredit it.
Odysseus M Tanner