Do Guns Save Lives or Ruin Them?

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By Dov Michaeli

In response to a 1/10/2011 post by Pat Salber (The shootings in Arizona – is it ok to just blame a “deranged mind?”) we received a comment by a reader, Jason, who wrote:

“One counterargument to gun control my neighbor has and I think is very valid:

Now that guns are so ubiquitous by banning guns the only people who will likely be affected are the law-abiding citizens.  Criminals will likely still have guns.  He believes (and I tend to agree with him) is one thing that helps keep our houses and neighborhoods safer (along with the twice yearly cop car driving through) is that every criminal knows there is a small (or large depending on where you live) possibility that if I break in to this house I may get shot.

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Imagine if criminals knew that was not the case.  I know by law this house won’t have a gun, therefore with my gun I will have complete control of this house if I break in.

It’s the same argument others use for not controlling guns – if someone had a gun in AZ maybe that guy would have been shot before he killed so many.

You always poo poo this argument but it is very valid and I don’t have a strong counterargument for it.

I do think we could easily outlaw the automatic and semi automatic weapons though.”

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My response

Tough issue, Jason, and for obvious reasons; who doesn’t want to protect his family from harm? This is as primal as it comes. Just witness a mother bear attacking anything that comes between her and her cubs.  The emotions that such a threat evoke are intense, are biologically hard- wired into our brain; but they also tend to drown out a rational analysis and discussion of the issue. Worse yet, demagogues and commercial interests have been cynically using this gut level reaction to sow confusion and fear.  So let’s at least try and get the facts.

The macro level.

The Gun Lobby, and for that matter the tobacco lobby, the coal lobby, and assorted other bad actors use the same technique: start with bogus research, showing that tobacco is good for you (are you old enough to remember doctors endorsing Camel cigarettes? Or that all Marlborough Men are virile dudes?), that “clean coal” is good for the country (clean coal does not even exist, but it sounds reasonable to most people), and yes –more guns will save life. Forget the fact that guns are designed to kill people, and automatic weapons are designed to kill a lot of people.

When this ploy doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, create doubt about legitimate studies showing that tobacco kills, that coal is polluting and causes respiratory ailments, or that guns kill more good guys than bad ones! And when all else fails –bribe the politicians, intimidate the scientists, and demonize the opposition. This is why it took 30 years after the Surgeon General report on Tobacco to pass any meaningful tobacco laws. This is why we still don’t have any laws curbing pollution from coal-burning power plants. And this is why we still don’t have good gun laws.

The gun lobby has their own hired guns to serve as the equivalents to the Camel cigarettes-endorsing doctors. These scientists produced research that was on the level of creationist science; nothing but assertions, misinterpretation of anecdotes, and plain falsehoods. I will not bother to deal with those, but concentrate on the work of John R. Lott, a conservative economist, whom Newsweek called “The gun crowd guru”.

In an article written with David B. Mustard and Lott’s subsequent books More Guns Less Crime and the Bias Against Guns he purports to show a reduction in violent crime associated with the adoption by states of laws allowing the general adult population to freely carry concealed weapons.

The work was immediately controversial. Reviews claimed that there were problems with Lott’s model. In The New England Journal of Medicine, David Hemenway argued that Lott failed to account for several key variables, including drug consumption, and that therefore the model was flawed; Others agreed, and some researchers, including Ian Ayres and John J. Donohue, claimed that the model contained significant coding errors and systematic bias. A recent study conducted for the National Research Council, the foremost scientific body in the country, dealt the coup de grace: Lott and Mustard’s period of analysis ended just before the extraordinary crime drop of the 1990s occurred. They concluded that extending Lott and Mustard’s dataset beyond 1992 undermined the ”more guns, less crime hypothesis.” Anybody who ever examined carefully the claims of fund managers about their stellar returns knows that it has to do with the comparison period they select. If they had a good year, that’s the year they would highlight. But examine their performance over a longer period of time, allowing for ups and downs in the market, and the performance claim evaporates. And so did Lott’s claim among serious researchers; but not among politicians and gun advocates –their minds were made up, don’t confuse them with those pesky facts. And when legitimate science does not support your argument there is always the media bias argument. The New England Journal of Medicine is biased against guns –that’s why they negatively critiqued his paper, so argued Lott. Of course, Lott is an economist, not an epidemiologist. But he should have known that observational studies are rife with pitfalls, are of dubious value and can never, never, never show causation – at best they show correlation only.


As to the deterrence argument -it make intuitive sense, but in reality it doesn’t work as advertised. Why do we have so many murders in the U.S, where you have a good chance to get the death penalty, whereas in Europe and Japan, not having the death penalty (and much stricter gun laws), their murder rate is a fraction of ours? Study after study, including interviews with convicts, show that deterrence did not even enter their mind; some even welcomed the prospect of being caught and executed. These are truly “deranged minds”, so what is intuitively obvious to us is not so to the criminal mind. You might think that this is all psychological nonsense, but consider this: fMRI studies are showing an attenuated prefrontal cortex -where judgments are formed – in serial killers. The anterior parietal lobe, where functions of empathy reside, is “cold” as well. So the lack of deterrence is not just a liberal mumbo jumbo; it has a neurobiological basis.

The micro level

Of course Jason’s argument is not on the policy level; he is concerned about the individual’s level of safety. For this we have a legitimate study by Kellermann, published in the, horrors, the biased New England Journal of Medicine (Protection or Peril?). I’ll quote the abstract:

“To study the epidemiology of deaths involving firearms kept in the home, we reviewed all the gunshot deaths that occurred in King County, Washington (population 1,270,000), from 1978 through 1983. The medical examiner’s case files were supplemented by police records or interviews with investigating officers or both, to obtain specific information about the circumstances, the scene of the incident, the type of firearm involved, and the relationship of the suspect to the victim. A total of 743 firearm-related deaths occurred during this six-year period, 398 of which (54 percent) occurred in the residence where the firearm was kept. Only 2 of these 398 deaths (0.5 percent) involved an intruder shot during attempted entry. Seven persons (1.8 percent) were killed in self-defense. For every case of self-protection homicide involving a firearm kept in the home, there were 1.3 accidental deaths, 4.6 criminal homicides, and 37 suicides involving firearms. Handguns were used in 70.5 percent of these deaths.”

The expected tactic immediately materialized: raise doubt as to the validity of the study and its methodology. Didn’t work; it underwent careful examination and emerged largely unscathed. Of course, demonization was not far behind: biased, liberal and worse.

The “real life” experience

I realize that for such a gut issue academic studies, replete with dry facts and figures, don’t pack an emotional punch when you visualize “protecting myself and my family from an intruder”. But I wonder if any of the advocates of shooting the bastard were ever in this situation themselves. I have a sneaking suspicion that these are the same kind of people who send others to fight the bad guys (Iraqis, Afghans, whoever comes next) but have never gone to war themselves. Let me tell you –the reality is not so glorious, there are no heroes in this game. In the case of an intruder, chances are he is better trained in firearms than you are. And by definition, he is ahead of you: he has his gun ready while you are still fumbling to retrieve it from its hiding place. Or are you going to walk around the house armed and ready for the attacker all day, every day?

Here is another aspect of encountering an intruder that the armchair warriors don’t consider: he has the element of surprise on his side. I can tell you from my military experience –this is probably the most decisive advantage an attacker has. You walk into an ambush and your first reaction is stunned fear and an urge to flee. It takes a grizzly sergeant who had been in these situations many times to rally his disoriented troops. Now multiply that a thousand times to appreciate the terror you experience when your wife and young child are involved. Unless the intruder is a complete klotz, he has an overwhelming advantage. This is why the Kellermann data make a lot of sense.

Where was the armed ciitizenry?

As more details about the Arizona massacre started to emerge I was wondering where, in this state of concealed weapons, were the armed citizens? John Donohue, a Stanford Law Professor wondered about it as well (NYT, 1/10/11):

“ Joe Zamudio, the first lawful gun carrier on the scene, came around a corner and saw a man with a gun. Zamudio “grabbed his arm and shoved him into a wall.” Thankfully, Zamudio didn’t shoot because this was not the shooter, but the person who disarmed the shooter. Zamudio, age 24, displayed further caution in that he didn’t pull out his own 9 mm handgun because “he didn’t want to be confused as a second gunman.”

Those who carry guns have to make quick decisions about who should be shot and to avoid being shot themselves, often in crowded and confused circumstances where the chance of doing more damage must be weighed against the benefit of stopping an assault. We should all agree, though, that there is a benefit in keeping bad guys from being able to fire 31 times without reloading”

So there you have it;  had Zamudio been a bit faster with his gun, an innocent man would have been killed. Had there been more Zamudios around, complete mayhem  and many more victims would have fallen to “friendly fire”.

In a perfect world we could have such great gun laws that it would have been unnecessary to arm yourself. Or, in the alternative, every citizen would have a gun in his holster, would be a great marksman and get training in the Special   Forces. In the real world, this is not going to happen, the NRA notwithstanding.