Over the last twenty years we have been bombarded with endless noise from the NRA about the value of guns because they protect us from crime. This “social utility” argument is based on the mostly-discredited research of Gary Kleck and John Lott, of whom the latter’s work doesn’t really qualify as research since it basically panders to what he perceives to be the fears and prejudices of his audience. But for the moment let’s assume that some people do use guns for self-defense, and try to compare those numbers to the numbers of people who are injured or killed by guns.
According to Brady, an average of 100,000 are killed or wounded each year by guns. This seems to be the standard gun violence number bandied about by gun control groups. I think the number is way too low. The gun violence report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics puts the number of fatal and non-fatal gun victimizations at 478,000; add the suicides and you’re around one-half million. I think this figure is also way too low. The number is based almost entirely on data from the National Criminal Victim Survey (NCVS) which is conducted twice each year with respondents from 90,000 households who are asked to describe any criminal incident in which they were victimized over the previous six months. The good news is that the respondents are asked to describe criminal events regardless of whether or not they were reported to the police. The bad news is that some of the methodological problems attendant to this survey result in substantial underreporting of crime.
For example, the survey only involves individuals who are permanent members of a household at the time that the interviews take place. This means that the non-permanent population, which has been estimated to be as high as 12% of the entire population, is not captured in the NCVS results. Another group that is underrepresented are the elderly, particularly those living alone who may or may not be able to respond to visits or calls from representatives of the NCVS. Both of these populations, particularly in inner-city environments, are susceptible to being victims of crime.
Note however, that the discussion above only concerns figuring out how many unreported gun crimes occur each year. But that’s a very narrow definition of gun violence. To understand the true dimensions of the problem, we also must try to figure out how many people are affected by either witnessing gun violence or by being exposed to the possibility of gun violence when someone brandished or otherwise made them feel vulnerable because they had a gun. For all the talk by Kleck and Lott about how many people used guns to thwart what otherwise would have been a crime committed against them, what about all the people who were on the receiving end of an explicit or implicit threat of violence because someone showed them a gun?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not jumping on the anti-CCW bandwagon and accusing or even hinting at the possibility that law-abiding gun owners who carry around a concealed weapon ever use it to intimidate, scare or otherwise threaten family, strangers or friends. The idea that an expansion of CCW leads to more gun violence on the part of licensees is an old canard that should be put to rest. What I am saying, however, is that witnessing an actual or even possible act of violence is a traumatizing, and not-easily forgotten event. And we can assume that most acts of gun violence are witnessed by ancillary, non-participants who are affected acutely and emotionally when they see an act of gun violence or gun threats take place.
If the gun lobby wants to buy the idea that several million crimes are prevented each year because someone protected themselves or others with a gun, I can say with the same logic and certainly more evidence that the real toll of gun violence is just as high. Let’s not kid ourselves into believing that something as lethal as a gun isn’t an object whose use can be considered in anything other than the most serious and consequential terms.