As the gun violence prevention community (GVP) continues its search for narratives about gun violence which may find a responsive echo within the gun ‘rights’ movement, I suggest that everyone take some time and read Nasim Taleb’s remarkable book, Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Because the basic point in this work is the degree to which strongly-held beliefs are based on things which are simply not true. And if there’s one Black Swan belief which is as improbable as any, it’s the idea that walking around with a gun will protect you from crime.
That gun ownership is a necessary response to crime is the fundamental axiom upon which the entire gun ‘rights’ movement and narrative is built. After all, being able to protect yourself is a God-given right, recognized in every legal tradition. And if packing a gun gives you the best chance of defending against an attack, how could anyone support any law that might threaten or limit the ownership of guns?
The fact is, however, that credible studies clearly show little, if any connection between access to a gun and protection from crime. This is mostly because the probability that someone packing a gun will actually be attacked ranges from scant to none. Further, even if John Lott is correct in arguing that because criminals believe that more Americans are frequently armed, this tends to make them shift their criminality to non-violent crime, the data to support this idea remains in dispute.
We are all familiar with surveys which show that a majority of gun owners now say that the primary reason they own a gun is for self-defense. But is this a classic Black Swan or is it based on some degree of reality or truth? I decided to test this Black Swan with a survey which I am asking gun owners to take, and nearly 100 self-described gun owners have been engaged. You can view the survey here. My selection methodology is based on running Facebook ads sent to FB pageholders who have indicated an interest in guns with the usual key words: guns, hunting, shooting, etc. In another week or so I am going to publish the final results, but here is what I have learned so far.
Nearly 80% of the respondents believe that having access to a gun makes them less afraid of being a victim of violent crime. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly 1% of the American population age 12 or over are victims of a violent crime each year.
In my survey, 4% have been victims of a violent crime. One of the victims claimed that his sister was raped, one was assaulted, another was held up while pumping gas late at night. One victim, a man above the age of 50, was kidnapped but provided no details.
I inserted a number of demographic questions in the poll to make sure I was capturing real gun owners and I am. Respondents are, on average, older white males, have owned guns for more than 15 years, purchased a gun in the last 12 months and 65% live in the Midwest or the South.
Now here’s the Black Swan. I didn’t ask poll-takers to tell me whether they had ever used a gun for self-defense. But 96% of the respondents couldn’t have done so because they had not been victims of a serious crime. So why do more than 80% of the respondents believe that having access to a self-defense gun will make them safe?
Here’s what I have learned from the more than 90 people who took the time to answer my survey. Just about everyone who believes in the validity of armed self-defense is holding that belief for reasons other than what has happened to them. And all these surveys which show that a majority of gun owners support self-defense use of guns don’t tell us anything at all. In particular, these surveys shed no light on how to turn the Black Swan into a White Swan.