Amanda Ripley

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Do Guns Make People Safer?

29th Jun 2008 posted in General

Lots of great points in the comments. If guns made people safer, I would agree wholeheartedly that they should be legal and accessible to (almost) everyone. I would have one at home. The problem is, I have yet to see any evidence that they make us safer. In fact, all the evidence I have seen shows that the opposite is true.

This 2004 study analyzes U.S. mortality data to find out whether having a gun in your home affected your risk of dying by gun. It turned out that people with guns were at greater risk of being murdered at home in general—and murdered by a gun specifically. Men with guns in their home were also more likely to kill themselves (which is not a small thing, since most gun deaths are suicides). There are a lot of studies like this, some of which are very old and some of which are better than others. But the general finding seems to be fairly consistent.

All of this is consistent with the research I did for the book into how the brain works under extreme stress. As any combat trainer will tell you, it is actually extremely difficult to hit a target when you are frightened. If you talk to police officers who have shot people, they will tell you that everything suddenly changed: their senses of sight, hearing and time. Many do not hear their guns go off at all. Many experience serious failures of eye-hand coordination and other cognitive functions. This is totally understandable, but it makes me less likely to trust any human with a gun. I trust some cops, if they are trained well and regularly, and even then I am amazed there aren’t more accidental shootings by police officers.

Have you seen a rigorous, peer-reviewed study that showed something different? If so, please send it along!

Also a good point that gun laws don’t seem to be working. But I suppose the big question is, how do we explain how much higher our gun violence rates are than other developed nations? I think it has something to do with our laws, although I realize these things are rarely explained by one answer. In any case, the fix for bad gun laws is not to go to the other extreme and make them looser. Maybe we need to make them stronger, and enforce them all more rigorously.

As to the comment that guns are more regulated than tobacco, I respectfully disagree. There are lots of holes in the regulations that are out there. Under current federal law, unlicensed gun dealers at gun shows, for example, do not need to do a background check before they sell a weapon. No one really knows how many guns are sold this way. (Gun-control proponents say it could be nearly 40% of guns; gun-rights groups say the number is under 3%.) The simple fact that Congress has repeatedly failed to pass legislation closing this loophole is a good indication of the rigor of our gun-control laws in general.