I live in a part of the country where it’s common to see billboards and bumper stickers proclaiming that: “Guns Save Lives!”. Recently, as I pulled into my local gun club where I practice before every season, it was emblazoned on the back bumpers of nearly half the vehicles in the lot.
I’ve long been curious about this claim, and honestly, a little dubious about its accuracy – especially given the spate of mass shootings lately. But I also know that the media tends to sensationalize the tragic and under-report the mundane. Cable news could do around-the-clock coverage of the murders that didn’t happened on a given day. But they don’t.
It’s a difficult problem, familiar to social scientists, of trying to observe events that haven’t happened. Every time there is a murder or death resulting from firearms, we have another piece of evidence linking the death to guns. We don’t however have an easy way of knowing if or when guns helped prevent a death. Over time, we collect more data (and media coverage of the latest mass shooting) that connects guns to tragic human loss while we rarely hear about situations where guns prevented tragedy – except in the movies.
It’s difficult to count lives that aren’t lost. But we still have ways to answer the question: do guns save lives? But before we get to that, let’s first examine the rationale behind the claim that they do.
At first blush it seems plausible that guns might save lives. For instance, if an armed perpetrator entered your home intent on doing harm, it’s reasonable to believe that if you had a gun, you could shoot the intruder before he got the chance to hurt anyone in your family — and therefore save lives. We see this scenario played out on television and in the movies all the time: our armed hero shoots the bad guy and saves the innocent people (his family, his girlfriend, or his country). It’s such a common scene in popular culture that it may seem like common sense to believe that guns save lives.
Another argument rests on the belief that shots don’t have to be fired for guns to save lives. The logic goes like this: if a criminal feared that owners of the home he was about to invade were armed and might shoot him, he may be deterred from entering the house in the first place. From this view, having more guns in the hands of “good” people will increase the overall deterrent effect and thus lives will be saved. Played out to its logical end, if everyone in a society had a gun, the risk to would-be criminals would be too high to make crime pay.
It’s hard to imagine a deranged person exacting such a deadly toll armed with only his fists or a knife… or a slingshot.
But to others, the claim that guns save lives sounds absurd. Guns are tools designed specifically to kill. How could a lethal weapon, particularly if it is widely available, lead to anything but more deaths? Stories appear in the news every day describing someone being shot and killed. In recent months we have seen tragic mass shooting deaths in El Paso, Dayton, Thousand Oaks and too many other places to list.
Folks who have a hard time seeing guns as life-savers can point to episodes like these where an unstable individuals acquire guns and commits heinous crimes. Without guns these deranged souls would have much less lethal means at their disposal. Guns make it more likely that lives will be lost during such violent outbursts. It’s hard to imagine a deranged person exacting such a deadly toll armed with only his fists or a knife, or a slingshot.
So if guns truly save lives, we should be able to find evidence to back it up. While it may be difficult to observe “non-events” it is still possible to answer the question by comparing different countries and states.
For example, in 2009 there were 9,146 murders in the U.S. committed with firearms. In the U.K. there were only 39. The US population is five times larger than the UK so that accounts for some of the variation. But the size of the population comes nowhere close to explaining the fact that the firearm homicide rate in the US is more than 230 times greater. If we adjusted the rate to reflect the UK’s smaller population, there would only have been about 200 murders by firearms in the U.S that year.
A key difference between these two countries is the number of guns per capita. In the US there are nearly 90 guns per 100 residents (the most in the world) while the number in England, Wales and Scotland is around 6. So the belief that more guns in the hands of more people saves lives is undermined by this comparison. If the believers in deterrence were right, we should see far more gun murders in the UK than the US when in fact the opposite is true.
We can also do useful comparisons between states within the U.S. Researchers find that states with high levels of gun ownership have higher incidence of homicide generally. Murder rates in states in the top quartile in gun ownership were 114% higher than those in the bottom quartile. And a study from the Violence Policy Center found that the top five states in gun ownership had significantly higher firearm related homicides than the bottom five states. In fact gun murder rates were four to ten times higher in states with the highest rates of gun ownership compared states with the lowest levels of gun ownership.
Comparisons like these cast doubt on the claim that guns are saving lives. The evidence suggests the opposite is more likely the case with murder rates increasing — rather than decreasing — when guns are more prevalent.
Two of every three gun-related deaths each year in the US is self-inflicted
But to get a fuller assessment of the relationship between firearms and lives saved or lost, we have to factor in other gun-related deaths like suicides and accidents. In fact, suicides account for the overwhelming majority of firearm deaths each year. In 2010 there were more than 19,000 suicides by firearms. That’s roughly two of every three of the 30,000 gun-related deaths reported each year in the U.S. Researchers have pointed to the suicide problem as the forgotten public health epidemic noting that the focus on murders obscures the dangers of having guns that are easily accessible at a time of personal crisis. The ease of access to guns — particularly in those households that own them — almost certainly contributes to the high suicide rate.
There are many issues surrounding guns and gun control that remain difficult to resolve. Do we still have, or need, the right to bear arms? Should we restrict certain types of guns? If we decide to implement more rigid gun control, how would we get all the guns out the the hands of bad people? These are fair questions that warrant further consideration.
However, we are able to answer one question with near-certainty: guns do not “save lives.” Whether you are an avid hunter, a gun collector, or a staunch defender of the Second Amendment doesn’t change the fact that guns are more likely to take life than save it. Nor does it change the fact that having a gun in your home increases the chances that the lost life will be yours — or someone close to you.
We can answer one question with near-certainty: guns do not save lives.
This does not mean that a gun has never played a role in saving a life. It’s quite possible that this has happened. But the claim being made on those billboards and bumper stickers is not: “Guns might occasionally save lives” . Those rare and unknowable cases don’t come close to offsetting the wide-spread and persistent pattern of lost life attributable to guns. Where there are more guns, there is almost always more gun-related death. The notion that guns save lives may be an article of faith for many, but it is not one based on the facts.