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Does Having a Gun in the Home Put Your Life at Risk?

In the wake of Sandy Hook, some gun owners are deciding that the risk is too high.

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As the gun debate rages in the wake of the Connecticut shootings, questions about firearms in the home are especially relevant given what we’re learning about the circumstances of the tragedy.

It’s difficult to say how many Americans live with guns under their roofs because there is no national database of gun owners. A 2005 study found that the number was around 35 percent. Polls have shown the number to be slightly higher. We do know that the number of background checks has gone up since 2005, which could mean any number of things. In any case, there are an awful lot of Americans keeping guns in the home.

We also know that Nancy Lanza, the mother of Connecticut gunman Adam Lanza, was one of them. Apparently, she was a gun enthusiast who enjoyed target shooting and may have taken her son to an area shooting range. Three of the guns that Adam Lanza carried into Sandy Hook Elementary were owned and registered by his mother -- two handguns and a military-style, semiautomatic .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle. A family member, Marsha Lanza, told the Chicago Sun-Times that Nancy Lanza wanted guns for protection.

The question of why Nancy Lanza had guns of any kind around a disturbed young man remains a mystery. But instead of protecting her, Nancy Lanza’s guns brought death not only to her but to many others, including 20 young children. 

What do we know about guns in the home and violence? Consider a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. Researchers sought to determine whether having a firearm increases the risk of a violent death in the home and whether risk varies by storage practice, type of gun, or the number of guns in the home. Among the findings:

  • People with guns in the home were at greater risk than those without guns in the home of dying from a homicide in the home.
  • They were also at greater risk of dying from a firearm homicide (risk varied by age and whether the person was living with others at the time of death).
  • The risk of dying from a suicide in the home was greater for males in homes with guns than for males without guns in the home.
  • People with guns in the home were more likely to have died from suicide committed with a firearm than from suicide using a different method.

Bottom line: Researchers found that no matter what kind of storage was used, no matter the type or number of guns, having a gun in the home increased the risk of firearms homicide and suicide.

A reasonable person might weigh the risk of suicide or homicide and decide that the threat of an intruder is greater. Proponents of lax gun safety laws argue that guns can effectively be used to deter crime in the home. But is that really true? The data are shaky. CNN’s David Frum reports that government figures from the National Survey of Criminal Victimization indicate 100,000 uses a year of guns in self-defense against crime, most of the time by displaying the weapon to stop a criminal.

But the survey is based on results that go back to the 1990s, when crime numbers were higher. And even if the number is accurate, it doesn’t support the argument that private gun ownership is the best way to deter crime. In his report, Frum discusses the statistic most frequently cited by gun enthusiasts: a 1995 figure claiming that Americans use guns to deter crimes 2.5 million times a year. But this number is grossly misleading because, for example, it is based on data from periods of particularly high crime, such as 1981, the peak of the post-Vietnam crime wave. Frum notes several other problems with the study, such as vague definitions of defensive gun use and a reliance on the memory of respondents.