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

Personal Health

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.

Weighing dangers and deterrence is what reasonable people do, and many gun owners are reasonable people. In the aftermath of the Connecticut shooting, some gun owners are getting rid of guns in government buyback programs because they have concluded that the risk of keeping them is too high. For many, that’s a sound decision. For others, the need for a gun of some kind can still be justified, even with a full understanding of the risk.

What is not helpful is the extreme rhetoric of the National Rifle Association, which is no longer interested in education or fact-based discussion, but in pushing through the most irresponsible gun laws its members can cook up. The NRA has drafted numerous bills to block laws that would help protect Americans from gun violence. Such bills have been adopted by American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) corporations and legislators as models for the rest of the country. One bill is based on Florida's “Stand Your Ground/Shoot First” law that creates legal immunity for shooters claiming self-defense, a notion that far exceeds traditional self-defense rights. Some call it a "license to kill." ALEC has also worked to block bans on automatic and rapid-firing semi-automatic weapons, such as the weapon used in the Sandy Hook school massacre.

Obama is signaling a willingness to challenge the extreme positions of the gun lobby, and hopefully millions of his fellow Americans will join him, including gun owners interested in public safety. Urban and rural, Democrat and Republican, we all owe it to those who died Friday to have a frank, reasoned conversation that does not deal in paranoia and extremism.

We know what the NRA will say to Sandy Hook: more guns. That kind of rhetoric doesn’t fly anymore. The vital question of public safety is now on the table, and we’ll need to look at every aspect of that question when it comes to gun violence, from background checks to types of guns available to regulation that would require gun owners to demonstrate competence and understanding of safety the same way drivers of cars are required to prove their fitness for operating a vehicle. More facts is the order of the day. And more minds open to rational debate.

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