Gun Science

published May 2013
How data can help clarify the gun-control debate
magazine cover

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31,672 people died by guns in 2010 (the most recent year for which U.S. figures are available), a staggering number that is orders of magnitude higher than that of comparable Western democracies. What can we do about it? National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre believes he knows: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” If La Pierre means professionally trained police and military who routinely practice shooting at ranges, this observation would at least be partially true. If he means armed private citizens with little to no training, he could not be more wrong.

Consider a 1998 study in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery that found that “every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.” Pistol owners’ fantasy of blowing away home-invading bad guys or street toughs holding up liquor stores is a myth debunked by the data showing that a gun is 22 times more likely to be used in a criminal assault, an accidental death or injury, a suicide attempt or a homicide than it is for selfdefense. I harbored this belief for the 20 years I owned a Ruger .357 Magnum with hollow-point bullets designed to shred the body of anyone who dared to break into my home, but when I learned about these statistics, I got rid of the gun.

More insights can be found in a 2013 book from Johns Hopkins University Press entitled Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis, edited by Daniel W. Webster and Jon S. Vernick, both professors in health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In addition to the 31,672 people killed by guns in 2010, another 73,505 were treated in hospital emergency rooms for nonfatal bullet wounds, and 337,960 nonfatal violent crimes were committed with guns. Of those 31,672 dead, 61 percent were suicides, and the vast majority of the rest were homicides by people who knew one another.

For example, of the 1,082 women and 267 men killed in 2010 by their intimate partners, 54 percent were by guns. Over the past quarter of a century, guns were involved in greater number of intimate partner homicides than all other causes combined. When a woman is murdered, it is most likely by her intimate partner with a gun. Regardless of what really caused Olympic track star Oscar Pistorius to shoot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp (whether he mistook her for an intruder or he snapped in a lover’s quarrel), her death is only the latest such headline. Recall, too, the fate of Nancy Lanza, killed by her own gun in her own home in Connecticut by her son, Adam Lanza, before he went to Sandy Hook Elementary School to murder some two dozen children and adults. As an alternative to arming women against violent men, legislation can help: data show that in states that prohibit gun ownership by men who have received a domestic violence restraining order, gun-caused homicides of intimate female partners were reduced by 25 percent.

Another myth to fall to the facts is that gun-control laws disarm good people and leave the crooks with weapons. Not so, say the Johns Hopkins authors: “Strong regulation and oversight of licensed gun dealers—defined as having a state law that required state or local licensing of retail firearm sellers, mandatory record keeping by those sellers, law enforcement access to records for inspection, regular inspections of gun dealers, and mandated reporting of theft of loss of firearms—was associated with 64 percent less diversion of guns to criminals by in-state gun dealers.” Finally, before we concede civilization and arm everyone to the teeth pace the NRA, consider the primary cause of the centurieslong decline of violence as documented by Steven Pinker in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: the rule of law by states that turned over settlement of disputes to judicial courts and curtailed private self-help justice through legitimate use of force by police and military trained in the proper use of weapons.

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70 Comments to “Gun Science”

  1. Stephen Says:

    I found this quite enlightening.

  2. JB Says:

    The wingnuts come out of the woodwork again. Ho hum.

  3. Another Point of view Says:

    I am not, or have I ever been a gun owner. I do not need to own a gun to understand that if the government knows who owns weapons and what kind of weapons they own, they know who to go after if they decide to keep control by force. We do have a voluntary military and most of their members value freedom, but they are trained to follow orders. They are not required to follow illegal orders, but they would be likely to if given reasons which sounded good at the time. The right to bear arms is a protection against government, not against other citizens. Our forefathers expected people to be able to hunt and therefore would not have even considered that when amending the constitution.
    Whether guns are safe or not should be up to the individual to decide and then be responsible for his decision, including any penalties such as jail and restitution if he misuses them.

  4. Sue B. Davis Says:

    Excellent article and what better source than Scientific American which I have read for years. However reading the comments posted after this article demonstrates so well that most people make up their minds on an issue and THEN look for data to support their opinion. If the data disagrees with their opinion, they reject it regardless of the source.

  5. David Says:

    Have any of you compared the figures between Toronto,Canada and Detroit or Vancouver,Canada and Seattle ?
    Two comparable cities with comparable “makeup” from two very different countries gun control wise.

  6. Aleksei Novikov Says:

    Dr. Shermer, I’ve watched your brilliant lectures on critical thinking, but now I am disappointed.

    I live in a country where we do have gun control. A lot of gun control. Gun control laws have successfully disarmed law-abiding citizens. Criminals still have all the guns they want.

    By the way, her is a USA gun fact:

    Guess what would happen to that woman and her kids is she had no gun because of a “gun control”? I’ll tell you what usually happens when a victim is unarmed. Rape and murder.

  7. Will Says:

    Most of these comments here are just angry and off-base. You may have different numbers or additional data but the data reported in Shermer’s article stands up by the sources cited. I’ve checked many of them. If you are just going to post your objections and walk away, don’t both since you lose the argument on the facts. If you have contradictory data, post it and note the source! If you can’t do this, your opinion is a house of cards and you should really think about it more and look into the facts.

    I’m a gun owner and skeptical of current gun legislation but I am fully aware of the facts. If you own a gun, the most likely person to be killed by it is you! The second most likely is a family member. 1 out of 5 police shootings is the police officer killing themselves. 2/3rds of gun deaths are suicides. The overwhelmingly likely weapon used in any death is a handgun. Handguns are very good at what they do and many people put them to use very regularly. I will argue the situation of gun control and gun violence with anyone but only a fool ignores the facts. The facts are ugly and mostly true.

  8. Will Says:

    There are number for crimes prevented by guns ranging from 118,000 to 2.5 million but I can’t verify any of the sources. Please post a verifiable source. I am really interested in finding the real number.

    In the mean time, I’ll just leave this here:
    Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Vol. 16, No. 3, Special Issue: The New Public Management in New Zealand and beyond. (Summer, 1997), pp. 463-469.

    “In this article, we discuss the candidacy of one of the more surprising numbers to surface in the course of America’s gun debate: that 2.5 million Americans use a gun defensively against a criminal attacker each year [Kleck and Gertz, 19951. News items,’ editorial writer^,^ even the Congressional Research Service [Bea, 19941 have mentioned the 2.5 million defensive gun uses (DGUs) as established fact. This number is considerably higher than our best estimate of the number of crimes committed each year with a firearm (1.3 million)[U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1996b1, and has been used as an argument against regulations that would restrict widespread
    firearms ownership.”

    Let’s have some real numbers…

  9. Jay Rosen Says:

    True science starts with observation…and the integrity of the observer. To look at murder statistics and ignore 99% of the murders, is not science.
    The debate over gun control is a debate about the Second Amendment and the power relationship between the government and the people. The Second Amendment addressed the question of whether the government should be allowed to have a monopoly in regard to the use of force and it prohibited the government from having a monopoly. The framers knew and expressed clearly that such a monopoly lead to abuses by the government. Since 1776, the citizens of every nation in the world [except for Switzerland] have been abused and victimized by the government. Please compare our murder rate for the past century to Germany, Japan, Russia and China to the US…but include all of the murders, including those committed by the governments. One will discover, that with a system of checks and balances, the US murder rate is astonishingly low.
    To quote Mr. Shermer, “According to the [CDC], 31,672 people died by guns in 2010 … a staggering number that is orders of magnitude higher than that of comparable Western democracies. What can we do about it?”
    It is not ‘orders of magnitude’ higher, even if government murder is ignored, instead it is orders of magnitude lower in the US if all murders are considered.
    ‘What can we do about it?’ We can start by telling the truth and having integrity.

  10. Will Says:

    Jay Rosen Says:
    “It is not ‘orders of magnitude’ higher, even if government murder is ignored, instead it is orders of magnitude lower in the US if all murders are considered.
    ‘What can we do about it?’ We can start by telling the truth and having integrity.”

    Speaking of having integrity, how about listing some actual numbers and your sources so you can argue facts instead of accusations. The properly cited data disagrees with you.

  11. tpayne Says:

    I’d like to thank those who had additional information to share and provided links to other data. Maybe data can help clarify the gun debate, but the data provided by Dr. Shermer was old, thin, and inadequate to support his thesis.
    Now, if your point is that guns are a top choice for suicide, and that society should legislate restrictions on ownership or use of guns to address suicide, then lets have that discussion.
    This whole issue is just another question of which is better, the wisdom of the masses vs. the wisdom of the central planners.

  12. Will Says:

    Dr. Shermer cites data sources and refers to them in every paragraph. That is not thin support for an argument. Dr. Shermer’s data is much more clear and specific than the data cited in the comments. That’s much more adequate that any of the postings. Most of the data is from 2010 except for one set from 1998. If there is newer, different data then you should post it and stop wining about it.

    Again, if you have data, post it or you are just writing an advertisement, only you believe, for your house of cards. Keep in mind that the risk you take is that if you try to research the data and make a real case to me and others, it may have more of an effect on yourself than us.

  13. Will Says:

    As an example, let me properly post one problem with the conclusions in the article. In the last paragraph of the article, Dr Shermer quotes a statement concerning the effect of “strong regulation and oversight of licensed gun dealers” and a 64% less diversion of guns to criminals implying that this alone will have a substantial effect on the possession of guns by criminals. This quotation is taken out of context and does not reflect the data. In the same John Hopkins document, they state that “Data on guns recovered by police and traced by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) have indicated that about 85% of criminal possessors were not the retail purchaser (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms 2002).” Dr. Shermer link to Amazon does make it hard to verify, but you can actually see the paper at:

    As also cited in the same paper, a very good source for this data is the U.S. Department of Justice special report on firearm use by offenders:

    Here is a simple pie chart if you don’t want to dig through the data:

    On average, less than 20% of criminals get arms from sources affected by gun dealer laws. More enlightening is that gun shows account for less than 1 percent of guns in the hands of criminals according to the data so all this concern over gun shows passing out weapons to criminals is simply not valid and unsupported. In the end, efforts to make sure that guns only end up in the hands of the “right people” could only reduce the number of guns available to criminals by a maximum of 20% after the time require to clear out the ~270 million guns currently in circulation.

    The prior points in the article had some validity in that guns are very dangerous and prevention of suicides would have a bigger effect on guns deaths than any form of gun control, but the last point in the article in based on a cherry-picked quote and not supported by the evidence.

  14. Mike Davidson Bird Says:

    Suicides by gun in the US are approximately twice the homicide rate. In sheer numbers they are a greater challenge – suicide often being “a permanent solution to a temporary problem” as someone said. The gun-homicide rate per 1000 population is about 90 times greater in the USA than the UK. Commentators in the US ask, how about bad people with guns killing UK’s unarmed cops? Here is the Wikipedia answer: “Shooting fatalities of members of the police are extremely rare; there were three in England and Wales in the eleven-year period from 2000/01 to 2010/11.” The US average is about 60-70 a year, say 700 total in the same period.

    The response of gun-loving people to such data is denial; rage; bullying; shoot-the-messenger (“it’s all lies!”) and muddying-the-waters with irrelevant mini-analyses (“if you compare Uruguay with Luxembourg….” and other forms of obfuscation…

  15. George DeMoura Says:

    I grew up in a house with guns, several as a matter of fact, a couple of shotguns, a few hunting rifles, and my .22 target rifles, one a bolt-action Remington, the other a semi-automatic Winchester. Both of which I had been firing since I was eleven years old. Oh, and there was also a 9mm Glock pistol.
    Gun education was very important to my father. In much the same way as never cut toward yourself with a knife, keep your fingers out of the fan, don’t pull the German shepard’s tail next door or she will bite you. It was considered common sense to know that guns were dangerous when improperly handled or not properly respected. It was also a maxim of my father’s to, “never let a goddamn idiot even know there was a gun in the house.” We must have known a lot of goddamn idiots because my father rarely spoke of them,except to his brother and other gun owner friends of his. All of whom seemed to share his opinion of goddamned idiots.
    As for me I had a BB gun at nine, a .22 bolt action rifle at eleven and never considered it out of the ordinary to take one or the other of them when I went hiking in the woods. I shot at targets carved in trees and squirrels. The fact is that guns were mundane to me growing up. they were just simply there and if you just possessed a modicum of common sense there was nothing wrong with them being there.
    However,like my father I rarely spoke of them. And as the farm and woodland around the village I grew up in was bulldozed into the Suburban American Dream. I learned to not speak of them at all because within just a few short years I was surrounded by goddamn idiots.
    And to this day I am still surrounded by goddamn idiots. [I won’t go off on that tangent this comment is about gun control after all.]
    The simple truth of the matter is that 90% of the people who own guns should not. they are a danger to themselves and to everyone around them. Shooting a spouse thinking it was a burglar (questionable but possible), pulling a gun in rage or under the influence of whatever, men confusing their guns with their dicks, women confusing the gun in her nightstand for strength, children getting their hands on them and doing what the media shows them to do. These people should not own guns. These people are the goddamn idiots my father warned me about. These are the reasons that more stringent gun control is necessary.
    However I still believe in being able to legally obtain firearms. As I said I grew up around guns and people who knew and understood and respected them for what they are and what they can do. There are still people like that out there–I know some of them personally. I presently don’t own any guns, I have no plans to purchase any in the near future, but I might someday change my mind. And if I should I want to be able to go to a reputable, licensed dealer and purchase the firearm I want or feel I might need. I know I’m not going to shoot myself in the foot. I also am not going to buy an AK-47. I believe in gun control, not gun prohibition.
    Oh, and as to the idea that more stringent gun controls or prohibitions will keep guns out of the hands of criminals it ain’t gonna happen. If criminals want guns they are going to obtain them through illegal sources. Why? because they’re criminals. That’s what criminals do. Anything from a knock-off Saturday Night Special to a crate of AK-47’s. Just like breathing air. So don’t go there. Don’t even insinuate that there my be a shred of possibility of keeping weapons from people who intend to use them for harm. They’ll just cut a deal with the DEA and…oops.
    And if that nice reputable, licensed dealer for whatever reason cannot clear me for the legal purchase of a legal firearm…well, I know a guy, who says he knows a guy…

  16. Roland H Says:

    Mr. Shermer unfortunately fell for some of the most glaring fallacies in the polarizing gun debate, strongly believing them for a long time before even writing this:

    31,672 people did not “die by guns” alone, people had something to do with it, and therefore society had something to do with it. Society’s have vastly different cultures, as well as many other important differences, such as demographics, and history.

    Put aside what the NRA says for a minute, because they are on one side of a extremely emotional, and politically polarized debate. Vilifying them and knee jerk opposing them doesn’t help one to stay unbiased.

    I feel as if I should almost have to scream this point to the top of my lungs, YOU DON’T NECESSARILY NEED TO SHOOT A ATTACKER OR ROBBER, to either deter them before they even get started, or scare them away once they do. This is the one where MR. Shermer really seriously fails big time. In fact the vast majority of the time attackers are scared off merely by the possession of a gun by the intended victim. Law abiding citizens are not out to bag a criminal, merely to be left alone.

    “A gun in the home”… ah I want to pull my hair out, crack dealers, and people with dangerous lifestyles have close family, they have friends and acquaintances too, they tend to shoot these people quite frequently.

    NEARLY A HUNDRED MILLION Americans have “a gun in the home”. These law abiding people, such as the ones with concealed carry permits, have extremely low rates of breaking the law. If you don’t have a checkered past or a dangerous lifestyle, don’t worry that you might suddenly, for no reason, go crazy. Just store your firearms safely, and follow all safety precautions.

    All studies are not created equal, firearms as relates to violence was not studied a lot for a long time. Some early studies were done by “researchers”, such as unqualified MD’s, who tended to have a biased approach.

    Someone such as Mr. Shermer, or Stephen pinker should do a detailed study in book form, of why the US has had a historically higher homicide rate. But please correct for these fallacies. This subject really fascinates me, as well it likely would interest many.

    I can think of a number of different reasons, such as the south having a distinct culture, Scots-Irish population, and the effects of slavery. The southern part of the US is really where the high crime and murder rates have prevailed for a long time.

  17. Chris Says:

    I am disappointed in you, an avowed “skeptic.” Tell me, how many crimes are prevented, and lives are saved, by the fact of gun ownership? Even a freshman statistics major would tell you that you cannot get a grip on the number simply by counting the times a gun was used or pulled in the course of a crime. One must also count the number of times that criminals decided against entering a home or place of business out of fear that the owner, like me, possessed weapons and stood ready to use them. Until we have a way of counting these avoided crimes, your analysis is BS.

  18. Mark Karadimos Says:

    Your article in Scientific American was hardly fair and hardly a reflection of scientific thinking. Therefore, I question the intent of the article itself as a means for swaying beliefs via literary persuasive strategies only, not scientific reasoning.

    See what I mean via my report…

  19. SB Kravetz Says:

    For everyone here who’s been complaining that there isn’t enough clear data, may I remind you that this is not a coincidence? The gun lobby has worked hard to prevent funding of research into gun violence. See this article discussing the history of efforts to constrict or eliminate research on the relationship between gun violence and guns.

  20. Roland H Says:

    The gun control believers have a mental block, even skeptics cannot come to accept that the scientific consensus finds no indication that gun control is effective. The evidence from a large number of studies was reviewed by the CDC to that effect.

    Murders have been halved in the last two decades while the number of guns has increased dramatically, and concealed carry has spread to most states. Liberals have this hate for the NRA, even if many registered Democrats agree with them in substance on guns, simply because their members tend to vote against liberals on so many other issues .