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Stopping Power — Why 70 Million Americans Own Guns
A Book by J. Neil Schulman
Do Guns Do More Harm or More Good?

One of the greatest problems in determining any sort of social policy is comparing that which is seen, and therefore directly quantifiable, to those effects which are unseen, and therefore must be inferred by other means.

Such is the problem in comparing the number of people killed or wounded by firearms, with the number of times a gun is used to prevent or stop an act of violence.

The number of gun homicides are more or less tracked. Minus those bodies which are encased in cement overshoes and end up at the bottom or the East River or in the foundation of a new office building, most people who die from gunfire end up in a morgue where the homicide is statistically recorded.

Likewise, for non-fatal gunshots, most are treated at hospital emergency rooms which are legally required to report them to police agencies. Often, as the LA Times has reported is the case in Los Angeles, there is no further investigation; nonetheless, the figures can be collected and entered into databases.

The Los Angeles Times reported on Sunday, May 17, 1992, that in Los Angeles County in 1991 there were 1554 firearm-related homicides (no breakdown given between wrongful homicides and those which are either excusable by reason of self-defense or justifiable in the attempt to prevent or stop a violent attack), 489 gun-related suicides, and 32 accidental shooting deaths. Additionally, 8050 firearms wounds were treated in local hospitals in 1991.

Minus the uncounted “excusable” and “justifiable” shootings, fatal or not, this gives us a more-or-less quantifiable database of undesirable shootings.

Suicides we can eliminate from our analysis of gun-effects immediately. The American Journal of Psychiatry from March, 1990 reported in a study by Rich, Young, Fowler, Wagner, and Black that all gun-suicides which were statistically reduced by Canada’s handgun ban of 1976 were substituted 100% by suicides using other methods. Therefore, eliminating firearms does not eliminate suicide: it merely shifts the suicide to other causes, and no rational public policy can conclude that the existence or availability of firearms is a causative factor.

Since the quantity of gun suicides to gun homicides is approximately 31%, it’s fair to assume that some significant percentage in non-fatal shootings is likewise an incomplete suicide rather than an incomplete homicide. It would be tempting to assume that 31% of the 8050 gunshot wounds are botched suicides, but this strikes me as counterintuitive: I suspect that most people who choose a firearm for suicide aim at a vital target, and are more-or-less successful at achieving fatality.

This suspicion gains weight from the Time Magazine of July 17, 1989, which says that, “But one study has found that when people use a gun, the rate of death is 92%. Says Tulane University sociologist James Wright: ‘Everyone knows that if you put a loaded .38 in your ear and pull the trigger, you won’t survive.'”

Therefore, for the purpose of this statistical exercise, I will assume that 8% of non-fatal shootings are incomplete suicides rather than incomplete homicides.

As far as quantifying excusable or justifiable shootings and firearm homicides, we are on less certain ground. The FBI Unified Crime Reports for 1990 reported only 215 homicides out of 11,700 to be justifiable. However, the FBI classifies a homicide as justifiable only if it is so ruled in the first police report; if a homicide is later ruled by investigation or judicial procedure to be excusable or justifiable, those figures are not figured in by the FBI’s statistical methods.

We must therefore go to inferential methods. The study by criminologist Gary Kleck, Ph.D., of Florida State University estimates that private citizens account for between 1500 and 2800 excusable and justifiable homicides in a year. If we use Kleck’s figure, we get a ratio of criminal homicides to excusable or justifiable homicides between 7.8: 1 (87.2% criminal to 12.8% excusable or justifiable) and 4.2: 1 (76.2% criminal to 23.8% excusable or justifiable) a year. This would quantify the Los Angeles County homicide figures so that of the 1554 firearm-related homicides reported in 1991, between 198 and 369 were likely excusable by reason of self-defense, or justifiable in the prevention or stopping of a criminal attack.

It is reasonable to assume that a similar ratio would apply to non-fatal shootings, which would mean that of the 8050 gunshot victims treated at Los Angeles hospitals in 1991, between 1030 and 1916 were persons who had been excusably or justifiably shot while they were in the process of committing a crime or other violent attack.

The real problem of comparing criminal use of firearms to defensive use of firearms only really begins at this point, though, because of the unseen deterrence effect of firearms which prevent a criminal attack without even having been fired. According to a Los Angeles Times Poll conducted April 9-15, 1992 of 2619 Southern Californians (878 gun owners and 1741 non-owners), “9% of firearms owners in Southern California say they have used their guns to thwart burglaries, car thefts, or other crimes.” The Times‘ poll question specifically excluded gun defenses in the military or while on the job, which leaves a sizable number of gun defenses in convenience stores, pawnshops, jewelers, banks, etc., uncounted in this data. More problematic for the purposes of comparison is that the Times‘ Poll did not ask how many times the poll respondent had used a firearm in self-defense, or set a time frame within which this defensive act had occurred.

Out of this 9%, in the LA Times‘ poll, only 2% report having fired their weapon in the course of the defense, leaving 98% claiming successful defenses without the necessity of their gun being fired. It would be tempting at this point to assume that we have quantified a 98% passive deterrence rate when a firearm is available for defense, but we run into a problem which makes this figure questionable.

Time Magazine, in its January 29, 1990 issue, published the results of a telephone poll of 605 gun owners for Time/CNN made from December 15-22, 1989 by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman.

In response to the poll question, “Have you ever fired your gun?” 9% of those polled by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman stated that they had done so for “self-protection,” while 7% stated they had fired their gun “to scare someone.”

Either the LA Times‘s sample of gun owners is much more effective at scaring someone away without having to fire their guns than the Yankelovich Clancy Shulman sample – which seems unlikely – or Los Angeles gun owners are afraid to tell of pulling the trigger for fear of later repercussions, or the form of the LA Times‘s question is creating some ambiguity.

Further, accepting the LA Times rate of deterrence without trigger-pulls leads to the absurdity of an estimated number of justifiable or excusable homicides which is greater than the estimated number of times a trigger is pulled to stop or end a criminal attack.

We will therefore leave open the question regarding the rate of passive versus active deterrence.

Both the Time/CNN poll and the LA Times‘ poll data, however, tend to confirm data from a nationwide poll conducted by Peter Hart Research Associates, Inc., for the National Alliance Against Violence, which found that 4% of households reported the use of a handgun in self-defense within the 5 years preceding the survey (including cases when the handgun was only displayed, not fired). The Hart study did not count defenses with shotguns or rifles. Including shotguns and rifles, one can easily, with no fear of overestimation (and a strong suspicion of underestimation), raise the gun-defense figure by 20% to 5% within the preceding five years, which gives us a horseback estimate of 1% of households having a member who uses a firearm – handgun, shotgun, or rifle – for defensive purposes in any given year.

We now have a reasonable percentage for firearm defenses that we can quantify with reference to census, police, and poll data, and compare to known figures for criminal homicides and wrongful non-fatal shootings.

For Los Angeles County in 1991

Firearms homicides: 1554

Number of homicide victims estimated to be excusable or justifiable: 198-369

Mean estimated excusable or justifiable homicides in 1991: 283

Mean estimated wrongful homicides for 1991: 1271

Number of non-fatal gunshot wounds treated in 1991: 8050

Number of gunshot-wound victims estimated to be attempted suicides: 645

Number of gunshot-wound victims estimated to be excusable or justifiable shooting: 1030-1916

Mean number of estimated excusable or justifiable shootings: 1473

Estimated number of non-fatal gunshot victims caused by wrongful attack in Los Angeles in 1991: 5772

Number of wrongful gunshot victims (fatal and nonfatal) in Los Angeles in 1991: 7043

1990 U.S. Census figures for 18-and-older population of Los Angeles County: 6,537,054

Percentage of 18-and-older persons who own a firearm in Los Angeles County according to LA Times: 24%

24% of 6,537,054 = 1,568,893 gun owners in Los Angeles County

1% of Los Angeles County gun owners who are estimated to use a firearm for self defense in a year: 15,689

[Percentage of gun owners whose firearm defense is passive: 98% – LA Times]

[Estimated number of Los Angeles County firearm-defenders in a year who use a gun for defense without the gun having to be fired: 15,375 – derived from LA Times poll data]

[Estimated number of Los Angeles County firearm-defenders in a year who use a gun for defense with the gun having to be fired: 314 – derived from LA Times poll data]

Comparison of wrongful gunshot victims in Los Angeles County to firearm defenders: 7043 to 15,689 or 1: 2.2

Conclusion: For every wrongful gunshot victim in Los Angeles County, it is reasonably estimated that two persons are able to use a firearm to deter a violent crime or attack.

It must also be noted that the percentage of firearms ownership in Los Angeles is considerably lower than the nation as a whole: 24% as compared to 43% nationally. Whatever defensive uses we note in Los Angeles would therefore be considerably amplified elsewhere.

What is clear is that the unseen and unrecorded effect that firearms play in protecting the public from armed criminals is extremely likely to be equal to or greater than the number of victims created by firearms in the hands of criminals.

This statistically significant defensive and deterrent effect of firearms in the hands of private citizens must be given a wider hearing in public policy debate on the role of firearms in society.


Next in Stopping Power — Why 70 Million Americans Own Guns is Q & A on Gun Defenses

Stopping Power — Why 70 Million Americans Own Guns is
Copyright © 1994, 1999 J. Neil Schulman &
Copyright © 2010 The J. Neil Schulman Living Trust. All rights reserved.

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