Subjective Assessments

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Subjective assessments on the efficacy of defensive gun use have been

elicited in both the NCVS and the NSDS. Data from the 1994 NCVS, for

example, reveal that 65 percent of victims felt that self-defense improved

their situation, while 9 percent thought that it worsened their situation

(Kleck, 2001a). More direct counterfactual questions were asked in the

NSDS survey, in which respondents who reported using a firearm were

asked (Kleck and Gertz, 1995:316):

If you had not used a gun for protection in this incident, how likely do

you think it is that you or someone else would have been killed? Would

you say almost certainly not, probably not, might have, probably would

have, or almost certainly would have been killed?

Nearly half of respondents perceived that someone might, probably, or

almost certainly would have been killed.

Although intriguing, these assessments are of limited value. Certainly,

there are obvious concerns about inaccurate reporting associated with

subjective questions. Victims may be inclined to view their actions as

effective regardless and may exaggerate counterfactual outcomes. Even if

victims report truthfully, the existing questionnaires provide little guidance.

What does a respondent mean when he states that someone might

have been killed? Are all respondents using consistent criteria to interpret

these questions?

Firearms and Fatalities

A number of researchers have attempted to infer the defensive utility of

firearms by examining the firearms deaths that occur in or near the victim’s

home. Both Kellermann and Reay (1986) and Rushforth et al. (1974) compare

fatalities caused by self-defense and other motivations. Both studies

find that people using guns in self-defense account for a small fraction of

fatalities in the home. Kellermann and Reay find that there were nearly 5

times as many homicides and 37 times as many suicides as perpetrators

killed in self-defense. They go on to conclude, “The advisability of keeping

a firearm in the home for protection must be questioned.” Rushforth et al.

(1974) found similar results and drew similar conclusions.

Although the facts are in no doubt, the conclusions do not seem to

follow. Certainly, effective defensive gun use need not ever lead the perpetrator

to be wounded or killed. Rather, to assess the benefits of self-defense,

one needs to measure crime and injury averted. The particular outcome of

an offender is of little relevance. It might be, as Kleck (2001b) suggests, that

the ratio of firearm-caused fatalities to fatalities averted because of defensive

gun use is a more relevant comparison. Answering this question, however,

requires researchers to address the fundamental counterfactual questions

regarding the effects of both defensive and offensive uses of firearms

that have been the subject of much of this report and have generally proved

to be elusive. Simple death counts cannot answer these complex questions.

Case-control sampling schemes matching homicide victims to nonvictims

with similar characteristics have also been used to infer whether

owning a firearm is a risk factor for homicide and the utility of firearms for

self-defense (see Chapter 7 for a discussion of the case-control methodology).

Kellermann et al. (1993) found that persons who had a firearm in the

home were at a greater risk for homicide in their home than persons who

did not have a firearm (adjusted odds ratio of 2.7). Cummings et al. (1997)

found that persons who purchased a handgun were at greater risk for

homicide than their counterparts who had no such history (adjusted odds

ratio of 2.2).

In light of these findings, Kellermann et al. (1993) ultimately conclude

that owning firearms for personal protection is “counterproductive,” (p.

1087) and that “people should be strongly discouraged from keeping guns

in the home” (p. 1090). This conclusion rests on the implicit assumption

that the decision to own a firearm is random or exogenous with respect to

homicide in the home (after controlling for various observed factors, including

whether a household member has been hurt in a fight, has been

arrested, or has used illicit drugs). Cummings and his colleagues (1997) do

not draw such strong causal conclusions, but instead simply describe the

observed positive association between firearms and homicide.

In the committee’s view, the exogenous selection assumption and the

resulting conclusions are not tenable. While these observed associations

between firearms ownership and homicide may be of interest, they do little

to reveal the impact of firearms on homicide or the utility of firearms for

self-defense. As noted by the authors, even small degrees of misreporting on

ownership by either the cases or the controls can create substantial biases in

the estimated risk factors (see Kleck, 1997, for an illustration of these

biases). A more fundamental inferential problem arises from the fact that

ownership is not likely to be random with respect to homicide or other

forms of victimization. To the contrary, the decision to own a firearm may

be directly related to the likelihood of being victimized. People may, for

instance, acquire firearms in response to specific or perceived threats, and

owners may be more or less psychologically prone toward violence. Thus,

while the observed associations may reflect a causal albeit unspecified pathway,

they may also be entirely spurious. As Kellermann and his colleagues

note (1993:1089), “it is possible that reverse causation accounted for some

of the association we observed between gun ownership and homicide.”